Polly Swann will compete alongside Helen Glover in Tokyo
Credit: Getty Images
When the pandemic threw Tokyo 2020 plans into chaos last year, Polly Swann’s first thought had little to do with rowing. It was simply, “How can I help?”
It is a mark of her humility that she insists on describing her role in a hospital surgical ward last summer as minor. “I was honestly a teeny, tiny cog in the NHS machine,” she says.
But her sacrifice in the face of uncertainty – by putting her rowing career on the back burner last March – was significant, and makes her Olympic selection this month all the more poignant.
This time last year, Swann was hardly training at all. Instead, she was working 12-hour shifts as a doctor at a hospital in Livingston, Scotland, 400 miles from GB Rowing’s Caversham base. Now, she is set to back up her silver medal in the women’s eight at Rio 2016 with her second Olympic appearance.
“I just feel really proud of myself in a way and – not to toot my own horn – but I’m pleased at the path that I’ve taken,” she says. “I have two passions, I really love working as a doctor and can’t wait to go back. I suppose I could have called it a day after working in the NHS, but getting selected really made me feel like, ‘Wow, I actually made it.’”
Just before the country went into lockdown in March last year, Swann and the rest of the Team GB rowing squad were told to train remotely. She took the opportunity to head back to her parents’ home in Edinburgh, and it was there that she saw public pleas for qualified doctors to help the overstretched NHS.
Polly Swann said she couldn’t just sit by and watch a nation in a pandemic and not volunteer to help
“I was at home training away and, well, I just felt really drawn to apply,” she says. “I remember chatting to my dad about it. He’s a doctor, and I said ‘I think this is a bit bigger than sport’, and he said he couldn’t agree more. I couldn’t just sit by and watch a nation in a pandemic and not volunteer to help – I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror.”
Within three days of applying, Swann was working in the surgical team at St John’s Hospital and a place at the Games was furthest from her mind. This was not completely new territory to Swann, 33. For the best part of a decade she has juggled her career in medicine alongside rowing. After winning a silver medal at Rio she took a near- three-year break from the sport to fully qualify as a doctor, but decided to return to rowing in the summer of 2019 to take one last shot at Tokyo.
Everything was going to plan until the pandemic suddenly compelled her to make the switch again. Though her role was outside intensive care Covid-19 wards, the effects of the pandemic were still duly felt.
“The first week or so on the surgical team it was really quiet, which was quite scary. We knew people with problems and emergencies were just sitting on them. I think what I found the hardest and sad was that you would have people coming in presenting late, and saying they didn’t want to be a burden on the NHS as they wanted us to fight Covid. That got me, because people were so selfless, putting other people before their own health. That’s really sad, but also shows how incredible and caring people are.”
As for her rowing career, she knew it was hanging in the balance. But Swann tried to put it to the back of her mind. “I did keep training, but it was not the same,” she says. “You’re on your feet running around a hospital all day, there’s no way you can do the same kind of stuff. I did know it could have been make or break with the rowing. I wouldn’t say I was being hugely selfless or anything, though. I just had faith that I was able to fulfil that role, and then come back to rowing when it mattered.”
Her four-month contract with the NHS ran out last August and she returned full-time with GB Rowing in Caversham. Such was her enthusiasm to get back in the boat and “prove she could still do it”, that she “overcooked it somewhat” and had to struggle through the effects of over-training fatigue during the winter. She says she can laugh at the memory now, especially after securing her selection for the Olympics.
All the more remarkable is that she will be competing at Tokyo in the coxless pair with Helen Glover – the two-time Olympic champion who has had three children since Rio and is making a comeback of her own. They have competed together throughout their long careers and Swann says spells away from the sport have given both of them a new perspective on it.
“We’ve had very different journeys, but we’ve done it in our own way,” Swann says. “To share it with her is very special. I can see what her journey has been like, she can see mine. And I think we both respect each other for that. We’ve chosen this path to come back because it’s something we love.”
Their win at the European Championships in April proved they are not here to make up the numbers either and, eight years on from winning the world title together, their drive to be the best remains.
“Helen and I always joke about being the old ladies,” she says. “Someone one day is going to stop us when we’re on our way to the start and ask, ‘Have you lost your way?’ We both remember thinking we were done after Rio.
“But then in the back of our heads, the thought: ‘Shall I start training again?’ I couldn’t let it go. I had to see where it took me.”
Swann will start work as a doctor in the Scottish Borders come August, but for now it is – finally – only Tokyo on her mind.