By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - From her college to her continent, former Auburn swimmer Kirsty Coventry can lay claim to the title, "most decorated Olympian."
Her seven medals, including two golds, put Zimbabwe's Coventry at the top of the list at Auburn, and in Africa. She's won more medals than any female swimmer in history.
Coventry, a month away from turning 33, will soon compete in her fifth Olympic Games, hoping to return to the medal stand after a disappointing showing in London in 2012.
"I had gotten injured four months before. I dislocated my knee, and two months before I got pneumonia," Coventry said. "And I didn't want to walk away on unhealthy terms from a sport that I had been doing for so long."
After London, she went home to Zimbabwe, took some time off, talked it over with her family and coach, then returned to the pool early in 2014.
Coventry will swim the 100 and 200 backstrokes in Rio with plans, she says, of "leaving the sport on more of my own terms."
"That is what I hope to do," she said. "The events are tough and my events have grown faster and faster at Rio, which is a great thing for the sport, because it means it's growing, and for female athletes, it's great.
"My training has been going very well. And I'm really positive going into the last couple weeks. Hopefully, things will work out. It is going to be tough, but I'm super excited. I knew it was going to be harder than the other games, but I'm excited about that challenge."
After helping Auburn win NCAA championships in 2003 and 2004, Coventry won three medals in Athens, Greece. Returning to the Plains in 2005, she won three individual NCAA titles, earning SEC Female Athlete of the Year honors.
"Being there and winning my first Olympic medal, and then coming back for my senior year was such a special moment, and a time that I'll never forget," she said.
More than a decade later, Coventry is quick to credit Auburn for helping her reach a childhood goal.
"It was a huge role. Coming over and getting a scholarship to come to Auburn was the biggest thing that could have ever happened to my swimming career," she said.
"Being a part of the team and being an Auburn Tiger, learning how to be in a group of people who have the same goals, who work hard. And just the ethics of the group, led by David (Marsh), that changed my whole outlook.
"From a little kid, I always wanted to go to the Olympic games. I remember telling my mom and dad when I was nine, `I'm going to go to the Olympics. I want to win a medal.' Coming to Auburn and knowing that that was the right decision to help that dream come true.
"And I just loved my time there. I chose Auburn because it was a smaller environment, and it reminded me of home. I got along with the coaches super well. Had 60 really great friends, who were there to try to do their best and achieve their dreams. That level of professionalism, even in an amateur sport, was just seen every day, and it completely turned my career around."
After Rio, Coventry will continue her humanitarian efforts promoting water safety and drowning prevention.
"Back home, we don't have as many swimming pools and community pools, but we have a lot of water sources," she said. "And we started looking into the number of people who were drowning and the easy access that people have to lakes and rivers and dams. And we just saw that we really needed to do something about trying to educate people on safety around water.
"Just so people are aware that drowning can happen in the smallest amount of water. And in the shallowest amount of water. You don't need very much to drown. You can drown in a bathtub. So being aware of those things is something that's a big part of the project back home."
Coventry also serves on the IOC Athletes' Commission. Her term lasts until the Tokyo games in 2020.
"I'm super excited about, just being able to give back to the sport that I love, and not just swimming, but the Olympic movement that has changed my life," she said.
While training for Rio, Coventry put off making any post-swimming plans to allow for undistracted focus. But there is one after-Brazil engagement penciled on the calendar.
"My husband has never been to an Auburn football game, so we're going to try to bring him down sometime in the fall."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer