Zimbabwe: Olympic Surprise for Rower Hill

ONE of the beauties of sports is the element of surprise.

Usually in the sporting world when teams are selected there is that one name that pops up largely unexpected due to the unheralded profile of the athlete, or simply because selectors have a different view.

When Zimbabwe's Beijing Olympics team was announced two weeks ago, a polite 20-year-old rower Elana Hill was the surprise package.

Hill has always dreamt of representing her country at the Olympics and that was the objective she took to last year's All-Africa Games in Algeria.

The top three women in her category from the continental games qualified automatically for the Olympics.

Disappointingly for Hill she came fourth after a South African, an Egyptian and a Tunisian.

Her first Olympics lifeline would then come courtesy of a withdrawal by one of the women who had qualified.

But still there was one last hurdle she had to clear.

She had to enter a "play-off" in South Africa with three other Zimbabweans, Micheen Thornycroft, Helen Barrett and Tara Bawden who all stood good chances of going to Beijing.

"It was a tough race," Hill says.

"The conditions were not so good. There was a lot of hyacinth in the water so the blades would not move nicely.

"We had to wait for wind to clear it. We raced in the 2x2 races and took turns. Whoever had the best times took it."

Yet still conquering her fellow country women would not be enough to warrant her selection, thought the University of Pretoria Intermediate Phase student but the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee had made an undertaking to rope in anyone who met the minimum qualifying standards thus Hill's childhood dream was fulfilled.

"My coach when I'm here (in Zimbabwe), Kerrie Mackie, e-mailed me when I was in SA and said 'are you going to be busy in August?'

"I told her that I would be studying." Then she said: "We might be going to the Olympics.

"I was very surprised and very excited. I told Grant Dodds (her coach in South Africa) about the good news and we began preparing. Everyone was very pleasantly surprised."

Coach Mackie, who is also doubling as Hill's manager in Beijing, is sister to top Zimbabwean male rower, Rory Mackie.

Water sports in the family traces back to her father who water-skied at provincial level for Mashonaland. She is also motivated by the more illustrious Zimbabwean queen of the waters Kirsty Coventry.

She will be meeting the Olympic, champion for the first time in Beijing.

Hill flew out of Harare for China on Wednesday with members of the Zimbabwe-based delegation while Coventry and fellow swimmer Heather Brand had a shorter journey from Japan where they were training ahead of the Games.

Says Hill: "It's every athlete's dream to go to the Olympics, winning a medal is beyond a dream. Kirsty inspires me because she is at the top of the world. She is a Zimbabwean; she is young you know and she is there."

Born in Harare, Hill was schooled at Bishopslea primary school and Arundel schools in the capital city. She took her rowing seriously at Arundel, the sport being a major summer discipline at the very sporty girls' school.

There she also excelled at diving, hockey and cross country.

But on leaving school she had to select one and rowing was not at all a difficult choice. Based in Pretoria she frequents the state-of-the-art training facilities of the High Performance Centre (the HPC leases the university sports fields), a multi-sport haven that is the envy of even the world's most developed country.

"I study at the University of Pretoria so I train mostly with the Turks," she says. "But I do get a chance to train at the HPC because my Turks coach also works there."

Prior to going to South Africa Hill had gained six junior national colours, her best international finish to date being fifth alongside team-mate Joanna Redmile in the sea category of the World Junior Championships in 2006.

Down south she is hardening up as a senior rower, competing with the continent's best rowers.

"There is a lot more competition in South Africa," Hill says.

"There are other people to push me. Just recently I have been doing mental training. I was seeing a psychologist in South Africa. A good mind and a good body are essential for competition."

At the Olympics Hill will compete in the senior women's heavyweight category.

"It's not an easy category," she says.

"There will be tall women at the Olympics and weighing around 85kg. Most of the women will be bigger than me. It's tough especially for me because I'm supposed to be a lightweight."

Winning a medal will be a massive feat, but inspiring future Zimbabwean rowers will also be a worthy reward for her.

She says: "Racing is quite a small sport in Zimbabwe.

"For me to go to the Olympics is quite a big thing. I am hoping that it will open opportunities for others. I hope it will get someone to say 'Oh, there is someone from Zim at the Olympics. Maybe I could also go'."

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