Tokyo Olympics: Inspired by Michael Phelps, how Tom Dean twice overcame Covid to be crowned Olympic champion

·4 min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

At the Covid Games, Tom Dean, a swimmer twice beset by the virus in the past year, recovered to win gold.

Where Adam Peaty’s gold a day earlier was expected, Dean’s was not and even he didn’t quite believe it after the race was run, wide-eyed, speechless and emotional.

The form book suggested the gold would be looped over the head of his Tokyo flatmate Duncan Scott, the margin of victory – four hundredths of a second – highlighting the fine line between Olympic glory and despair.

But it was not just the form book that wasn’t in Dean’s favour, as Covid-19 struck him twice: first in September and again in the new year just weeks away from the Olympic trials.

As he sat with the gold around his neck, he admitted he feared he would miss the team altogether, let alone have aspirations to emulate Michael Phelps, the swimmer who had inspired him as an eight-year-old while on holiday during the Beijing Olympics.

And yet he recovered in time. His former training partner Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, herself no stranger to injury having retired on the eve of the Games amid her ongoing battle with colitis, described him as the most talented swimmer she’d ever seen.

The coolest too on the evidence of this 200metre freestyle final, undeterred by Hwang Sunwoo going off in the lane outside him like an exocet missile.

At the 50m mark he was second, by halfway he had dropped a place and he remained in third spot until the dying moments of an energy-sapping race to get the touch ahead of Scott.

Not since the 1908 Games had Britain had two medallists on the same Olympic podium, While unaware of the history making, Dean fully embraced the magnitude of what he had achieved on a journey that had begun in Maidenhead and seen him relocated to Bath to prepare for the biggest stage of all in Tokyo.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s a dream come true to wear an Olympic gold around my neck. Going one-two with another Brit on the podium what more could you ask for?”

You couldn’t help but feel for Scott. This was his best event, he had gone into it as the world No1 and fastest qualifier. Along with the silver, the other consolation is he has more events to come in Japan and habitually gets better as a swim meet progresses.

But he was gracious in defeat. “Just a massive credit to Tom Dean, that was unbelievable,” he said. “Olympic champion – he’s come along so far in the last 18 months, it’s a pleasure to watch. It’s great to say he’s a mate out of the pool.”

In their Tokyo apartment, they have made a convivial atmosphere, helped by playing cards and watching films along with the likes of James Guy, Dean’s training partner who appeared to be in tears watching in the stands.

Guy knew all too well what Dean had been through. To be struck down by Covid in the build-up to an Olympics is bad enough, to have it twice he could be forgiven for feeling cursed.

“The second time was much worse than the first – about 10 days,” he said. “It required a few weeks to build back up and I was two or three weeks from the Olympic trials stuck inside, unable to exercise in my own flat.

“I had a few frank conversations with members of staff to talk about swimming coming back from previous injuries. This wasn’t so clear cut. I was one of the first athletes in British sport to get Covid twice in such a short period of time. How am I going to recover in time?”

His coach Dave McNulty persuaded the mechanical engineer not to hit the panic button, and build back up. He made it through the rounds in the trials, likewise in Tokyo and finally onto the top step of the podium.

In the aftermath, he relived his swim life in Olympic cycles: watching Phelps on TV in 2008, being inside London Aquatics Centre as a spectator in his home Games and hearing tales from training partners about brushing shoulders with the greatest swimmer of all time at the Rio Games.

In Tokyo, he was a worthy successor in an event in which Phelps still holds the Olympic record. And what of Paris in three years’ time? Having beaten Covid and now the rest of the world, anything seems possible.

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