Tom Dean admitted the prospect of his Olympic gold appeared a “million miles off” when he was laid low by Covid-19 at the start of the year, the second time he had tested positive in a matter of months.
Dean produced the performance of his life in the men’s 200 metres freestyle, clocking a British record time of one minute and 44.22 seconds to pip Tokyo 2020 flatmate Duncan Scott by the wafer-thin margin of 0.04secs.
A historic one-two finish marks the only time since the 1908 London Games that two British male swimmers have been on the podium together while Dean is the first man from the nation in 113 years to win an individual freestyle event.
While Adam Peaty’s path to the men’s 100 metres breaststroke glory on Monday seemed inevitable, Dean’s achievement 24 hours later was more surprising and not only because Scott had been the fastest qualifier in the semi-finals.
He had mild symptoms in his first encounter with coronavirus last September before a more serious bout in January. It was not life threatening but there were moments where Dean wondered whether he would make the plane to Japan.
“I had six or seven weeks out during an Olympic year which is essentially unheard of,” said the 21-year-old, who will be eyeing a second medal in the men’s 4x200m freestyle relay final on Thursday morning.
“Two or three months out from our Olympic trials, I’m stuck inside, unable to even exercise inside my own flat. It was tough to wrap my head around that.
“When I was sitting in my flat in isolation, Olympic gold seemed like a million miles off. But here we are. This is the single greatest achievement in my life. It’s a dream come true to wear Olympic gold around my neck.”
Dean admitted he had some “pretty frank conversations” with his handlers at the University of Bath, where he is studying mechanical engineering, and credited coach David McNulty for lifting him from the doldrums.
“I think I was one of the first athletes in any British Olympic sport to contract Covid twice in such a short space of time, so there were quite a few question marks around it.
“I’m thinking ‘how am I going to be able to recover from this in time to get a solid block of work under my belt before we start tapering for Olympic trials?’
“I had to post some pretty quick times in the 200 free because of how stacked it is within Great Britain. There were a few question marks around but my coach kept me grounded and just built me slowly back up to where I am now.”
Dean finished 0.11s behind Scott at those British trials but the result was reversed at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Scott was as low as sixth at the halfway stage, with Dean third, but they went up a gear in a thrilling contest.
Dean just about touched the wall first ahead of the person with whom he is sharing an apartment in the Olympic Village and Scott was able to put his obvious disappointment to one side to pay tribute to his team-mate.
After claiming Scotland’s first medal of these Games, Scott said: “I’m buzzing for Deano, he’s had a really strange 18 months with Covid twice and a monster PB at trials but to see him move it on again and win gold is phenomenal.
“Our best possible outcome is one-two and we delivered on that, and I got a PB in the final as well so I’m really happy, can’t complain at all.”
Dean was unable to revel in his success as in the evening session, the Maidenhead swimmer, alongside Matthew Richards, James Guy and Calum Jarvis, booked Britain’s spot in the men’s 4x200m freestyle relay final.
Even without the rested Scott they finished with the fastest time in qualifying in 7:03.25. With Dean and Scott setting personal bests in the individual event, confidence will be high they can celebrate gold together.
Kathleen Dawson missed out on a medal in the women’s 100m backstroke following a sixth-place finish, 1.23s adrift of winner Kaylee McKeown, with the Australian’s time of 57.47 an Olympic record.
Abbie Wood and Alicia Wilson sealed their places in the women’s 200m individual medley final but Freya Anderson finished outside the qualifying places for the women’s 200m freestyle.
Jacob Whittle is into the men’s 100m freestyle semi-finals, Alys Thomas and Laura Stephens qualified for the same stage of the women’s 200m butterfly, as did James Wilby and Ross Murdoch in the men’s 200m breaststroke.