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Polly's pulling power

WHEN it comes to the weight of expectation, Polly Swann could be forgiven for feeling it more than most.

Polly Swann, left, and Helen Glover celebrate their win in the Women's Pairs in Sydney  Photograph: Matt King
Polly Swann, left, and Helen Glover celebrate their win in the Women's Pairs in Sydney Photograph: Matt King

The Edinburgh rower follows in the wake of a long line of successful Scottish women in her chosen sport: Gillian Lindsay, Heather Stanning and, of course, Katherine Grainger.

But for now Swann is concentrating on finding her own rhythm. She has recently taken up the seat vacated by Stanning, who won Olympic gold with Helen Glover last summer but has now returned to her job as an Army officer.

The fledgling partnership of Glover and Swann has already made a successful debut, claiming gold in the first World Rowing Cup regatta in Sydney in March. This week will see them join forces for the second round at Eton Dorney, which gets under way on Friday.

Glover, 26, has she said felt acutely conscious of the need to ensure Swann, 25, doesn't feel like Stanning's substitute, insisting the Scot has earned her seat.

"It's nice to hear her say that," says Swann. "Helen, my coach Robin [Williams], and Heather have all been great. To be honest I'm trying to come in and not focus too much on what has happened before or what might happen in the future. It's a new beginning.

"I've had quite a journey with Helen in the past few months as we'd never rowed together before. She has been so helpful in that respect. I've been able to learn a lot from her."

It has been a relatively smooth transition. "We clicked fairly quickly. I knew Helen before and we got on well, but it was more as acquaintances. When we were in Sydney, it gave us a chance to get to know each other better.

"It was good because we had a few days to acclimatise and so we went around the city to see the Opera House, the harbour and things like that. It was a great bonding experience as I was able to see her out of the boat and have a bit of a laugh. Granted, not all boats have that kind of relationship, but I think if you know the ins and outs of someone you really feel you want to do your best for them. We've definitely got that. I find Helen easy to spend time with."

Glover has alluded to the fact she and Swann have a very different dynamic to the one she shared with Stanning. "We did a personality assessment with one of our psychologists. We both scored as extremely competitive – although that's perhaps not surprising," laughs Swann. "While Heather was very process-orientated and kept a level head, Helen, like me, is much more about immediacy and wanting to win at all costs.

"It's good to have that information because it means Helen and I are conscious of making sure we aren't like: 'Yeah, let's go, I want to win medals!' It makes us aware that we do need to keep an eye on the process aspect as well. It has helped highlight our strengths but also any potential weaknesses."

The elder of two children, Swann was born in Lancaster but her parents, David, a doctor, and mother Sally, brought her to Scotland when she was three weeks old.

"My dad had got a job in Edinburgh and they were about to move house but I came a little bit early," she laughs.

She started rowing at 14 at George Heriot's School and continued while she studied medicine at Edinburgh University. In 2010, Swann took a sabbatical from her studies to move to Henley-on-Thames and row full time. The goal was the 2012 Olympics, but a lingering back injury ruled her out of contention for the women's eight.

Despite her disappointment, Swann was there on the sidelines at Eton Dorney cheering on her team-mates as they brought home their impressive medal haul of four gold, two silver and three bronze. "It was so cool," she enthuses. "The atmosphere was electric. I absolutely loved it."

Already she has an eye on the World Rowing Championships in South Korea in August. While the sport isn't part of the Commonwealth Games, the 2014 Commonwealth Rowing Championships will be held next summer. Then there is the 2016 Olympic Games, which remain a key goal.

"Rio seems like such a long way away, but I've been to an Olympics now and seen what it's like, watching all of my friends and team-mates compete and winning medals," she says. "It's affirmed in my head that's what I want to do and achieve."

Swann can draw some parallels with Grainger. "I learned to row on the Union Canal in Edinburgh, which is where she learned as well," she says.

"As a teenager she was such an inspiration to me and everyone in Scottish Rowing was so proud of her. She was this amazing character that we all looked up to.

"Being on the team and getting to know her the last couple of years has been cool, although I was completely starstruck the first time I met her – I could barely say hello.

"She is relaxed, easy-going and happy to give advice which is so helpful as a younger rower trying to find your feet. I do feel that if I needed advice I could go to her. In stressful times, she is good at seeing when you are struggling and offering insight on how to deal with those kind of situations."

The spinal disc problems that plagued Swann last year are now on the mend. "The hardest thing I've had to overcome was my injury last year, not least because it meant I missed out on the Olympics," she says. "It was a big low because I had been working so hard towards it. I was in a lot of pain as well for a long time and struggled with that.

"It made me think a lot about what I wanted to do with my life and wondered if I should go back to medicine. That is another passion of mine and I definitely want to be a doctor when I'm older. I did think perhaps I should just pack the rowing in and do that. But having seen the Olympics I found it inspiring. I knew I wanted to be that good and achieve what all my team-mates had.

"I realised too that you are only young once and knew I would have regretted it forever if I didn't give it a shot. I decided to carry on, go for it this year and see how it went."

Swann has recently embarked on gaining a degree in global health policy at the University of London in her spare time, but, she says: "There's not much time for anything else when you are a rower."

Ultimately the ambition is to win an Olympic gold medal.

"British rowing is the best in the world and that is clear in the success we have, each year turning out more and more medals," she says.

"You do have that expectation to achieve what others before you have. It makes you think: 'If they can do it, then so can I.'"

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