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Donata Katai: The Amazing First Black Swimmer to Fly Zimbabwe’s Flag at the Olympics

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Swimming is dominated by whites and viewed as an elite sport. The number of black swimmers in the sport and competitive arenas isn’t encouraging. In the United States, blacks or African Americans consist of only 8.9% of the population. Africa isn’t known for swimming. Nonetheless, in 2021, Zimbabwe produced its first Olympic swimmer, Donata Katai. Find out more about her here. 

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Donata Katai’s Early Career

Donata Katai was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2004. She has mixed ethnicity. Her father is Italian, Ndebele, and her mother is Scottish, Shona. She began swimming at six years old and was spotted by her coach, Kathy Lobb, at the age of eight.

She studied at Gateway Primary School, where her interest in the sport was developed. Katai admitted that she always eyed the Olympics:

“As a child, everyone aims to get a gold medal at the Olympics. That said, the longer I started swimming, the less I thought about the possibility of it happening. As I became older, I thought I could do it.”

Katai was a star swimmer at her school and broke records at different galas. At the 2019 African Junior Championships, the teenager won the 50 and 100-meter backstroke. 

She also set a new national youth record, which took one and a half seconds off Kirsty Coventry’s record set in 1998. Still, Katai says she didn’t think about the Olympics.

“I don’t think I ever linked the two. However, every time I broke a record, I realized that I was very fast and talented. This is what I read into that more than thinking about the Olympics.

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First Zimbabwean Swimmer in the Olympics

At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Donata Katai became the first black Zimbabwean to represent her country in the discipline. Previously, the country has sent white swimmers like Kirsty Coventry, the most successful swimmer in the country.

Katai competed in the 100m backstroke. She finished in 34th position at a time of 1:02:73. 

“It was a learning curve. I didn’t win but I picked a lot of positives. To be at the Olympics was amazing and a dream come true. I can say that this is just the beginning of greater things ahead,” She told Zimbabwean Newspaper The Herald.

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Donata Katai: The Amazing First Black Swimmer to Fly Zimbabwe’s Flag at the Olympics
Zimbabwean swimmer Donata Katai at the Olympics. Image Source: Instagram licensed under CC BY 2.0

Growing up, Kirsty Coventry was her role model. She’s the most decorated Zimbabwean Olympian. She’s won seven of eight medals, accomplishments Katai says inspired her.

“Watching and hearing about her gave me the drive even though I come from a small swimming community. She’s one of the people who I looked up to and I wanted to be like her.”

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Swimming in Zimbabwe

In a country where the majority of people are black, white swimmers have had more 

success. Kirsty Coventry and South Africans Cameron van de Burgh and Chad le Clos have competed at an elite level. 2021 was the first time Zimbabwe sent a black swimmer to the Olympics, a contrast to the type of population the country has.

Despite that, Donata Katai told AfricaNews that Zimbabwe isn’t struggling to find diversity.

“There’s a lot of people of color in the sport here. It’s becoming normal but I feel like we are swimming in a different environment. In America, there aren’t a lot of people of color that swim but in Zimbabwe, the majority of swimmers are black.”

In Africa, black people are marginalized from the sport because most private swimming pools are owned by the wealthy. The ones that are open to the public charge a higher fee that a lot of people in the population can’t afford. This contributes to the low number of black swimmers

Donata Katai is aiming for the 2024 Paris Olympics. She’s an inspiration to many black swimmers and is an exciting prospect. 

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