A 17-year-old girl is making history by becoming the first Black swimmer to represent Zimbabwe in the Olympics. If you’re amazed that it took until 2021 for that to happen, trust me, you’re not alone.
According to the Associated Press, Donata Katai won gold medals in both the 50-meter and 100-meter backstroke in the 2019 African Junior Championships in Tunisia. In addition to taking gold medals, Katai also broke the youth records of two-time Olympic champion Kirsty Coventry on her way to the Olympics. Coventry is Zimbabwe’s most decorated Olympian, and like most swimmers who have represented the country, she’s white.
Overall, swimming hasn’t been the most diverse Olympic sport. American swimmer Simone Manuel, a Black woman, won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle during the 2016 Olympic games. Her victory began a conversation on the lack of diversity in the sport. On a global scale, that seems to be gradually changing as Great Britain will also see 24-year-old Alice Dearing become the first Black woman to represent the country in the games. (If the Olympics could get it together when it comes to inclusive swim gear, we might actually be getting somewhere.)
Katai’s accomplishment is striking because she comes from a country that’s 99 percent Black, yet has never had a Black swimmer represent them in the Olympic games. In speaking with AP News, Katai seems to have hope that will change in coming years.
“I feel like we swim in very different environments because in America there are not many people of color that swim. In Zimbabwe, the majority of people that swim at the moment are people of color. I guess her (Manuel’s) story would be very different from mine,” Katai told AP. “There’s a lot of people of color that take part in the sport. It’s kind of becoming normal for me in Zimbabwe.”
Katai comes from a middle-class background and has been swimming competitively since she was 6 years old. By the age of 8, her talent had already attracted the interest of some of the country’s top swimming coaches. Her current coach, Kathy Lobb, praised her talent and told AP that Katai going to the Olympics is also a dream come true for her.
“The best I’ve done is world champs and African Games. So for me this is the ultimate,” Lobb told AP. “It’s every coach’s dream to have a swimmer coming through and taking them to the Olympics.”
After a year’s delay, Katai is excited to finally be able to display her talents on the world stage. “I think it’s (the Olympics) going to be like sort of a movie. It’s going to be unreal. Being around a lot of people I watch on TV, look up to in a way, then be right there in front of me, being able to watch them,” Katai told AP News.
“I think it’s going to be an unreal experience for me, but definitely one I’m looking forward to,” she added.