Tokyo 2020: Tom Dean overcomes Covid twice before beating friend Duncan Scott to Olympic gold

‘When I was sitting in my flat in isolation, Olympic gold seemed like a million miles off,’ Dean said after pipping friend Duncan Scott to 200m freestyle victory in a stunning one-two for Team GB

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Tuesday 27 July 2021 14:43 BST
Duncan Scott and Tom Dean celebrate their medals
Duncan Scott and Tom Dean celebrate their medals (AP)

Another day in the pool, another set of medals for Great Britain. A high-quality men’s 200m freestyle saw Maidenhead’s Tom Dean take gold, leaving silver for Glasgow’s Duncan Scott in a breathless finish that went down to the final strokes.

Such was their dominance over the rest of the field that Fernando Schaffer of Brazil in third was indulged in his own battle to keep bronze away from Romania’s David Popovici. The British one-two was on the cards once Scott kicked on from sixth at the halfway stage and Dean turned up the dial in the last 50m after holding third. The latter had enough to pull ahead and maintain his lead, even if it was just 0.04 seconds in the end.

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It caps off a quite remarkable 12 months for Dean, who contracted Covid-19 twice: first in September and then in January. The latter was the more serious – not life-threatening but debilitating enough to wear down an athlete a few months away from his 21st birthday.

The severity of his condition meant he went from a routine of nine or 10 sessions a week to almost two months out of the pool during the most demanding period of any athlete’s Olympic cycle. Forced to stay at home, and with the recovery period uncertain, there was ample time to worry about not being in this venue at all, let alone as the victor.

“When I was sitting in my flat in isolation, Olympic gold seemed like a million miles off,” he recalled. “But here we are.”

You have to go back to 1908 for the first time Britain managed a one-two in the pool, when Henry Taylor and Thomas Battersby achieved the feat, in that order. Their race took place in an open-air pool, slap bang in the middle of the running track at White City Stadium, London.

Thankfully, that was not the case in Tokyo, where monsoon-shadowing rains were drenching the rest of the city. Nevertheless, these two Brits whipped up a storm of their own.

The last 25m were just them and, for all Scott’s belligerence in the chase, there was not enough pool remaining to catch the leader. Such is the familiarity between the two that Scott, in lane four, spotted Dean (lane six) out of the corner of his eye on the back straight. “Big arms, Deano,” quipped Scott. “I probably had to be several metres in front to touch him out.”

Their bond is reminiscent of all the great individual event double-acts: a genuine friendship out of happenstance rather than convenience, and a professional rivalry that benefits both. Not only did they resister personal bests (PB) on Tuesday, but these were also the two fastest 200m freestyle swims in British history.

This result is more or less how it has been over the last few months. Scott pipped Dean by five-hundredths of a second in March’s British Swim Invitation, before they both separately dipped under the 200m freestyle national record at the British Swimming Selection Trials. A month later, Scott took silver and Dean took bronze in European Aquatics Championships which served as the last competitive tune-up before the Games.

As such, Scott was the favourite coming into this race. And though being beaten by a mate softens the blow, the personal pride will have been stung, even if he did not show it beyond an ironic, “yeah, thanks mate!” when he was reminded he had the best view in the house for Dean’s emotional reaction to wearing gold from his second-best-step on the podium.

“I’ve looked up to him for a long time,” said Dean of Scott. “He’s been at the forefront of 200m freestyle and plenty of other events in GB for so long. So to share a pool and a podium with him is amazing.”

They are flatmates over in the Olympic Village, playing cards, watching films, chatting rubbish. All the things that make quarantine that little bit better for the both of them.

“I’m buzzing for Deano,” effused Scott. “He’s had a really strange 18 months with Covid twice and a monster PB at trials but to see him move it on again and win gold is phenomenal.

“There’s plenty of things I think I could have done better which I’ll be able to look out and go over but yeah I’m really happy with that.”

Swimming was Great Britain’s ace coming into these Games, and only now is it becoming evident to the rest of the world just how many aces they have up their sleeves. Adam Peaty, crown defended on Monday morning, was cheering on his teammates 24 hours on. This was the latest flex, specifically of Team GB’s incredible depth in the freestyle event. It was no surprise they doubled the medal haul from the pool in just one race, or that they fancy themselves in the 4x200m final on Wednesday.

“With the way we were able to swim that race and both PB I think that puts us in a great spot,” said Scott. “But we can’t get complacent, because we swam well individually, that sort of means nothing from now on.

“Australia are world champions, you can never write the USA off (defending Olympic champions). Russia are looking really strong and Italy were really good at worlds.”

Just like that, they were back into competition mode. Scott laughed when asked if he would divulge who would be the four to take part in the 4x200m heats on Tuesday evening. As Dean’s press engagement was winding down, he used a question about the prospect of another title to style out an exit: “Yes, the relays are coming up, which is why I need to go!” With that, he has whisked away.

That’s how it is when you’re an exceptional swimmer in the first week of Olympic competition. The races just keep coming. And after this one-two, Team GB are eyeing up a knockout blow.

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