Returning from this summer’s pandemic-delayed, eagerly anticipated 2021 Tokyo Olympics with 8 medals (4 of them gold), Team GB’s swimmers wrote themselves into the record books with their most successful Olympics performance in history and a swimming medal table placing behind only the historic powerhouse nations of Australia and the USA.
Among the swimming contingent at these games were nine University of Bath-based swimmers who train at the university’s Sports Training Village with the national centre program under coaches Jol Finck and David McNulty. Tom Dean, James Guy, Matthew Richards, Jacob Peters, Kieran Bird, Freya Anderson, Brodie Williams, Ben Proud (training under university coach Mark Skimming during the COVID-19 pandemic) and Calum Jarvis were the athletes making up a large portion of Team GB’s swimming squad, and all except Guy and Proud were Olympic debutants. Also joining the team in Japan was Commonwealth Games medallist and University of Bath alumni Anna Hopkin.
Catching up with Coach McNulty recently – amidst the hustle and bustle of the STV Cafe – the newly-awarded Team GB Coach of the Year spoke candidly of both his and his swimmers’ recent successes, and of the future as he looks ahead at starting a new training cycle at the Bath NTC.
McNulty, who joined the program at Bath after the Beijing Olympics, was full of nothing but praise for the facilities and atmosphere at the STV: “I’m thrilled to be starting another Olympic cycle at Bath. The STV really has everything you want, with world-class professionals everywhere you turn – the place just oozes performance. I was really glad we were able to work with the government (during the later lockdowns) to offer this place as an option for the country’s top athletes to (securely) continue their training” the NTC’s head coach said in an interview with Bath Time.
From the first two Olympic Games (London 2012, Rio 2016) since he joined the elite training centre based at the STV, McNulty’s swimmers have returned with 1 and 4 medals respectively. These are of course no mean feats in their own right, but were still fully surpassed by this year’s showing of 5 swimmers (out of 9 representing Bath) returning with medals totalling 8 (counting individual relay medallists), of which 7 were gold and 1 was silver. These stats, alongside the large group of Bath-based swimmers – and debutants – show the strengthening of an already world-class training centre and program. The coach made clear he fully believes that the swimmers’ resilience, dealing with all of the setbacks brought about through lockdowns, delay of the Olympics, and further COVID risks and doubts even in the immediate lead up to the postponed Tokyo games this summer, made these performances all the more impressive.
After defending Olympic Champion and world record holder Adam Peaty hauled in Team GB’s first gold medal of the games in the men’s 100m breaststroke (becoming the first British swimmer to retain an Olympic title in the process), eyes were on the British duo of 21 years old Mechanical Engineering student and swimmer Tom Dean and his 24 years old Stirling-based teammate Duncan Scott in the men’s 200m freestyle. The pair came into the competition with the third and second fastest qualifying times respectively and had progressed through the heats and semi-finals with ease – but it was the final that marked their names in history. Beating his semi-final time by over a second, Dean remained comfortably in control throughout the race, charging home in a personal best and British record 1:44.22 to clinch Team GB’s first title in the event since 1908. With a surging last 50m (and the fastest final split time in the field) that took him from 4th to 2nd, teammate Scott secured the silver medal for a dream ‘1-2’ finish – also the first time such a feat has been achieved since those same 1908 games, over a century ago. But neither swimmer was done there, with Scott winning a further two silver medals (in the 200m individual medley, and the men’s4x100m medley relay) to accompany his & Dean’s victory in the 4x200m freestyle relay final on the following day of competition.
Of the freshly-crowned double Olympic champion Dean, his coach couldn’t speak highly enough. “Of course we all saw something in him when he came to Bath a few years ago – but it’s still been a hard journey”. A hard journey certainly encapsulates it – the 21-year-old, has improved in leaps and bounds in the past couple of years alone, but also faced numerous setbacks. These of course include the impacts of lockdowns limiting training availability as it did for athletes across the world; however, Dean also caught COVID twice between October 2020 and January 2021 – the second time, suffering symptoms. Both times took around a month out of his training capacity (including two weeks enforced isolation for each case), according to his coach.
The title that finally ‘came home’
Back-to-back gold medals at the 2015 and 2017 World Championships showed promise of what could be ahead for a team blessed with such depth in the men’s 200m freestyle event. An agonising second place finish at the 2016 Olympics kept grounded the fact that maybe what we had just wasn’t quite enough on the biggest stage. A humbling 5th place finish at the 2019 World Championships (with four of the same five swimmers involved as this summer) meant that the pressure really was on for GB’s men aiming to capture the coveted Olympic gold medal that had eluded so many talented squads before them – and capture it, they did. In style.
“I think (with hindsight) it’s the best thing that could have happened (to the group)”, Coach McNulty remarked, speaking of Team GB’s 5thplaced finish in 2019. “It really made us all take stock, realise the work and level of performance it takes to be a world or Olympic champion – especially in a relay event, and one historically dominated by the Americans.” He mused that this setback likely made the existing team members (even if only subconsciously) come back even hungrier in the search for that gold medal at these Olympics.
Whilst ‘it’s coming home’ was a catchphrase that may not have rung true at this summer’s European football championships, it certainly did for Team GB’s men’s 4x200m freestyle relay team at these Olympics. Five long years after Britain’s silver medal finish in Rio (a team also containing Duncan Scott and James Guy), and over a century on from their last Olympic victory in the event at those London 1908 games, the British quartet of Dean, Guy, 18-year-old Matthew Richards, and Scott left the field in their wake, cruising to Olympic gold with a performance that saw them finish over three seconds clear of the second-placed Russian Olympic Committee team. Their performance was so dominant that their European record time of 6:58.58 left them only 0.03 shy of the 12-year-old world record in the event, set in the ‘super suited’ era by a team containing a little-known swimmer called Michael Phelps…
In a wholly impressive showing, three of this gold medal-winning team (Dean, Guy and Richards) all hail from the national training centre at the University of Bath’s own sports training village (STV). They were also joined by fellow Bath-based swimmer Calum Jarvis in the qualifying round. After playing roles in Britain’s 4x200m success at previous world and European championships, the 29-year-old Jarvis made his Olympic debut in Tokyo, helping his teammates become fastest qualifiers through the heats and earning himself his first Olympic medal – a gold – at the first attempt.
“It was a very proud moment”, Coach McNulty said, as he reminisced about walking down with his swimmers to the ‘call room’ (where swimmers go to check-in and prepare before walking out for their races). He agreed with how impressive (and unusual) it was for one training program to produce so many high calibre swimmers that they could almost fully flesh out an Olympic gold medal-winning relay team.
Britain’s swimmers, with their Bath based contingent playing crucial roles in each, went on to capture silver medals and a European record in the men’s 4x100m medley relay, as well as gold and a world record in the inaugural mixed 4x100m medley relay event. The mixed relay team, sporting 3 Bath-linked swimmers in Freya Anderson (swimming in the heats), James Guy and Anna Hopkin, shattered the previous world record by almost a second, finishing over a second ahead of the second-placed People’s Republic of China as Guy and Hopkin on the final 2 legs built a lead that even American phenom Caeleb Dressel couldn’t surmount.
From the outside looking in, swimming can often be seen as a purely individual sport (aside from the relay events, of course) – but for two of GB’s swimmers in particular, big personal sacrifices for the sake of the team events paid dividends.
James Guy, a multiple-time medallist at World, European and Commonwealth meets since 2013, already had silver medals from the 2016 games’ 4x100m medley relay (a feat he repeated in Tokyo) and 4x200m freestyle relays, whilst narrowly missing out on an individual medal. This time around, Guy selflessly withdrew from his only individual event of the games (the 100m butterfly, in which he may well have challenged for a medal), to focus on the team’s performance in relays in search of his elusive first gold medal. The pay-off was huge, as he went on to play key roles in conquering the coveted 4x200m freestyle as well as the inaugural mixed 4x100m medley relay – the latter in world record time).
Seven years Guy’s junior, Matt Richards – no doubt filled with excitement at competing in his first Olympic Games – showed the maturity to also recognise that by sacrificing his sole individual event (100m freestyle), he could help propel his relay team to their full potential. Like with his veteran teammate and fellow Bath NTC swimmer, this effort was fully rewarded, as Richards’ phenomenal ‘third leg’ (subject of an unintended double-entendre during a viral BBC interview) of the 4x200m freestyle relay helped his team run away with their long-awaited gold in the event, capping off a promising debut for a rising star in the sport.
Coach McNulty also spoke of the sacrifices these two young men made for the sake of the team’s success. “Matt (Richards) is only 18 – he could well have another three Olympic games in his career. Jimmy (James Guy) was a bit harder to convince of the merits of a tough decision like this. He did 100m butterfly (the event he withdrew from) training all year, and really wanted an individual medal at these games. But we realised that he would have seven swims in quick succession, with the last one of those being his (and the team’s) best chance of a gold medal on paper, so we needed him fresh and at his best.” Through trusting his coaching staff’s advice, Guy was of course rewarded with two golds and a silver medal to add to his stellar awards cabinet.
Looking to the future
While sprint veteran Ben Proud finished an agonising 5th in the men’s 50m freestyle (an event where, more than any other, perfection is paramount and the margin for error non-existent), and under two-tenths of a second from the podium, the Energy Standard swimmer who has been training in Bath for over a year maintains that he still has more in the tank. He is “still motivated to come back and keep swimming”, looking towards upcoming commonwealth and world championship competitions and hoping to swim his way into the medals that have narrowly evaded him at the past two Olympic Games.
For Olympic debutants Brodie Williams, Jacob Peters, Freya Anderson and Kieran Bird – all under the age of 23 – the future also looks bright. Williams competed in the 400m individual medley and the 200m backstroke, reaching the semi-finals in the latter, whilst Peters managed 6th in the fastest qualifying heat of the 100m butterfly with a time just shy of his best. Anderson swam to semi-final berths in both the 100m and 200m freestyle events, as well as earning a gold medal for her role in the qualifying team for the world-record-setting mixed 4x100m medley relay. Bird, meanwhile, competed in the gruelling, long distance event duo of 400m and 800m freestyle. Impressively (like Matthew Richards) Williams, Anderson and Peters also qualified for this, their first Olympic team, after just their first year training at the Bath National Training Centre program – showing just how significant and instantaneous of an impact it can have to train in an elite program, with world-class facilities like those on offer at the STV.
Looking ahead to the coming months, the training centre’s ever-increasingly successful swim coach noted a number of competitions to keep an eye on. “We have a number of swimmers competing at the International Swim League (ISL); those who aren’t are targeting English Short Course Winter Nationals, December 3rd-5th.” Following this, a team – with McNulty at the helm – are heading to Abu Dhabi for Short Course World Championships, before the new year brings with it a full schedule of British Trials, Long Course World Championships, Commonwealth Games and European Championships – lots to look forward to for Bath’s swimmers and swimming fans alike.