Great Scot(t): Duncan Scott Standing and Soaring in the Pool

duncan scott
Duncan Scott competing at the International Swim League final in Las Vegas -- Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

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Duncan Scott (from July’s Swimming World Magazine)

Scotland’s Duncan Scott should be an Olympic medal threat next year in the 100 and 200 free and maybe even the 200 IM, and he will be a key cog for British 800 free and 400 medley relays with gold medal aspirations.


In a period of unprecedented international success for the British men’s swim team, Duncan Scott has been right at the heart of the successful surge, alongside breaststroke superstar Adam Peaty and fellow freestyler James Guy. And during his second FINA World Championships in Gwangju in 2019, Scott experienced a crushing setback, a monumental breakthrough and a full-scale international incident, covering the entire gamut of swimming-related emotions—all within one week in late July.


Duncan Scott — Photo Courtesy: Scottish Swimming

When Scott finished the 200 free final, none could have blamed him for a feeling of déjà vu. Two years earlier at the World Championships in Budapest, Scott swam a lifetime best of 1:45.16 in the semifinals to earn the top seed for the final, only to swim slower and finish a narrow fourth in the finals. In between World Championships appearances, he would capture gold in the event at the 2018 European Championships, and he finished the year ranked No. 2 in the world.

But in the Gwangju final, he never got going at full speed, and he couldn’t keep pace with the late surges of the top three finishers, Lithuania’s Danas Rapsys, China’s Sun Yang and Japan’s Katsuhiro Matsumoto. Scott finished 4-tenths back, tied with Russia’s Martin Malyutin at 1:45.63.

“It was a huge disappointment because I felt amazing in the semifinal,” Scott said. “I felt really positive going into it. Initially, I think you look at your time and obviously your placing as well, and I was gutted with both, to be honest. Joint fourth, and it wasn’t even a good time in joint fourth.”

But moments later, the scoreboard changed, and Rapsys was disqualified for movement on his start. That bumped Scott (and Malyutin) up to the bronze medal. And suddenly, the emotions swung: “I was delighted with my first Worlds individual medal…and a bronze one,” Scott said.

Duncan Scott’s Silent Protest

Even at that point, the evening was only getting started. As Sun climbed the top step of the podium to receive his gold, he shouted and pointed at Scott, and after receiving his medal on the awards platform, Scott refused to pose for photos with the other medalists. He congratulated both Malyutin and Matsumoto, but he would not acknowledge Sun. Scott was protesting Sun’s dismal record with the anti-doping system, likely believing that Sun did not deserve to be competing at all in Gwangju.

Sun had been previously suspended for an infraction in 2014, but the story was covered up until his surprisingly short three-month suspension had ended. And then, during a 2018 out-of-competition test, Sun questioned the credentials of his testers and ordered his security team to smash a blood sample he had already given.

However, FINA refused to penalize Sun for the 2018 incident, and although the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed that decision through the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the case would not be adjudicated until February 2020. Sun would end up receiving a massive eight-year ban from swimming, but in Gwangju, he was still free to compete. On the first day of the meet, Australia’s Mack Horton refused to take the medal stand after the 400 free in protest of his Chinese rival, and Scott followed suit in the 200.


Stand-off: Britain’s Duncan Scott, right, refuses to pose with Sun Yang, flanked by Katsuhiro Matsumoto, left, and Martin Malyutin, after the 200m free medals ceremony — Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

Scott’s protest was silent, and he refused to acknowledge Sun’s taunts, even as an angry Sun got in his face and barked, “You loser. I am winner.” Scott simply smiled as the crowd cheered in approval of his actions. Other swimmers, including breaststroke superstar Peaty, proclaimed their approval, but Scott stayed mostly silent on his reasoning behind his actions. FINA ended up sending written warnings to both swimmers for “inadequate behavior” and “for bringing the aquatics sport and/or FINA into disrepute.”

Even so, Scott won a clear victory in the heart of public opinion. Most viewed his behavior as not only appropriate, but warranted, given Sun’s history. Since Sun received his ban, Scott has declined comment on the situation, but he did issue a statement that read: “I fully respect and support the decision that has been made and announced by the Court of Arbitration for Sport…. I believe in clean sport and a level playing field for all athletes, and I trust in CAS and WADA to uphold these values.”

Filling Out His Individual Résumé

Scott first earned the swimming world’s attention at the Rio Olympics, when he swam in a non-seeded heat of the 100 free and ended up cranking out a 48.01, which ended up as the third-fastest time of the prelims. That evening, he swam the second leg of Britain’s 800 free relay and posted the third-fastest split of the entire event, helping his team to win a silver medal. Scott went on to finish fifth in the 100 free and anchor the medley relay to another silver. Led by Scott and Guy, the 2016 Olympics marked the first time ever that Britain won medals in two different men’s relays.

As Scott filled out his individual résumé over the next few years, he appeared secure as an archetypical 100-200 freestyler, but at the 2019 World Championships, the morning after his 200 free bronze and subsequent podium incident, he scratched the 100 free and instead showed up to swim the 200 IM.


Duncan Scott swimming the 200 IM at the 2019 FINA World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

He had won the Commonwealth Games gold in the 100 free in 2018, taking down reigning Olympic champion Kyle Chalmers in the process, while his 200 IM international experience consisted of one swim at the 2018 European Championships. He had not been one of the top two British swimmers in the prelims at that meet, so he did not advance to the semifinals. So in Gwangju, his decision seemed puzzling.

“I guess that’s a funny one, looking back on the meet as a whole now,” Scott said. “My idea was, if I was wanting to do the 200 IM at the Trials the next year and it went well, then Olympics will be the first time that I’d ever swum it internationally at that level. The idea behind it was, if I’m able to go through the rounds, I’ll get experience in what it feels like, what the final is like and experience these things for the first time. 100 free: I (had) done the Olympics. I did 2016, 2017, 2018…I (had) done every single individual final there was. My experience in that event is really high, so I just thought that I would prioritize the 200 IM and see what I’m able to do.”

During his early teenage years, Scott had considered the 400 IM his specialty event before he gravitated toward the sprints. “Oh, I’m gutted about that!” Scott joked regarding his event transition. In the 200 IM, Scott thinks he has good speed, a strong butterfly and an excellent closing freestyle leg, but he admitted that his turns, his breaststroke kick and his entire backstroke swim could still use some work.

But despite those imperfections and his lack of experience, Scott did advance through the rounds of the 200 IM, and he pumped out a respectable fifth-place finish in the final, finishing just 13-hundredths outside of the medals.

Special Moment for Duncan Scott

In the meet’s final men’s event, as Scott took over from Guy to anchor Great Britain’s men’s 400 medley relay, it seemed apparent that the British squad was resigned to their standard position on a lower medal podium. On the strength of Peaty’s typically otherworldly breaststroke split, the British men had briefly held the lead, but American butterflyer Caeleb Dressel established a seemingly decisive lead of more than a second.

The British had finished second behind the Americans at both the 2016 Olympics and 2017 World Championships, with Scott on both occasions swimming the final leg against veteran American sprinter Nathan Adrian. But this time, after 300 meters, the British were not even in second place.

“I’ve been in that position a couple times, where I’ve gone in slightly behind,” Scott said. “I guess the different scenario this time was that I was in the lane next to the people I was chasing. In my head, I didn’t actually see the Russians (in second place) one lane over from the Americans. In my head, it was just a one v(ersus) one sort of thing. I was just looking at the Americans.”

Scott intentionally went for an aggressive relay takeover, jumping just 7-hundredths after Guy touched the wall, and he immediately shifted toward the lane line to “try to get some sort of wave, some sort of ride on the way out. Because I breathe slightly in front, I thought I was on his hip, but I think I was a little further behind than that. I was just chasing. I guess feelings went out the window.”


Duncan Scott (left) celebrates with Adam Peaty after Great Britain won the 2019 world title in the men’s 400 medley relay Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

And Scott, the 22-year-old from Glasgow, Scotland, kept gaining ground on the 30-year old Adrian. He had just been a teenager seven years earlier when Adrian traveled to the United Kingdom and won Olympic gold in the 100 free, and Adrian had previously anchored five U.S. medley relays to Olympic and World titles. None of that mattered at all as Scott stormed past Adrian and got to the wall 35-hundredths ahead.

The split? A mind-blowing 46.14, the second-fastest mark ever behind Jason Lezak’s legendary 46.06 split from the 2008 Olympics—and the fastest ever in a textile suit. In the moment, however, Scott had much different concerns besides the statistics.

“The emotions were just mad, should be honest. It was really nice to see how excited the rest of my teammates got,” he said. “To have a team like we have and to fall short so many times. I think it was just really special for us to come out on top. I know for myself, Jimmy and Peaty, we’ve been on that team since Europeans 2016. The number of times we’ve come second or just not quite been good enough on the day, I think for us to come first, it’s just a really special moment for us to get that.”

Looking back now on the moment that he calls one of the best of his career, Scott said, “Obviously, I’m delighted with it, but there’s no point in me having a 46.1 best relay split, and then my second-best relay split is 47.0.” And so, after the performance of a lifetime, Scott went looking for more, setting ambitious expectations for what he thought would be his second Olympic campaign in 2020.

Another Year to Get Better

Outside of the pool, Scott considers himself “a regular guy.” He’s a student at the University of Stirling, located about 30 minutes outside Glasgow, and he’s finishing up a combined degree in sports and business. A perfect day, he said, would consist of sunny weather in Scotland, “which doesn’t happen often,” an early morning round of golf, a steak sandwich with hand-cut chips for lunch, and then getting together with some mates to watch a big sporting event in the afternoon.

Currently, he’s in the middle of a swimming break approaching three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the entire world. During the shutdown, Scott has maintained his fitness through morning zoom workout sessions with his teammates, and he has spent time watching old race footage, looking for details he could improve upon. While his British teammates who live in England had already re-entered training by early June, the Scottish government delayed the reopening to late June at the earliest.

Despite the long dry spell and the continuing uncertainty in the global health situation, Scott’s anticipation for the Tokyo Olympics, postponed to 2021, has not diminished. He believes that his early season performances this year, before the shutdown, were indicators of good form, and he doesn’t think the one-year delay will have much impact on his prospects.

“I’m still really looking forward to it,” Scott said. “Another year on, another year to prepare, another going-to-get-better. For me, it’s not going to make too much of an impact, but there are so many athletes—even that I train with—that we’re going to retire after this year and have things to go on to do. It’s going to affect a lot, but I don’t think it will affect me too much.”