HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – The southern African nation of Zimbabwe sends a black swimmer to the Olympics, her country’s first to compete in the Games.
Donata Katai, 17, won African youth titles and broke youth records once held by two-time Olympic champion Kirsty Coventry, who is not only Zimbabwe’s most successful swimmer but also the most successful Olympian. decorated from Africa.
Tokyo is probably too early for the teenager to take over from Coventry in the way she really wants, by stepping onto the Olympic podium. But, for now, Katai represents a deeper breakthrough for Zimbabwe. His country is 99% black and it wasn’t until 2021 that a black swimmer represented Zimbabwe at the Olympics.
Simone Manuel’s gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle at the last Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was a watershed moment for black swimmers. But the American’s success has also sparked a conversation about why black swimmers are so under-represented.
This is historically the case in southern Africa, where the most successful swimmers – like Coventry and South Africans Chad le Clos and Cameron van de Burgh – are all white. It is perhaps more striking because they come from predominantly black countries.
“There are a lot of people of color playing this sport (in Zimbabwe),” Katai said. “It kind of became normal for me in Zimbabwe.
“I feel like we swim in very different environments because in America there aren’t a lot of people of color swimming. In Zimbabwe, the majority of people swimming right now are people of color. I guess his story (of Manuel) would be very different from mine.
Katai’s story is also very different from that of another black African swimmer. Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea gained brief worldwide fame and the ironic nickname Eric the Eel, for being so bad at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. This stereotype is certainly not applicable here.
Katai has been swimming competitively since when she was 6 she realized she was pretty good at it. She was followed after her talent sparked the interest of some of the best coaches in the country at the age of 8. His family belongs to the middle class, said his current trainer, Kathy Lobb. She is not disadvantaged. And she’s the first swimmer the veteran coach took to the Olympics.
“The best I have done is the World Championships and the African Games. So for me it’s the ultimate, ”Lobb said. “It’s every coach’s dream to have a swimmer take them to the Olympics.
Katai won gold medals in the 50m and 100m backstroke at the 2019 African Junior Championships in Tunisia. That same year, she broke the Coventry national youth record in the 100-meter backstroke. This is the event in which she will participate at the Tokyo Games.
Of all the comparisons, Katai is quite happy with Coventry’s.
Katai and Coventry know each other, but not very well. They have only spoken a few times in meetings, Katai said, but Coventry has been totally supportive. And it was “an achievement to follow in his footsteps,” Katai said.
Tokyo is the next step for Katai and it’s pure excitement now after the dream of competing with the best in the world has been delayed for a year by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think this (the Olympics) is going to be like kind of a movie,” Katai said. “It’s going to be unreal. Being with a lot of people that I watch on TV, admiring in a way, and then being there in front of me, being able to watch them.
“I think it’s going to be an unreal experience for me, but it’s definitely an experience I’m looking forward to.”
There’s a star-struck teenage element there, but that’s okay. And Lobb is not putting any pressure on Katai in Tokyo, she said.
Coventry was also 17 when she swam at her first Olympics in 2000. She did not win a medal, but returned four years later to win a gold, a silver and a bronze and start this record for Africa.
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