Polly Swann is the Covid doctor to be reunited with mother of three Helen Glover in a bid for gold in Tokyo
Helen Glover is one of Britain’s most decorated Olympians. She won a gold medal in the women’s rudderless pair with Heather Stanning in London 2012 and repeated the feat in Rio in 2016.
She retired, married naturalist and TV host Steve Backshall, and had three children. 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 reach the Olympic rowing team. “This is a bit complete, even for you,” Backshall told her. She was again selected for the women’s rudderless pair and when the Games start this week, she will 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.
While there will be a lot of focus on the other half of the couple, Swann’s road to Tokyo tells you everything you need to know about why the Olympics and so many of the people who participate in it capture our imagination and 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 from the University of Edinburgh in 2019 and then fought her way back into the team to postpone the March 2020 Olympics when the pandemic hit.
Swann felt a powerful calling to help and when she saw calls on the television news for retired doctors and medical students to act, she immediately volunteered.
She applied for a role as the Foundation’s interim physician, a newly created medical professional designed to relieve pressure on the NHS when wards became overwhelmed.
She was accepted and four days later she started working as a doctor at St John’s Hospital in Livingston, West Lothian, about 20 miles west of Edinburgh.
“It was quick learning and we were thrown in at the deep end,” Swann said. “But it was great.”
Expecting to start her career as a doctor in training after Tokyo 2020, she found herself on the front line.
Polly Swann (right) reunites 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’s why I liked it so much,” she said. “What I struggled with at the start of the lockdown, when I was not working, was that sense of isolation. I found it very difficult to motivate myself to exercise, even when I got out of bed.
‘I thought ‘what’s the point?’ The Olympics had been postponed. Every day bled to the last. When I went to work in the hospital, you suddenly had to solve problems and make the most of the other doctors, nurses, physios, microbiologists, whoever it is, you all work as this huge team, all for the benefit of your patient.
“Okay, it’s different from being on a rowing crew. Achievement in medicine is patient care and well-being and you extrapolate that to sports and everyone is working towards achieving that feat, which is hopefully a medal in the Olympics.
“So the way you communicate, collaborate and get the best out of each other are very similar. That’s probably why I was able to contribute, because I already had a lot of those skills from rooting.
“To experience a hospital in a pandemic – its camaraderie is heightened. You felt that everyone was looking at each other because there was something more important than just your bubble.
“It was tough, especially for the guys in the ICU, who sit there for hours in a bubble and can barely drink and deal with really, really sick patients and have to have hard conversations.
“Knowing that the rest of the hospital was behind them was huge.
‘You could feel that everyone was there for each other. I’m not saying it’s just a British thing, but I think it’s a British thing to show that guts and come together in difficult times. You could see and feel it everywhere.
Swann also took time out from rowing after winning a silver medal in the women’s eight in Rio
‘It was quite special. People who were known to be a little selfish put their best foot forward. There was a change, for sure. It was a privilege to work with the other staff at St John’s. They are phenomenal, what they do day in and day out. I felt very honored to be part of that team.”
Swann, say those who know her, is a joy to be around. She spreads positivity when she talks, even when she laughs at the bags under her eyes from training so hard.
She even has a sense of humor about losing her place in the rudderless pair alongside Glover in 2014 after they won gold at the 2013 World Championships. “I’m actually smitten,” Swann said. “We did some testing in early 2014 and Heather Stanning shook me up.”
No one would drive Swann out this time, however. She and Glover have come full circle, reuniting at a time in their lives when both have a broader perspective on sport and its importance.
“When I returned to the sport a year before Helen, I didn’t think she would come back to the team,” Swann said. “When she did that, neither of us probably thought we would row together, because the trajectory she was taking might have led to a different discipline.”
Swann added: ‘When the two of us were allowed out, it was almost a fluke last March.
“When I heard she was coming back, I kept pestering my coach, ‘Come on, when do we get the old girls back in the pair?’
“I love that rowing has something else to talk about. Our story together, we both showed that you can skin a cat in different ways. You can do it your way, you can get out of the sport and come back.
‘It’s a huge thing, especially for women. To leave and have three children or to leave, get your medical degree and work in a pandemic and come back. People just don’t talk about that stuff because they thought it wasn’t possible because no one had ever done it successfully before.
Glover, 35, becomes one of the faces of Team GB after a 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 that people are interested in stories probably builds you up a bit more.
“We’re almost doing it for other women out there, other people in the nation who look at us and think, ‘I want to do that someday.’ I never thought I’d be in that place. It is an honor.’
Swann is proud of the silver medal she won in Rio, but the thought of winning gold with Glover in Tokyo Bay drives her as she prepares to say goodbye to the sport again and start as a Foundation Doctor in the 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 must line up. Every day I wake up, every day Helen wakes up, that’s our mission. Mission Gold. I think it’s also very important to say it. This is what we want to achieve. It puts a line in the sand.
‘Who knows what’s going to happen? We have to respect our competitors, but if you don’t put yourself out there, you will never achieve anything.
‘I do know that I came back from working at St John’s with this freshness. I’m so lucky to go and try to be the best in the world at the sport I love. You can get a little fixated on performance sports and how important it is, but actually it’s a huge privilege.
“Recently we had a meeting and I got a little emotional and started crying about how much I love the sport. It’s true. I’ve been doing this for two decades.
“It’s something unreal that I dreamed of as a child. I really enjoy every moment because I only have a few moments left from my rowing career and I want to make them count.’