By Mark Gleeson
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Kirsty Coventry could become the first female Olympian to win eight individual medals when she competes at the 2016 Games this summer, but recent doping scandals have made the Zimbabwe swimmer wonder if her races in Rio will be clean.
The 32-year-old, an athletes representative for the International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), won gold, silver and bronze medals in 2004 and added a gold and three silvers in Beijing four years later.
After making her Olympic debut as a 16-year-old in Sydney, Coventry will be competing in her fifth successive Olympics in Rio after coming away empty-handed in London.
With world sport battling to overcome a series of doping scandals, Coventry said she was stunned when she learned about the extent of cheating going on.
"I used to say 'I know my sport is clean' but all the recent revelations from China and Russia make me unsure that the swimmer in the lane next to me is clean," she told Reuters in an interview.
"It makes me really sad, I had no idea about this level of doping in the past. I guess dopers are good at covering up and hiding.
"But all the revelations are good and it’s a very interesting time for sport and I’m proud to be part of the fight against doping.”
While Coventry says she is now driven by the chance to win that eighth Olympic medal, she did not realize she was on the brink of a record until competing in London four years ago.
“I didn’t know that until a reporter told me in at the London Games,” she said. "I think that’s kind of cool and being competitive, I like to set goals.
"And that is now a massive goal to try and get back on the podium, regardless of gold, silver or bronze."
Coventry, who shares the record of seven individual medals with Hungarian swimmer Krisztina Egerszegi, is focused on the 200 meters backstroke in Rio, though she has also qualified for the 100m backstroke and 200m individual medley.
She said she might not compete in all three races and would firm up her plans closer to the time.
“I’ll make that decision closer to Rio but I'll do a minimum of two," she said. "The 200 back is my baby, I so like racing that one, but I might just do all three. “London should have been my last Olympics if things had gone differently and I’d not dislocated my knee four months before.
"Then I got pneumonia two months before and at that point I knew I wasn't going to end my career the way I would want to. "I had a definite goal to win a medal in London and after I made a decision that I wanted to end my career in the best condition possible and having left everything in that pool, regardless of the result." Training has become tougher, Coventry confessed, but her love for swimming may see her push on after Rio.
“When I made the decision to carry on swimming after London, Rio was to be the last one, and now that I'm fit and back to being in good shape and having consistency in my training, I'm thinking maybe I'll keep going for a year afterwards.
"You've got to allow more time for recovery, it's a priority," she added. "I don't like doing nothing but I've realized I can't keep hammering away every day and then I'm not getting any efficiency out of my practices.
"I’ve had to make adjustment and it has been a bit of a learning curve."
One of her training partners in Charlotte, North Carolina is 11-times Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte, who at 31 is facing many of the same training issues as Coventry.
“We are going through the same things and can share a lot and so it’s been a very good experience,” added Coventry, who is seen as a bridge in the racial divide back home and has been called a 'national treasure'.
"When you’ve been an elite athlete for a length of time, you always find reasons and things that keep you motivated and for me it's my love of the sport and seeing the positive impact it has on the community in Zimbabwe.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)