IT’S safe to assume Polly Swann’s past year has been fairly unique in comparison to almost all other elite athletes. 

While most aspiring Olympians spent the early months of the pandemic training in their garden while stressing about their dreams of Tokyo 2020 having been dashed, Swann was spending her days doing her bit to help the country in its time of crisis. 

Along with her British Rowing teammates, Swann was forced to abruptly stop training when lockdown hit the UK last March but rather than dwell on the disappointment of the Olympic Games being postponed, delaying her bid to add to her Olympic silver medal from 2016, Swann quickly realised she could put her medical training to good use. 

Within days of deciding she wanted to do anything she could to help support the NHS, Swann, who hails from Edinburgh, had begun working in St John’s Hospital in Livingston, with her days as different from her usual day job as one of Britain’s best rowers as one could imagine. 

It may not have been how her teammates or competitors spent lockdown, but for Swann, putting sport on the back-burner and putting her training as a doctor to good use was a no-brainer. 

“I felt like if I could help, I’d like to do that. I knew if I saw things unfold knowing I could help even a little bit and I was just sitting at home, I’d feel so awful. So it felt like the right thing to do,” the 32-year-old recalls. 


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“And also, knowing that the Olympics were postponed, I felt like it’d be a good thing for me to do rather than just train away by myself.” 

Swann was deployed as a junior doctor, filling roles that had been vacated by medics who were relocated to the frontline and while her keenness to put her sporting ambitions on hold seem an incredibly selfless move, she is quick to rebut that suggestion, instead revealing that having a distraction from the disappointment of the postponement of the Olympic Games was hugely significant. 

“I didn’t feel like it was a selfless thing to do at all – if anything, it felt a bit selfish because it was getting me out the house and I was doing something I love,” she says.  

“It was a great opportunity for me personally and it was also a great opportunity to help with everything that was going on. 

“I was devastated when Tokyo was postponed because you work yourself up for this one event and then it’s taken away. But even though the Olympics are my dream, a pandemic is something more important than that.” 

Swann’s physical exercise was not halted entirely by her new role though. Covid restrictions meant she was unable to do hours out on the water like a normal week would entail so instead, she would cycle to work alongside some of her fellow doctors and while it was not the type of training she had anticipated doing ahead of an Olympic Games, it did the job in keeping her fit. 

“It was very different from training full-time but it was really good to join in with the registrars and consultants who cycled into work,” she says.  

“I thought that would be good for my training and then it became very competitive so we actually would get up to a good pace and so it was pretty good for my fitness.” 

Towards the end of the summer, Swann returned to her life as a full-time elite athlete and refocused on adding to her Olympic medal tally.  


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It has, she admits, been an eventful year, made all the more challenging due to a bout of under-recovery syndrome as she resumed her full-time training, but as she prepares to return to competition at next week’s European Championships in Italy, where she will partner double Olympic champion, Helen Glover in the pair, she is certain the ups-and-downs of the past twelve months have resulted in an extremely positive change in her mindset. 

“Everything that’s happened has made me feel really excited about my future,” she says. 

“It gave me a bit of perspective that there’s a big wide world out there and so it made me feel very privileged to come back to being a full-time athlete.  

“This has definitely made me feel excited about training and excited about what’s to come without the pressure of it being quite so intense that it’s this or nothing.  

“Having so much of normal life removed, it has made me realise how special sport is and that it is about more than just winning medals.” 

With Tokyo now less than four months away, the clock is ticking towards the Olympic Games.  

Final selection decisions on what boat each rower will be in come Tokyo are still to be finalised and next month’s European Championships will be taken into account but with the Scot having won her Olympic silver in the eight, as well as World and European gold in the pair, Swann has demonstrated her adaptability. 

There is much work still to be done between now and the Olympic Games but Swann admits that, at times, she allows her thoughts to drift towards what she could possibly achieve, particularly when she is almost certain this will be her last tilt at Olympic glory. 

“Rowing is the passion of my life but my body’s getting old now, I think this will be my last Olympics,” she says. 

“The plan is to get gold. I’d be lying if I said gold wasn’t the aim.  

“Some weeks I’ll be really focused on it and then other weeks, I’ll just take things day by day. 

“This is my last chance to win Olympic gold and I do dream about it but you just have to keep your feet on the ground and think about the process of getting there.”