Olympics: Union Canal gave rower Swann her first dip in water

Polly Swann never knew a school outing could lead to the biggest trip of her life when she was coaxed into giving rowing a crack on the Union Canal one afternoon, thinking it would be all plain sailing.
Polly Swann has battled an injury to her back to win a place as a member of the womens GB eight teamPolly Swann has battled an injury to her back to win a place as a member of the womens GB eight team
Polly Swann has battled an injury to her back to win a place as a member of the womens GB eight team

The former George Heriot’s College pupil had never been near a rowing boat before. The idea held some appeal but it wasn’t as if she was aching to take the plunge.

She recounts: “I was talking to my Mum about it the other day. I remember the first race really vividly. I was in S3 at school so I must have been 14. One of my old coaches took us out and we were just a group of gawky kids. He got us to look at this long wooden thing and said we’d be going rowing with them. And then they had these massive boats that we had to pick up.”

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It looked like a breeze. It was anything but, she now recalls.

“They were full of Polyfilla and we had to get them onto the water. I’d no idea what to expect.

“I’d done a bit of sailing as a kid but I thought I’d give this rowing a go. It’ll be nice and gentle and be lovely. And that couldn’t have been further from the truth.”

Sometimes, from the unexpected comes the unimaginable. Almost 15 years on, the oarswoman has gone from the canal to Copacabana as she prepares to make her Olympic debut on Monday as part of the British women’s eights.

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A world champion in the pairs in 2013 with Olympic gold medallist Helen Glover, Swann has made herself into an indispensable all-rounder since switching back into the larger boat in 2014, helping to land the European title earlier this year to lay down a marker for Rio.

It’s taken an exhaustive training schedule at the Leander Club in London where the 28-year-old is now based alongside Capital crew-mate Karen Bennett, especially due to the back injury that has left the Scot battling through pain and in need of regular treatment to prevent her hopes from sinking fast.

In 2012, she made her charge for an Olympic berth late on. There were no real expectations. It seemed a long shot.

“But then I made the team, I was in the eight, and then picked up the injury. It was early in the season, about May. So I was out of it for quite a long time.”

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Watching on as a spectator didn’t feel like the end of the world, she felt. “I could in some way resolve that it wasn’t my year so I had a couple of months to prepare.”

However, when the Games arrived and London was lit up by medals galore – including in the rowing – the enormity of what she’d missed out on hit home.

And she said: “I went to watch some of the rowing and I did find it very difficult. I don’t think I realise how much it had hit me until I went.”

There was a real risk Rio would come and go without her when her back let her down last summer and forced her on to dry land. It’s taken more rehab than she’ll ever want to remember to ensure she’ll line up next week with a real shot at glory.

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“It’s the way I’ve managed to look after it through this year with the help of the team doctor and physios that’s got me here,” she confirmed.

After persistence paid off, and the sweat and toil was worth the pain, why stop now?

“I think we can win this,” Swann laughs. “Some people might thing differently but I believe we can.”