Winning Students


Uni return just the medicine for rower Swann

5 February 2018
Having taken a break from rowing, University of Edinburgh medical student, and Olympic medallist, Polly Swann, is back and has her sights set on Tokyo 2020.

Having taken a break from rowing, University of Edinburgh medical student, and Olympic medallist, Polly Swann, is back and has her sights set on Tokyo 2020.

Life has come full circle for Edinburgh rower Polly Swann who, having won an Olympic silver medal in Rio, returned home to complete the medical degree she had begun almost a decade ago.

“I always knew I would come back to medicine,” said Swann who settled back studying in earnest at the University of Edinburgh in autumn 2016.

“In terms of life I’ve always wanted to be a doctor but I realise I’ve only got my body that’s able to produce power and push itself to the extreme for a short period of time.  So I knew I had to do the rowing whilst I’m young enough.”

The University of Edinburgh has been accommodating to Swann’s rowing ambitions.  At the point she headed south to join the British team as a full time athlete she had just finished her third year.

Edinburgh had taken the unprecedented step of changing the rules so Swann could put her studies on hold - for six years - so she could pursue her Olympic ambitions.

Now, at 29, time is still on her side for at least another go at the Olympic Games and after a year deliberately spent not competing she knows she has not got rowing out of her system:  “After Rio I wasn’t sure with rowing what I wanted to do.

“So I took off last year, did bits and bobs, not lots of training, to try and get my head around what I wanted to do leading up to the Tokyo Games.

“I couldn’t get rowing out of my head and saw that as a sign that I should start rowing again and see how it went.  In the first instance I’m thinking about Tokyo and using these few years to build fitness back up.”

Planning some domestic racing and a possible attempt at the GB trialling system this season, Swann’s training had gone well and the familiar feelings of increasing strength had begun to return.

A back injury has spoilt plans for the short term but Swann has been here before, with the same problem affecting her before what would have been her first Olympics in London 2012, and she is exercising her patience for the time being.

Back in the city where it all began on the canal as a school girl at George Heriot’s, the Edinburgh University Boat Club she has re-joined is barely recognisable from the one she left.

Now a GB Rowing Team High Performance Programme and supported by Scottish Rowing (since 2010), one of its student athletes, Gavin Horsburgh, won silver at the 2017 Rowing World Championships, whilst current and former students, Maddie Arlett and Robyn Hart-Winks, both achieved a fifth place.

Whilst fitting rowing around studies at Edinburgh is not the same as being a full time athlete at the home of the GB Rowing Team in Caversham, it’s the next best thing. 

“Edinburgh is as close as you can get to being at Caversham and fully supported by British Rowing,” explained Swann, who is part of the Scottish Rowing Elite Performance Programme, supported by the sportscotland institute of sport. 

“I’ve seen a massive change because when I left Edinburgh we didn’t have full time coaches, there weren’t the same systems in place and it was unheard of for anyone to have been to the under 23 worlds, let alone the senior worlds. 

“Now I’ve come back and there’s a big group of people here who have multiple medals at senior, under 23 and junior worlds and they have Olympic aspirations. 

“It’s about being in the right environment and I couldn’t ask for more from the group that are around me and the facilities we have available around us, the coaches we have in Colin (Williamson) and John (Higson) and support staff.

“It’s top of the range and I’m confident that as long as the back holds up they will get me there.”

The University of Edinburgh has proved more than willing to fit around Swann’s athletic ambitions.  Playing a supporting role is Winning Students, Scotland’s national sports scholarships programme for 150 student athletes, who receive funding support and the academic flexibility required to perform at the highest level in sport and studies.

Eighteen Scottish universities and 25 colleges form the Winning Students network with the programme being funded by the Scottish Funding Council. Students at network colleges and universities benefit from a dedicated co-ordinator to ensure they can balance their studies and sport effectively.

“Winning Students has been great in terms of support,” said Swann.  “The funding allows me to go on training camps I wouldn’t necessarily go on, which gives you that extra edge.

“When you are training full time you don’t necessarily think very much about how you are going to go on the next camp because it’s all organised for you.

“With Winning Students, instead of having an Easter break, I could go away on a training camp. That’s the kind of support I get and it’s really useful.”