Swimmer Dean’s remarkable recovery from two bouts of coronavirus to Olympic gold

At his lowest point Tom Dean was unable to climb a flight of stairs without coughing and wheezing.

He had contracted coronavirus for a second time and was stuck at home watching the sands of time slip through the hourglass.

Far too fast for his liking.

The Olympics was six months away and he could not train. Outside the second wave of Covid was ravaging the country. In one 24-hour period 1,463 virus-related deaths occurred, the UK’s deadliest day.

Dean had a big dream which was fast becoming a nightmare. Making it to trials let alone Tokyo was a long shot.

He thought back to that shortly after beating the world’s best 200m freestylers to become Olympic champion in a time of 1:44.22 seconds.

Tom Dean burst into tears after receiving his medal

A cheer loud enough to be heard by the Queen in Windsor was still echoing around Maidenhead where family and friends gathered to witness the fairy tale unfold.

Dean himself was having some trouble processing the fact he had just edged out his great pal Duncan Scott, by 0.04secs, in the first Olympic 1-2 for British swimmers since 1908.

“Amazing,” he said with a smile and shake of the head. “When I was sitting in my flat in isolation, Olympic gold seemed like a million miles off.”

The 21-year old had been “quite ill for about 10 days” as he became one of the first athletes in any British Olympic sport to contract Covid twice.

“When you do a sport that requires so heavily on your cardiovascular system – and the disease is affecting your lungs, you’re coughing and all that kind of stuff – you are a little bit worried about how you’re going to recover,” he said.

“When you’re pushing ourselves nine or 10 sessions a week, really working hard and pushing your heart-rate up and everything like that, it throws a few question marks in the air.”

Dean beat the world’s best 200m freestylers to become Olympic champion in a time of 1:44.22 seconds
Dean beat the world’s best 200m freestylers to become Olympic champion in a time of 1:44.22 seconds

On his own website there is a short clip in which he talks about success coming down to who works the hardest. Yet in January he was stranded on dry land.

“Two or three months out from our trials I was stuck inside, unable to even exercise inside my own flat,” he said. “It was tough to wrap my head around that during an Olympic year.

“Three weeks out of the water in January was brutal because it was then another three weeks of building it back up. Nobody takes six off in the build up to an Olympics.”

Even now he doesn’t seem sure how he did it given that his three-week build up back to training needed to be structured to prevent long-term damage to heart and lungs.

“It was scary,” he admitted. “When I can’t walk up the stairs without coughing and wheezing I thought ‘this is going to be tough to come back from’.”

Dean's victory capped an incredible recovery
Dean’s victory capped an incredible recovery

Such an achievement was it just to make the start line that he knew he had it in him to cope with turning from home, for the third and final time, with two ahead of him.

With 25 metres to go he moved level and it was then a scrap between him and race favourite Scott for top step on the podium.

As a kid on holiday during the Beijing Olympics he had fallen in love with swimming watching Michael Phelps “absolutely clean up” in the pool.

Four years later in London he had a ticket to watch the great man do so again. Now, finally, it was his chance.

Nine years and two bouts of Covid later Dean dug deep again and reached for the wall.

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