Until last week, Britain’s rowers were some of the few sportspeople in the country still engaged in full-blooded competition. Great Britain’s squad trials for Olympic selection were held behind closed doors but brutally fought. It was, says the Olympic silver medallist Polly Swann, one of the closest trial meets she has experienced in her career.
Swann’s pairs race was a “real ding-dong” against a pair including her own housemate, Rebecca Shorten. Sometimes, she says, trials can be more stressful than international competition. “You have to try to beat your friends, and you know how much it means to them.” The 31-year-old Swann and her partner Emily Ford were squeezed out in the last 200m.
Swann is now off the water for the foreseeable future. On Saturday, Caversham closed its training facilities and moved all its athletes to at-home training programmes. Covid-19 had already caused the cancellation of all World Cup rowing, and while June’s European Championships remains for now, the probable postponement of the Olympic Games is dominating the International Rowing Federation’s agenda.
Having recently completed the medical degree she began 13 years ago, Swann has no illusions about the seriousness of the pandemic and yet her desire to compete at the Olympics remains as strong as ever. “We have to believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Swann says. “The Olympics is almost like a drug. That’s why athletes are able to put our lives on hold, move away from our loved ones, get up at ridiculous o’clock in the morning. So until there’s any kind of announcement that says there’s a postponement, we have to trust the Olympics will go ahead and we’d be silly not to do everything we could to prepare.”
Isolation plans for the rowers had already been drawn up: exercise bikes and rowing machines will now take up space in lounges or bedrooms but Swann is used to awkward training regimes. Having resumed her medical studies after finishing second with the women’s eight in Rio, a sense of unfinished business drew her back to the sport. Trying to fit a bursting schedule of hospital rotations, exam revision, gym work and sleep into each 24-hour cycle nearly broke her.
The week before her finals, a 5km indoor session left her in tears. “My coach was saying: ‘Polly, you’ve just got to do it.’ And I said: ‘I don’t know I can.’ At the time it felt like the worst thing I’ve ever had to do. Now I’ve got a bit of perspective. It wasn’t a global pandemic, put it that way.”
Swann grew up in Edinburgh; her mother is a former midwife and her father is a doctor, providing frontline help during the crisis. Swann, who is not yet registered with the GMC and will need a training post before she can practise, never imagined doing anything other than medicine.
At school she showed some sporting aptitude, but her height made her “ungainly” – “I didn’t know where my legs and arms were in space and time!” she says, laughing. Struggling with hockey – she had an extra-long stick but still found reaching the ball on the ground difficult – she swapped to rowing, and was quickly smitten.
Back injuries kept her out of contention for the 2012 Games; the following year, she found herself paired with Helen Glover, who had won Britain’s very first gold in London with Heather Stanning. “We first got into a boat together in January of 2013 and I just remember being petrified,” says Swann, who remembers thinking: “‘Do not make a mistake!’” But Glover was a perfect mentor who “poured her heart into rowing” and by August that year they had won the world championships together.
When Glover reunited with Stanning for their second Olympic gold in 2016, Swann took a place in the women’s eight, who nearly pulled off one of the most dramatic comebacks seen on the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon. Up against a USA boat unbeaten for a decade, the GB eight’s strategy was simple: start fast and stay with them. They did neither. At the halfway mark Britain were last.
Swann remembers thinking all was lost when cox Zoe de Toledo made a bold call and began their sprint finish nearly a kilometre early. A surge of energy coursed through the boat, which soared up the field. “You get this all-encompassing belief from moving through the other boats,” Swann says. “Within 300m I was like ‘we’re going to win the Olympics!’
“We were coming hot and heavy on the Americans and then with 100m to go my legs gave in and my lungs were exploding. I could hardly move.” USA took gold by two seconds but Swann and her teammates were thrilled with their fighting silver.
Swann still wants a gold but her attitude to the Olympics has changed. Desperate just to make the team in 2016, she feels Tokyo would be, by comparison, “a bonus – the one I get to enjoy”. Which boat she might compete in remains a matter for the selectors. Swann enjoys the art of pairs racing – “you really get to feel the glide of the boat and how to move it well” – but also enjoys the sprint style of the eight, a charge she calls “vicious and electric”.
The anxiety caused by the virus cannot be avoided – not in a sport overseen by a 73-year-old coach who must take special precautions to self-isolate as per government advice. Jürgen Gröbler’s charges had been joking he would probably self-isolate in a caravan by the side of the lake so he can keep an eye on them; now he’ll be poring over data from their machines. A natural extrovert who thrives on teamwork, Swann finds the prospect of social distancing challenging but she already has plenty of her favourite tea in the house and has made a deal with Shorten that they will learn the guitar together.
Whether she can fingerpick by the summer is uncertain; whether the Olympics will happen even more so. But it’s a guarantee Swann and her fellow rowers will not sacrifice an iota of their training, wherever they have to do it. “We know the rest of the world will do the same,” she says. “And I think there’s something quite powerful behind that motivation.”