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Kirsty Coventry, Africa’s top Olympian, dives in one last time

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HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — The African with the most Olympic medals is one of the great distance runners from Kenya or Ethiopia, right?

Nope.

It’s a swimmer from Zimbabwe.

Like Michael Phelps, Kirsty Coventry is going to the Olympics for the fifth and final time, and she’s swimming for one more little slice of history in the Rio de Janeiro pool.

Phelps has the all-time Olympic record with his medal haul of 22, but Coventry needs one more podium finish at her last Olympics to be the first female swimmer to win eight individual medals.

It’s not an arbitrary stat. It underlines how Coventry, from a southern African nation with very little Olympic success (apart from hers, that is) has done it all by herself. No help from relay teammates to boost that medal count.

Zimbabwe has won eight medals in total at the Olympics, and seven of them have been provided by Coventry, the two-time gold medalist in the 200-meter backstroke. The country’s only other medal is a women’s field hockey gold won during the boycotted 1980 Games in Moscow.

She’s already Africa’s best at the Olympics. As for the other mark, Coventry is level on seven individual swimming medals with Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi. Rio is the last chance to edge ahead of Egerszegi. Coventry is 32, on her way out, knows it, and can make light of it.

Who’s the swimmer to watch at the Rio Games?

“Me!” she responded.

Joking.

“In all seriousness the field of swimmers is so strong right now, it’s crazy,” Coventry wrote in an email exchange. “I remember saying how strong it was in London (in 2012), but Rio will be even more so.”

Of them all, Coventry rates Americans Camille Adams and Katie Ledecky highest.

“Camille Adams … she will get you out of your chairs when she is racing. And then there is Katie Ledecky. She will blow your mind. They are the whole package: hard working, competitive, confident, talented, beautiful and filled with positive energy and kindness.”

Coventry’s been pretty good, too, basically representing her country at the Olympics single-handedly over the last 16 years, and ending up with more Olympic medals than any other African athlete. In the pool, too, not on the running track, normally the most fertile ground for African athletes.

“Making the Olympic team is a huge accomplishment, going to five Olympics is incredible,” she wrote. “But winning this number of medals in a sport that is not strong in Africa is unbelievable.”

Like Phelps, she made her Olympic debut as a teenager in Sydney in 2000. And they’ll finish at the same time. In Rio, Coventry will focus on her favorite race and the one that’s brought her two Olympic golds, the 200 backstroke. She’s also qualified in the 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley.

Is there one more medal in there somewhere? It’ll be tough. She didn’t manage to get on the podium in London four years ago.

Coventry grew up around swimming and the Olympics. She remembers watching the ’92 Games in Barcelona on TV and telling her parents she wanted to go to the Olympics. She went to the Sydney Olympics while still at high school. She broke through in Athens with the first of her back-to-back Olympic titles. She went to Auburn University in Alabama, winning NCAA swimming championships while she studied. She was desperately grateful for an Olympic scholarship that helped her prepare for Beijing. She also broke the world records in the 100 and the 200 backstroke.

Makes sense, then, that she stays around sport and the Olympic movement. Coventry is now a member of the International Olympic Committee and serves on the IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency’s athletes’ commissions. She has clear opinions on the big issues affecting the Olympics right now.

On the Russian doping scandal, Coventry said: “This is a huge embarrassment for Russia and the Russian authorities are responsible … there is a higher level of dishonesty at play. This is a warning to any country, coach, parent and athlete that is doping or considering doping: it does not matter who you are and it may not happen today, but you will get caught, and you will become an embarrassment to your friends and family.”

And on the Zika virus and the problems it has presented for the Rio Olympics, Coventry said she never once considered skipping the games. “Brazil are going to put on a great show. It’s going to be an awesome Olympics with some outstanding performances and I can’t wait to get there.”

Onto the last Olympics for Africa’s best Olympian and, ideally, one last medal. But if not, no big deal.

“It’s always been about a desire to make the Olympic team and represent my country,” Coventry said.

MORE: Olympic Swimming Trials reveal where U.S. stands versus world

April Ross, Alix Klineman back atop Olympic beach volleyball qualifying

April Ross, Alix Klineman
FIVB World Tour
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Two-time Olympic medalist April Ross and new partner Alix Klineman moved back on top of the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball qualifying standings by winning an event in Itapema, Brazil this week.

Ross, who split from Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2017, and Klineman beat Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes 25-23, 18-21, 15-10 in Sunday’s final for their third title in 11 FIVB World Tour tournaments together.

“Every victory is important, but this counts for more,” Klineman said, according to the FIVB. “We want to send a message and we want to be consistently the best.

Ross and Klineman supplanted Walsh Jennings and her new partner, Brooke Sweat, for the lead in the early U.S. Olympic qualifying rankings with still more than a year of events ahead.

1. Ross/Klineman – 3,240 (5 events played)
2. Walsh Jennings/Sweat – 3,100 (7 events)
3. Day/Flint – 2,180 (5 events)
4. Hughes/Ross — 2,000 (4 events)
5. Larsen/Stockman — 1,840 (5 events)
6. Sponcil/Claes — 1,600 (3 events)

Each team’s 12 best results from Sept. 1, 2018, to June 14, 2020, go into the Olympic qualifying rankings. That means Ross and Klineman are comfortably in front, having played two fewer events than Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who lost in the quarterfinals in Itapema.

The top two U.S. pairs come June 15, 2020, provided they’re ranked high enough internationally, will qualify for Tokyo. Most of the qualifying events, including the ones with the most points available, are still to come this summer.

Ross, 36, picked up Klineman, 29, after Walsh Jennings didn’t join her in signing a domestic AVP contract in 2017. The 6-foot-5 Klineman primarily played indoor the previous decade, including at Stanford from 2007-10 after being the Gatorade National Player of the Year coming out of high school.

MORE: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Katie Ledecky extends 5-year win streak

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Katie Ledecky extended a five-year domestic win streak by taking the 200m freestyle at the Tyr Pro Swim Series at Bloomington on Saturday.

In her last full meet before July’s world championships, Ledecky clocked 1:55.80 to beat training partner Simone Manuel by 1.44 seconds for her second win in as many days. Ledecky is also entered in Sunday’s 800m free on the last day of the meet.

Ledecky, who also cruised to a 400m free victory on Friday, ranks third in the world in the 200m free this year, behind Australian Ariarne Titmus and Swede Sarah Sjöström (the Olympic silver medalist who is not expected to race the 200m free at worlds).

Ledecky, a five-time Olympic champion, hasn’t lost a 200m, 400m, 800m or 1500m free final at a domestic meet since Allison Schmitt beat her in a 200m free on Jan. 18, 2014 when Ledecky was 16 years old.

BLOOMINGTON: Full Results

But Ledecky lost the two biggest 200m frees of this Olympic cycle so far, at the 2017 World Championships and the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships. Italian veteran Federica Pellegrini handed Ledecky her first individual final defeat at a major international meet at 2017 Worlds.

Ledecky dropped to third in the 200m free at Pan Pacs in Tokyo last year, beaten by younger swimmers Taylor Ruck of Canada and Rikako Ikee of Japan.

Ruck, who like Ledecky trains at Stanford, is in Bloomington, but she chose not to swim the 200m free on Saturday. She instead swam the 200m backstroke about 45 minutes after the 200m free and was upset by 17-year-old Regan Smith. Smith won in 2:06.47, moving to No. 3 in the world this year.

In other events Saturday, Ella Eastin captured the 400m individual medley in 4:37.18, taking 1.25 seconds off her personal best and moving to fifth in the world this year. Eastin is not on the world championships team after an untimely bout with mono before qualifying meets last summer.

Blake Pieroni won the men’s 200m free in 1:47.25. No American ranks in the top 20 in the world this year. World silver medalist Townley Haas did not enter Bloomington.

MORE: Olympic breaststroke champion faces ban for missed drug tests

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