IF years ago, a much younger Gareth Ziyambi had dreamt of an Olympic Games gold medal, he would have woken up the next morning tipping himself to be the one winning it someday, with the national anthem of his native Zimbabwe providing a perfect soundtrack to the crowning moment.
Life, however, does not always follow a predictable path. Ziyambi has been to the Olympics, but not as an athlete, and he has contributed to gold medal success, for a different country.
The University of Zimbabwe-trained physiotherapist of Great Britain’s gold medal-winning divers at the recent Tokyo Olympics was more likely to participate at the iconic games as a hockey player – his foremost sporting code growing up back home – or as an 400 metres or 800 metres runner.
The Olympics had always been a dream destination for Ziyambi since his teenage years as a schoolboy sporting hero in Zimbabwe.
When Ziyambi was in his final year at St George’s College in Harare, three people from the renowned boys’ school – two students and a teacher – represented Zimbabwe at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
The most prominent of the three was Evan Stewart, a diver later to achieve world champion status. Then there was swimmer Ivor Le Roux and a young teacher called Sally-Ann McDonald, who was Zimbabwe’s number one women’s tennis player.
All three returned from the Spanish city medal-less, but just going to the Olympics created life-long role models in the minds of boys and staff alike at the 1896-established Jesuit school. For Ziyambi, it was the beginning of his love affair with the Olympics.
“It inspired me to say I also want to go to the Olympics one day,” Ziyambi, who is vacationing back home in Harare, told The NewsHawks this week.
“She (McDonald) was a well-respected teacher, she taught Geography. She used to coach tennis as well. Really nice lady. It was pretty special when the team was announced at assembly. Three Olympians from one school was pretty stupendous. Evan was a great diver and as for Ivor, he was a monster in the pool. He would start behind others. By the end, it was a foregone conclusion that he would win.”
The Stewart family has particularly been influential in Ziyambi’s sporting career. At Hartmann House, St George’s preparatory school, he was coached in hockey by none other than Anthea Stewart, captain of Zimbabwe’s gold-medallists in women’s field hockey at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and mother of the diver Evan.
After Ziyambi left for the United Kingdom in 2004, he successfully applied for a job as a physiotherapist at the highly regarded English Institute of Sports, a big name in the area of sports science and medicine, which is also used as a training centre by some of the country’s top sports stars.
When physios at the Sheffield-based centre were asked to specialise in one code, the name of Ziyambi’s fellow countryman and old schoolmate, Evan Stewart, was thrown into the discussion, probably marking the beginning of his association with diving.
“In 2008, we were asked to align with a particular sport. I was a bit resistant because I didn’t want to be tied down,” Ziyambi, who is now 47, continued.
“Then somebody said, ‘oh yeah, Zim had a world champion in diving before!’ I was embarrassed to say ‘I was at school with him’. So I was like ‘world champion, okay!’. It’s (diving) a sport I didn’t know about, but I wanted a challenge. So I became head of diving before I left in 2010 for private practice.”
All in all, Ziyambi has been to the Olympics five times as a team physio. He was in Athens with Zimbabwe in 2004, before going to Beijing with the African country in 2008 after he had moved to the UK. Then he has worked with Great Britain’s divers in London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016 before the most recent edition in the Japanese capital.
Tokyo was not the first time Ziyambi has been part of Olympic medal success with his adopted country.
That edition however stands out because of the victory of British diving superstar Tom Daley, who won his first Olympics gold medal.
The 27-year-old from Plymouth, who became a world champion at the age of 15 in 2009, has a background that easily makes him a firm favourite of many.
“I think with all medals, it is the story behind,” Ziyambi explained. “Tom is a household name in Britain. He was young in his first Olympics.
He became a world champion at 15. He kind of endeared himself to the public. His father running into the Press conference, singing (…laughs)! Tom was so embarrassed, like a typical teenager in such a situation.
Imagine your father running into a Press conference and singing happily after you’ve won! Sadly, his father was diagnosed with brain cancer, and he passed on. But Tom’s quest to become an Olympic champion was well-known. It was kind of fulfillment of a life-long dream.”
Quite remarkably, while Zimbabwe’s small team of five returned empty-handed from Tokyo, Ziyambi was not the only person with links to the African country behind Great Britain’s triumphant divers.
Head coach Jane Figueiredo, recruited by the Britons from the University of Houston in the United States, grew up Zimbabwe and learnt her diving from the legendary Anthea Stewart.
“She (Figueiredo) was born in Malawi, raised in Zimbabwe, and went to Girls High in Harare,” said Ziyambi. “She initially dived for Zimbabwe, but she competed for Portugal at the 1984 Olympics because her father was born in Portugal. She was head of diving programmes at Houston University and had lots of success in the early 2000s.”
The African connection in the backroom staff of Great Britain’s diving team was a source of great pride for the continent’s greatest Olympian, Kirsty Coventry, who was in Tokyo in her capacity as Zimbabwe’s Sports minister as well as head of the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission.
“Kirsty was there to watch that event (when Daley won gold),” Ziyambi said. “The first call I got was from her and she was jumping saying ‘I’m here, I’m here!’. She was telling all the British journalists sitting below her that the medal was made in Zimbabwe!”
Helping Great Britain’s divers strike gold in Tokyo is the pinnacle of Ziyambi’s sports science career in elite sport to date. It is an achievement he is immensely proud of, and he is grateful to have been afforded the opportunity by the country’s Olympics federation.
But Bulawayo-born Ziyambi is also extremely proud of his roots, although a bit frustrated that his country of birth has not totally realised its fullest potential in sport despite a surplus of talent across the nation.
“The major difference with Zimbabwe and other nations that are doing well is that in Zim we have no problem with talent,” said Ziyambi.
“Talent is abundant in schools. In other countries, like Britain, they are putting up adverts inviting people to try out new sports and possibly go to the Olympics. Whereas in Zim, you just go to school. Our schools compete in a variety of sports, where you get to improve hand-eye coordination, being part of a team. We have unique schools, the talent in schools is frightening. At some point we were able to compete with South Africa until Under-18 level. Look at how many sports people we have exported. We really have so many sports that we excel at: rugby, football and others. Just look at the Curran brothers (England cricketers Sam and Tom, sons of late former Zimbabwe player Kevin Curran).
“I was laughing during the (Cricket) World Cup when England had the Currans and New Zealand had Colin de Grandhomme (ex-Zimbabwe youth international).
It was like an old boys’ reunion. They learnt all their skills here, but then put into systems that developed them, in environments where you don’t have to worry about where the next meal is going to come from.
The Black brothers (Zimbabwean tennis greats Byron and Wayne) stayed next to us when we were young, we used to hear them play tennis in the morning. Then they went to university in the States, where the emphasis was sports science. Same as Kirsty, Brian Dzingai, Ngoni Makusha. I mean, they even have a little stature of Ngoni at the Florida State University. He won the Bowman Award. This is fantastic! One of the top athletes in the United States!”
Ziyambi has seen it all at the Olympics and knows what it takes to nurture a medallist. Zimbabwe’s approach is not the right one at the moment, and that needs to be rectified now.
“It starts with ambitions,” Ziyambi said.
“We have to think about Brisbane in 2028. 2024 (in Paris) is too soon. You have to ask, ‘to win medals, what does it take?’ Sports medicine and sports science must be taught here, not when people go to university abroad. It must be localised, based on our population. The last thing, we need to compete locally and then send the athletes off internationally.
South Africa is an example. Wade Van Nierkerk (400m world and Olympics record-holder) lived and trained in South Africa. All the people at that club in South Africa trained with a champion.
They saw how he eats, how he trains, nutrition and stuff like that. Imagine if Kirsty was still competing. Our young swimmer who was in Japan (Donata Katai) would have benefited from being in that training environment. The business of medals is a science. If we put things in place now, we can guarantee medals in eight years.”
More opportunities will likely come Ziyambi’s way overseas, but he will always be ready to share his knowledge in Zimbabwe whenever needed.
“I have been in conversation with Kirsty,” he said. “Kirsty will know best how I can be utilised.”
Three years ago, Ziyambi travelled to Zimbabwe as a guest lecturer in the sports science department of the National University of Science and Technology (Nust), on an American government-funded programme. He has also “reached out” to his alma mater, the University of Zimbabwe, he says.
Returning to his hometown Harare, which he does nearly every year, brings back many good memories of Ziyambi’s sport-laden younger days.
Cricket, which Ziyambi also played at first-team level at St George’s, is another sport he thoroughly enjoyed, in a big way due to the fun-filled coaching of development stalwart Bill Flower, father of Zimbabwe greats Andy and Grant.
Ziyambi particularly remembers a match against a star-studded Falcon College team spearhead by Heath Streak, later to become a revered Zimbabwe captain and for a long time the country’s only world-class bowler.
“I played a lot of cricket until form four,” Ziyambi said. “In our year group we competed against the mighty Falcon side which had the likes of Streak, Craig Wishart and Richard Godden. Richard was quicker than Streak. Streak was pacey, but he mastered swing more, he had great control of the ball. I remember Mark Stannard was bowled for a golden duck by Streak. Paul Mitchell created a stand of 64 for us. I faced Streak and I hit him over extra-cover for four. They pushed the field away a bit. He (Streak) then pitched one on leg-stump, trying to swing back. I tried to clear long-on, I gave him an easy wicket.”
Away from school, Ziyambi played club hockey for Old Georgians and then Old Hararians, a sport that would have taken him to the Olympics had Zimbabwe qualified.
Ziyambi’s best chance of being an Olympian was perhaps in track-and-field, and as a schoolboy he was very competitive against some of Zimbabwe’s best runners.
“My favourite was 400m, but my best distance was 800m,” he said. “Those days I competed against Philemon Harineki. In the 1 500m in 1990, he broke a long-standing record. It had stood since 1974, and it was held by John Calderwood, who years later became the headmaster of Hartmann House. He was an absolute legend, Phil. He was quite something. And then I also competed against Ken Harnden (two-time Zimbabwean Olympian).”
The son of retired Zimbabwean Supreme Court judge Vernanda Ziyambi, the well-respected physiotherapist credits his family upbringing for giving him the platform to succeed in the ever-evolving field of sports science and high-performance.
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