Auburn swimming legend Kirsty Coventry's team talk: 'Keep pushing our program forward'


Kirsty Coventry

AUBURN, Ala.  In a whirlwind weekend that included speaking twice at Auburn University's Spring 2024 Commencement ceremonies, two-time Olympic gold medalist Kirsty Coventry visited with the Auburn swimming & diving team after practice.

Remembering how she felt 20 years earlier as a hungry and tired Auburn swimmer when alums would speak to the team, Coventry promised to be brief.

"You've been doing really well," she said, noting  the second-place finish for the men's team at the 2024 SEC Championships and a fourth-place finish and the most points since 2006 for Auburn's women. "It's nice to see your team getting stronger and stronger."

Auburn's most decorated Olympian, the seven-time medalist helped the Tigers win NCAA championships in 2003 and 2004. After winning gold, silver and bronze medals in Athens, Greece, in 2004, the Zimbabwe native returned to the Plains and won three individual NCAA titles in 2005 while earning SEC Female Athlete of the Year honors.

"I'd never been to the States before," Coventry recalled. "I'd never swum with a team before. We were on a mission to prove ourselves, get better and make each other better, and our coaches allowed for us to do that."

Then-Auburn head coach David Marsh and assistant coach Kim Brackin informed Coventry that, because of a surplus of backstrokers, the team needed her to compete in the 400 individual medley instead of the 100 back at the 2003 NCAA Championship.

Unaccustomed to swimming the longer medley distance, Coventry initially resisted.

"I only realized after the meet that the team, and what the team was trying to achieve, was so much more important than my individual goals," she said. "That's a life lesson I've taken with me that I never would have learned anywhere else other than here because I never had the opportunity of being on a team and making a sacrifice for people I loved and admired."

Not only did Coventry's willingness to swim the 400 IM help the Tigers win the NCAA title, it also paid dividends for Kirsty's career.

"The 400 IM became one of my best events. I won a gold medal in it," said Coventry, making her point to an attentive audience. "I'm grateful for them pushing me out of my comfort zone."

Coventry carried that lesson after her swimming career, serving as Zimbabwe's Minister of Sports, Arts and Recreation, as well as being a member of the International Olympic Committee.

"Those things you are learning now, you might not realize it, but those are things I've been able to fall back on," she said.

A five-time Olympian, Coventry retired after competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics, encouraging Auburn's student-athletes to conclude their swimming careers on their own terms.

"I left the sport loving it," she said. "That, to me, was super important."

After Coventry's 10-minute talk to Auburn's swim team, the Tigers asked questions for another 10 minutes, eager to learn from someone who trained in the same pool before and after reaching their sport's pinnacle.
"Everything's scary. Embrace that. You have to fail," said Coventry, foreshadowing the commencement addresses she would deliver the next two days. "I've learned the best lessons by failing, and I have failed at many things. Life has a really good way of humbling you, but what you've learned here and what you've gone through the past four or five years will help guide you.

"I hope you take the time to be grateful for where you are. It goes so quickly. Life is way more complicated once you leave this space but it's also super wonderful and exciting. Keep pushing our program forward and supporting each other."
 'I left the sport loving it'
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter: @jeff_shearer