Tom Dean Fulfilled Olympic Dream as Yannick Agnel Calls Him ‘Smartest Guy In The Room’

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Tom Dean (GBR) celebrates after winning the men's 200m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Dean: Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

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“Can you imagine getting the opportunity to wear this presentation kit and stand on top of the podium?” mused Tom Dean in early June at his first kitting out day for Team GB.

Fast forward to 27 July and the 21-year-old was doing just that after winning the 200 free at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in a British record of 1:44.22.

Second was his teammate Duncan Scott, just 0.04secs behind in 1:44.26 as the pair became the first British men to go one-two on an Olympic podium since 1908.

It prompted tears in the stands from 2015 world champion James Guy, who came fourth in the event at Rio 2016.

It came after a year when Dean twice contracted Covid-19, leaving in its wake a trail both physical and psychological, the second bout only three months before the Olympic trials.

And since then, Dean has handled the spotlight with the same maturity and calm he showed at the April trials where he had to wait until the final event of the met to qualify, with trust and faith in the work he had done to bring him to that point.

So too did that play a part in his victory in Tokyo, with Yannick Agnel, the London 2012 Olympic champion, describing Dean as “the smartest guy in the room.”

Where It All Began

It almost never came about though. Dean had to be persuaded by his older sister Connie to continue as he considered quitting in his mid-teens.

Jul 27, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Tom Dean (GBR) reacts after the men's 4x200m freestyle heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

She was herself a national-level swimmer who went on to take up a scholarship at Duke in the United States, excelling in and out of the pool and now about to start a medical degree at Oxford.

“She’s taken the academic route and is smashing it out of the park and putting me to shame in that department slightly,” said Dean, himself a mechanical engineering student who has put his studies on hold.

Dean is one of five children and the second oldest ahead of Nancy, Alfie and Will, the youngest at 16 who is himself showing great promise in the water as a sprinter.

Dean the elder told Swimming World:

“If he keeps it going, you never know, he might be at the (Bath) national centre with me and Paris 2024 might be calling.

“He’s grown about a foot since I last saw him and he is loving the sport.

“He’s coached by Paul so he’s in very safe hands.”

The Paul in question is coach Paul Lloyd who has guided the Deans at the Maidenhead Marlins.

The pool was just two minutes from the family home and Tom started when he was eight on a learn-to-swim programme.

Maidenhead was a small venture and “the big club” Wycombe District – alma mater of two-time Commonwealth champion Simon Burnett – nearby drew in all the youngsters looking to make their way in competitive swimming.

That changed though when Dean was 12 and Lloyd joined the club which began a six-year coach-athlete relationship with older sister Connie his training partner.

It was just the two of them making regionals and nationals, going through the process of age-group swimming with all the accompanying ups and downs.

By 16/17 – and following his sister’s intervention when quitting seemed an option – Dean was cutting a swathe in international junior waters as well as domestically.

The IM was his specialist event at that time and he won consecutive golds in the 200 at the 2017 and 2018 European Junior Championships as well as silver and bronze respectively in the long medley.

In 2018 there was also a bronze with the GB men’s 4×200 free squad – with a split of 1:48.49 – and a month later in August of that year, the 18-year-old won gold with the men’s senior squad at the European Championships in Glasgow, alongside Calum Jarvis, Scott and Guy.

Dean said:

“To be able to bring home international junior golds for Maidenhead was a real honour and I’m still very close with Paul and the whole coaching staff there and my little brother trains there.

“I’ve got a lot of close ties with them and that small club community is still very close to my heart.”

After six years with Lloyd and following his A-Levels, Dean moved on to the Bath National Centre to be coached by Dave McNulty, who has guided Siobhan O’Connor, Jazz Carlin, Michael Jamieson and Jo Jackson – among others – to the Olympic podium.

It was a culture shock for Dean who said:

“It’s worlds apart. I didn’t have a gym programme in Maidenhead, we didn’t have any of the facilities we have in Bath.

“It was very much just a pool and my coach Paul and me and big sets and getting the metres under our belts.

“So to go to Bath and all of a sudden you’ve got a tailored strength and conditioning programme, physio, nutrition and psychology on hand and one of the greatest coaches in the country, if not in the world.

“You’re surrounded by Olympians. I’ve gone from being surrounded my mates who are doing it for fitness and a bit of fun and having a laugh to people who have got Olympic medals under their belts in the space of a few weeks.

“So it was a real shock to the system but then I got there and you get in the pool and training is no different.

“We’re still doing hard sets, we’re still grinding, we’re still pushing ourselves to be better.

“So the actual core of it hasn’t changed it all; it’s just all the extra stuff that gets you the 1% that kind of came in handy and was a big change. And a real shift.”

He competed at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, swimming the third leg as Britain finished fifth in the 4×200, 0.06 off the podium.

Guy switched coaches from Jol Finck to McNulty following worlds and the two became training partners.

The Mental Impact Of Having Covid – Twice

Come 2020 and the pandemic, ongoing and still wreaking havoc across the world, caused all sorts of disruptions, Dean experiencing the virus directly in September which meant a few weeks out of the pool and a delay to the ISL in Budapest.

Tom Dean (photo: Mike Lewis)

Photo Courtesy: MIKE LEWIS / ISL

Having experienced it once, Dean was then dealt another blow just after New Year when he got sick and again tested positive.

He ended up having a severe case of Covid and was bed-ridden for 10 days with “the full works” – coughing, wheezing and the loss of taste and smell.

There were three weeks out of the water and then once he could return, he had to do a three-week build-in so January was a really tough month.

And not only was it the physical effects of Covid but also the mental impact as he described:

“I’m not going to lie and say it was easy. There were times when it was really tough and I was almost saying to Dave why is this happening? This is so unfair; I had my time in isolation in September, I got it once, I got it out of the way early on in the season, why is it happening again?

“This is 2021, three months before I was meant to be stepping on the blocks for Olympic trials and not only was I severely ill, I couldn’t set foot out of my flat for two weeks and it’s like a triple whammy.

“Not being able to train, being really ill and being stuck inside – just real proper cabin fever feelings.

“It was really, really tough.

“To try and put things in perspective; you go back to training, you’re unfit, it’s like having to build after a whole summer break all over again. It was really tough and Dave was having to keep me grounded, keep me centred, not let my mind run away.”

He trained through the two meets in Manchester in March before tapering for the Olympic trials at the London Aquatics Centre in April.

There he got PBs in the 100 and 400 but had yet to book his spot on the team for Tokyo when the 200 came around on the final evening with Britain’s depth over four lengths of the pool meaning Max Litchfield’s 1:47.93 was the cut-off.

Come the evening and Scott lowered his British record to 1:44.47 and Dean – whose best going in was 1:46 – bypassed 1:45 altogether in 1:44.58 to touch second and claim a berth for Tokyo with the pair occupying the top-two slots in the rankings.

Despite the race being all or nothing for Dean’s Olympic ambitions, he had drawn confidence from setting PBs in the 100 and 400 free, saying:

“I knew something special would come on the 2. For me the 400 is slightly too long and the 100 is slightly too short; it’s really that sweet spot I find where my stroke kind of comes into its own on that 200.

“I didn’t really have any nerves going into it; I’m quite fortunate in I can control my emotions, my nerves and stuff.

“I was just really getting excited for it because this is what I’d been building to. I get to race rested, that’s what the sport is all about, that’s what all the training is for.

“So it was more exciting than nerves to be honest with you.”

Scott and Dean were elevated to ninth and 10th respectively in the all-time rankings, the latter saying:

“It was one of those races where it almost didn’t hurt, you feel like you are floating and it was just amazing.

“To see the rankings and be in the top-10 all-time with some phenomenal names in the sport of swimming, some real legends, it’s an honour and it’s exciting and hopefully more to come.”

Dean is a student of the sport and specifically of his events.

“Absolutely. I can talk about freestyle swimming until the cows come home.

“My friends and I like talking about it and watch those races like the Biedermanns, the Phelps, the Athens swims, the 09 swims – they are just amazing to watch.

“I think when you start training for an event – specifically like I’ve done for the 200 free – you gain an appreciation for it, for the racing and for the times these guys are doing – they are really incredible.

“So I absolutely love it, I am a really big fan.”

Training To Deliver In Tokyo

Dean was 16 at the time of the Rio Olympics and the timing of the evening finals in Brazil meant it was very early morning in Britain.

tom dean, duncan scott, olympics

Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

He set his alarm to watch Michael Phelps in the 200IM though, something he described as “absolutely iconic,” the American someone of whom Dean was in awe.

Dean travelled to Tokyo on the back of six medals at the European Championships in Budapest in May, including three relay golds and a bronze in the 200 behind Martin Malyutin of Russia and Scott, describing sharing a podium with his teammate as an honour.

He added:

“We don’t just train to qualify, we train to go and deliver in the summer. The job’s not done yet and we’ve still got work to do.”

Come the Games and historic work was indeed done by Dean and Scott, the former coming from third at 150 for victory.

Up in the stands, Guy was overcome by what his training partner had just done, Dean having earlier paid tribute to the 2015 world champion, saying:

“Jimmy has been the anchor for the 4×2 as long as it’s been successful in Great Britain.

“He has done some unreal relay swims, he’s done a 1:43 relay split which is just one of the greatest swims of all time.

“World champion in his own right on the 200. He really moved the event on in the UK, Duncan then followed him, first man in the country under 1:45, so he is doing great things.

“But Jimmy has been the 200 freestyler for so long now.

“Since he moved to Dave’s squad 18 months ago to be my training partner, we’re the only two boys and we just absolutely bounce off each other every session.

“We race each other, we’re pushing each other to go further and further, we’re both doing similar events, we’re both on the same mission.

“To be able to have his expertise (from having been) on the world stage for so long – whereas I am relatively new to it – it’s just such a great partnership.

“And with Dave our coach, it’s almost like the best match we could have asked for and it’s going to keep going that way and it’s exciting to think what else we can do.”

The pair were then on the 4×200 free squad – along with Guy and Matt Richards with Jarvis swimming the heats –  that won gold: two events, two golds for Dean.

Yannick Agnel Admiration For ‘Smart’ Dean

Looking on was 2012 champion Agnel whose time of 1:43.14 for victory in London is the fastest in textile and he remains the third-swiftest man in history.

Yannick Agnel – London Gold – Photo Courtesy: Joao Marc Bosch

Dean’s victory was welcomed by the Frenchman, who told Swimming World:

“First because he deserves it so much.

“There are two guys actually: Duncan as well. They have been incredibly fast for a long time and being able to sustain this level of performance until the Olympics, it’s a really great thing on its own.

“That is very impressive but in the end in an Olympic final, the time doesn’t really count – what counts is how smart you play it.

“And he was the smartest guy in the room.”

He added:

“I’ve heard Ian Thorpe talk about how you should swim a 200 freestyle and I absolutely agree with him.

“These past years we’ve seen people going all out, not really thinking about the second half of the race and how to finish it properly and it’s not how you should swim a 200 freestyle.

“And I think Tom understood it and he seized his chance at the right moment and for that very reason that makes him a smart swimmer and a great champion.”

Dean’s performance in the Japanese capital called to mind his words after the trials of not being affected by nerves but having faith in what has brought him here.

Agnel concurred, saying:

“That means you have to master yourself because when you see the others go all out you have to stay calm and do your own thing because you should swim against yourself and not against the others, right? And that is what he did.”

Agnel was 20 when he left London with gold in the 200 free and with the French men’s 4×100 free relay squad plus silver in the 4×200.

His advice to Dean is informed by his own experience post-London.

“Enjoy his medal, enjoy with his family and loved ones – that is the most important thing.

“And then he has to put things on the table and see what his next achievement will be, his next target.

“That takes time and my advice would be – take your time.

“This is what I didn’t do after London and it cost me the end of my career.

“So take your time: if it’s six months, it’s six months without swimming but you have to cool down and check really what you want to do in the future.

“If he is 100% into it he is going to go as fast as he was here. I’m not worried about that.”

Scott left Tokyo as the first Briton to win four medals in a single Olympics but with his desire for individual gold undimmed.

Agnel was fourth in the 100 free in London, 0.04 off the third step of the podium occupied by Canada’s Brent Hayden.

With knowledge of such fine margins, he has some empathy with Scott for whom he predicts gold will come.

“They’re not old – they have years in front of them and I think we are going to see them in every single final in the future if they do things right and they already do.

“I have seen Duncan on the relay as well go blazingly fast: I’m not worried about him.

“I know his time will come as well: maybe that was the race he needed (in order) to hang his silver medal at the head of his bed and look at it every single day until Paris 2024.

“He knows the lengths you have to accomplish and the steps that you have to climb to get the gold in the end.

“On French TV I call them the galactics of the 200 – the whole team and I’m including James Guy as well.

“He is a friend and I am really, really happy for him and he deserves it as well.

“He is finally in the club: I am happy to count them all in the club, it is such a pleasure because they are really great people.

“My only advice would be to enjoy and then just take your time to think about what you want to do in the future.

“Take this time because after that when you’re back in the pool again it is non-stop until Paris 2024.”





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