What a difference six months makes.
In January 2021, Tom Dean was sat at home feeling sorry himself and not without good reason – he had just contracted COVID-19 for the second time.
As starts to an Olympic year go, spending seven weeks being unable to train is about as bad as it gets and the prospect of climbing the podium at Tokyo 2020 appeared laughable.
Yet fast-forward to July and the 21-year-old from Maidenhead was rewriting British swimming history, tearing up the record books and, most importantly, wearing an Olympic gold medal round his neck – almost exactly 24 hours after Adam Peaty had done the same.
So remarkable was his victory in the men’s 200m freestyle, where he out-touched teammate and good friend Duncan Scott at the wall – leaving the Scot with a third Olympic silver – that you had to go back to pre-World War I for comparisons.
Last time at least two British swimmers left a single Olympics with gold? 1912. Last time Team GB recorded a swimming one-two at the Games? 1908. The last time a British man won Olympic individual freestyle gold over any distance? Also 1908.
This is the point where it’s worth a reminder that not six months before, Dean was laid up with Covid.
“It’s amazing, a dream come true to wear an Olympic gold medal around my neck and to go one-two with another Brit on the podium,” said a still shell-shocked Dean afterwards.
“I contracted COVID-19 twice in the last 12 months, I had six or seven weeks out during an Olympic year which is almost unheard of.
“I had COVID-19 in September and the New Year. The first time wasn’t too bad. The second time I did the full isolation period, I wasn’t able to train and it was a slow build back into training.
“It was a very bumpy ride this season.
“When I was sitting in my flat in isolation, an Olympic gold seemed a million miles off. But my coach (Dave McNulty) brought me round and it’s all come together.”
As an Olympic champion, life will change overnight for Dean. In fact, given his Tokyo victory came at 3am BST, it may have radically altered by the time the UK wakes up.
For example, what to do about a degree that you took a sabbatical from to focus on the Games?
“I was doing Mechanical Engineering at Bath and I’ve just put my studies on hold for the Olympics,” explained Team GB’s newest gold medallist.
“I was going to resume them in September – this [pointing at medal] may have changed my plan slightly…”
Dean took up swimming at the age of eight and with Beijing 2008 as his first Olympic memory, American legend Michael Phelps was unsurprisingly his inspiration.
It took just 13 years for those childhood dreams of winning Olympic gold to become reality, with the only slight negative being the absence of loved ones in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre to cheer him home, due to Covid protocols.
“I was emotional because I couldn’t look into the stands to see my family and friends, and girlfriend,” he admitted. “That was what made it quite tough but I know they’ll have been watching at home.”
And watching at home they were. A video of his friends and family roaring him on in the middle of the night back in Maidenhead swept social media and the raw emotion of the moment couldn’t fail to tug on the heartstrings – showing exactly what the Olympic Games means to so many.
However, one good friend was with Dean in Tokyo, standing next to him on the podium in fact, as Scott followed up double relay silver at Rio 2016 with a first individual Olympic medal.
“Duncan and I are great mates” added Dean. “He’s an absolute class act, I’ve looked up to him for a long time.
“He’s been the forefront in the 200m freestyle and lots of other events for Great Britain for so long. To share a pool and the podium together is amazing.
“We’re sharing a flat together in the village and it’s just a good laugh, it’s been really relaxed and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
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