09:00AM, Friday 12 June 2020
Maidenhead swimmer Tom Dean was in the form of his life when he returned from a training camp in Australia in the middle of March, and was looking forward to qualifying to represent Team GB at the summer Olympics in Tokyo. Then lockdown happened and he wasn’t able to get back in the pool for 10 weeks.
The 19-year-old had put his studies at Bath University on hold while he concentrated on making the Great Britain team for the Olympics and was posting his fastest ever times, having celebrated a silver medal in the 400m freestyle at the Europeans in December.
This was going to be a summer that the former Maidenhead Marlins swimmer would relish – and potentially remember for the rest of his life – but COVID-19 has put paid to that, at least for the time being anyway.
Tom was tapering down for the GB trials in April when the pandemic started to take hold in the UK, and a few days of rest from training at home quickly turned into 10 weeks. Pools across the country were closed down and he was forced to train at his gym at home and get out on the bike to keep himself in shape.
In the past couple of weeks he and his teammates have been able to return to the pool at the National Training Centre in Bath but it’s going to be a long road back to full fitness. He says it feels like he’s learning how to swim all over again.
“It’s been really tough,” he said.
“We can’t do what a lot of other sports have been doing. Swimming demands many hours in the pool every week and I’m at an age now when training has really been shifting on.
“To go from 25 hours in the pool a week to zero is such a massive jump and you lose your feel for the water so quickly. The phrase ‘you take a day out of the water and it takes two to get back’ is thrown around a lot. We’ve had 10 weeks out. It’s such a massive shift. The coaches don’t know how to deal with it, my coach has been on Olympic teams since the early 2000s and he’s never experienced anything like this.
“Getting back into training has required a huge amount of planning and thought as to how we approach it.”
Ten weeks is the longest Tom’s ever been out of the water since he took up the sport aged eight. British Swimming were able to provide him with a static ‘endless pool’, but the 19-year-old admits it still feels like he’s lost the feel for the water over the past couple of months. The postponement of the Olympic Games initially hit Tom pretty hard, but he’s now looking to spin that disappointment into a positive and hopes to be in an even stronger position to challenge for medals when the games roll around again in 13 months time.
“It’s a tough one because, with swimming, the Olympics is the pinnacle of four years training,” he said. “The Olympics is the highlight of people’s careers and they might be lucky to get to go to two of them in their career span and a lot of them only get to go to one. Myself, personally, I was doing a degree at university last year which I’ve had to put on hold to put all my time and energy into my training.
“So when it got called off and it was taken away from me it was quite tough to come to terms with. I was hoping to qualify for my first Olympic team and then race in the summer in Tokyo. It was all heading in the right direction.
“To go to the games and represent Team GB was an exciting prospect in itself. I was hoping to be part of our 4x200m relay team, which is such a strong event for us. I had already posted a time this year individually which was quicker than the time I’ve done in the relay and relay splits are always quicker than individual swims.
“So that was a big step in the right direction for myself and the team. I still think we’ll be a big strong force next summer and hopefully we can secure medals just like the guys did in Rio when I wasn’t there.
“But alongside that my individual events had started to move on as well.
“This season I got silver at the Europeans in the 400m in December, my first international individual medal so that was really exciting.
“My coach is hopeful I can put in some big, individual swims and secure my place on the team in April 2021.
“We’re now trying to put a positive spin on it a little bit by saying ‘ok, we’ve got more time to prepare and for me, being one of the younger members of the team, an extra year of training is only going to do me good’.
“It’s not like I’m at the end of my career when a break like this would not really benefit me. I’m hoping I can come back stronger next year.”
The last 10 weeks have been difficult for Tom, but everyone from Team GB has ‘been in the same boat’. That’s not quite been the case across the world, however, with rivals from Australia and America posting videos and photos of themselves back in the pool.
Tom is now building back up to where he was before lockdown started in March. It’ll be a slow process, but he’s got plenty of time with competitions not likely to start again for many months.
“Lockdown was much, much longer than we were expecting,” he said. “We couldn’t train, all the pools were shut across the country, we had no access whatsoever. It was a really strange period because we were all in he best shape coming back from the camp in Australia. It was a big thing to get your head around and I struggled with it a little bit at the start.
"But then I started doing some gym sessions and I’d go out for cycle rides, just trying to keep fit as best as I could with no access to a pool. I was lucky enough to be given a static endless pool just to get some feel back for the water.
“But it was tough, because I was seeing photographs on Instagram of people in America and Australia, two of our biggest rivals in swimming, getting back in the water before we were. And that made it even more frustrating. An extra week isn’t going to make a world of difference when we’re still 13/14 months away from the games but it’s still annoying knowing these are the guys you’re going to be stepping up onto the blocks next to, knowing they’ve got an extra week or two in the bank over you.
"Lockdown hasn’t been the same for everyone across the world, but the good news is everyone in the UK is in the same boat and they are the guys I’m going to be racing against to get my spot on the team next April.”
He added: “It’s a slow process because we’ve been out of the water for so long. It’s just a gradual build up because we’ve got such a long time before we race again. It seems competitions won’t be back for some time so we’re fortunate in that respect and we don’t have to rush things.
“Feel for the water in swimming is such a huge thing. It can be tough sometimes to explain this to a non swimmer, but when you’re in the depths of hard training it just feels so natural. You don’t have to think about it. It may not look any different to an outside observer but it feels like I’m almost learning to swim all over again.
“It’s just so weird. But the good news is it’s definitely coming back.
“By the end of last week I felt much better and by the end of next week I’ll feel better still.”
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