Helen Glover is one of Great Britain’s most decorated Olympians. She won a gold medal in the women’s coxless pair with Heather Stanning at London 2012 and repeated the achievement in Rio in 2016. She retired, married the naturalist and television presenter Steve Backshall and had three children. Then, when the pandemic delayed the 2020 Olympics, she decided to get back in the boat.
Glover, 35, wanted to become the first woman to return to the sport after having children and make it to the Olympic rowing team. ‘This is a little full-on, even for you,’ Backshall told her. She was selected for the women’s coxless pair again and when the Games begin this week, she is set to be one of the faces of Team GB.
This interview is not about her.
Polly Swann on duty at St John’s Hospital (left) and Helen Glover with her three children (right)
This is about another remarkable athlete, another inspiring woman. This is about the rower who sits in front of Glover in their boat, Polly Swann.
Even though a lot of attention will focus the other half of the pair, Swann’s road to Tokyo tells you everything you need to know about why the Olympics and so many of the people who compete in them capture our imagination and our admiration.
Swann, 33, also took time out from the sport after she won a silver medal in the women’s eight in Rio. She completed her medical degree at the University of Edinburgh in 2019 and then fought her way back into the team only for the Olympics to be postponed in March 2020 when the pandemic struck.
Swann felt a powerful calling to help and when she saw appeals on the television news for retired doctors and medical students to step up, she volunteered immediately.
She applied for a role as a Foundation Interim doctor, a newly created tier of medical professional designed to ease pressure on the NHS as wards began to be overwhelmed.
She was accepted and four days later started work as a doctor at St John’s Hospital in Livingston, West Lothian, about 20 miles west of Edinburgh.
‘It was fast learning and we got chucked in at the deep end,’ said Swann. ‘But it was great.’
Having expected to start her career as a junior doctor after Tokyo 2020, she found herself on the front line.
Polly Swann (right) has reunited with Helen Glover in a bid to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics
The Olympics had been taken away but now she was part of a team again. ‘I think that is why I enjoyed it so much,’ she said. ‘What I struggled with during the early part of lockdown, when I wasn’t working, was that feeling of isolation. I found it really hard to motivate myself to train, even getting out of bed.
‘I was thinking “what’s the point?” The Olympics had been postponed. Every day bled into the last. Then, when I went to work in the hospital, suddenly you are having to problem solve and get the best out of the other doctors, nurses, physios, micro- biologists, whoever it is, you are all working as this huge team, all for the benefit of your patient.
‘OK it’s different to being in a rowing squad. Performance in medicine is patient care and welfare and you extrapolate that to sport and everybody is working to get that performance, which is hopefully a medal at the Olympics.
‘So the way that you communicate, work together and get the best out of each other is really similar. That’s probably why I could contribute because I had a lot of those skills already from rowing.
‘To experience a hospital in a pandemic — the camaraderie of it is heightened. You could feel everyone was looking out for each other because there was something more important than just your bubble.
‘It was tough, especially for the guys in the ICU, who are there for hours in a bubble and hardly able to drink and dealing with really, really sick patients and having to have hard conversations.
‘Knowing that the rest of the hospital had their back was huge.
‘You could feel everyone was rooting for each other. I’m not saying it’s just a British thing but I think it is a British thing to show that grit and that in hard times you do come together. You could see it and feel it everywhere.
Swann also took time out from rowing after she won a silver medal in the women’s eight in Rio
‘It was quite special. People who were known for being a bit egotistical were putting their best foot forward. There was a change, for sure. It was a privilege working with the other staff at St John’s. They are phenomenal, what they do day in and day out. I felt very honoured to be part of that team.’
Swann, those who know her say, is a joy to be around. She spreads positivity whenever she talks, even when she is laughing about the bags she has under her eyes because she has been training so hard.
She even has a sense of humour about losing her place in the coxless pair alongside Glover in 2014 after they had won gold at the 2013 World Championships. ‘I got beaten, basically,’ said Swann. ‘We had some testing at the start of 2014 and Heather Stanning gave me a good shoeing.’
Nobody was going to oust Swann this time, though. She and Glover have come full circle, reunited at a time in their lives when both have a wider perspective on sport and its importance.
‘When I returned to the sport a year before Helen I didn’t think she would come back into the team,’ said Swann. ‘When she did, probably neither of us thought we would get to row together because the trajectory she was on might have led to a different discipline.’
Swann added: ‘When we got to go out in a pair, it was almost like a fluke occurrence last March.
‘When I heard she was coming back, I kept badgering my coach — “Come on then, when are we going to get the old girls back in the pair?”
‘I think it’s great that rowing has got a bit of something different to talk about. Our story together, both of us have shown you can skin a cat in different ways. You can go about it in your own way, you can come out of sport and come back.
‘Especially for women, that’s a huge thing. To go away and have three kids or to go away, get your medical degree and work in a pandemic and come back. People just don’t talk about that sort of thing because they just didn’t think it was possible because no one had ever done it before successfully.
Golver, 35, is set to be one of the faces of Team GB after remarkable comeback
‘So it’s great that we’re getting this interest. I wouldn’t say it puts pressure on us because our own internal pressure is probably greater. We are very determined, fiery, passionate people so the fact people are interested in stories probably builds you up a bit more.
‘We are almost doing it for other women out there, other people in the nation who look at us and think “I want to do that one day”. I never thought I would be sitting in that place. It is an honour.’
Swann is proud of the silver medal she won in Rio, but the thought of winning gold with Glover in Tokyo Bay drives her on as she prepares to say goodbye to the sport again and start as a Foundation Doctor at Borders General Hospital, south of Edinburgh, next month.
‘Winning gold is the reason I get up every morning,’ she said. ‘I know I’m good enough to win. The stars have to align. Every day I wake up, every day Helen wakes up, that’s our mission. Mission Gold. I think saying it is really important as well. This is what we want to achieve. It puts a line in the sand.
‘Who knows what is going to happen? We have to respect our competitors but if you don’t put yourselves out there you are never going to achieve.
‘I do know that I came back from working in St John’s with this freshness. I am so lucky to go and try and be the best in the world at the sport I love. You can get a little bit fixated on performance sport and how important it is, but actually it is a massive privilege.
‘We had a meeting the other day and I got a bit emotional and started crying about how much I love the sport. It’s true. I’ve done this for two decades.
‘It’s something unreal that I’ve dreamed of as a kid. I really am relishing every moment because I have only got a few moments left of my rowing career and I want to make them count.’