Poly Swann: Flashes of Silver and Dreams of Gold

Dr. Swann swaps the scalpel for the blade

5 minute read
Words Tom Ransley
Published 21.07.20

This article first appeared in Issue 028 of Row360.

Time Me Gentlemen, Time Me!

Doctor Robert Liston the “fastest knife in the West End” was a speed-obsessed surgeon from the early nineteenth century. Doctor Polly Swann is obsessed with speed but of the boat variety. Her medical training has not been rushed, it has taken substantially longer due to her intermittent Olympic campaigns. For now she wields a different sort of blade from Dr Liston’s in the hope of going one better at The Tokyo Games than her Rio Olympic Silver.At 6ft 1 Doctor Polly Swann would measure up an inch shorter than the famously speedy Scottish surgeon. Like Polly he practiced at The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and was renowned for his physicality. Speed was vital to surgery in the pre-anesthetic era.

“…in a bottle-green coat with wellington boots. He sprung across the blood-stained boards upon his swooning, sweating, strapped-down patient like a duelist, calling, ‘Time me gentlemen, time me!’ to students craning with pocket watches from the iron-railinged galleries. Everyone swore that the first flash of his knife was followed so swiftly by the rasp of saw on bone that sight and sound seemed simultaneous. To free both hands, he would clasp the bloody knife between his teeth.’

Wellington boots are more in keeping with Polly’s rowing than her medicine but how did she end up juggling two such time consuming activites?

Photo Polly Swann (centre) with the GBR W8+ in Rio.
Credit Benedict Tufnell
Declare the past:

The Swann family is a medical one. Polly’s father is a doctor and her mother a nurse and for as long as she can remember, Polly wanted to be a doctor. Rowing came later; introduced at school, and continued throughout university because it helped quickly to forge firm friendships. People told her she had potential but this came to be an annoyance because, for a long time, she did not seem to achieve much in the sport. It “bugged” her into action and she began climbing the ranks.

“I got so close to making the London Olympics but my back went and that was it, game over! I had to do quite a bit of soul searching after that.”

Having completed three years of medical school at Edinburgh University, Polly was two years shy of qualifying as a doctor but she decided to put everything on hold to try and make the London Olympics. She moved south and spent a year training at Leander Club. In January 2012 Polly was invited into the GB Rowing squad and by the summer found herself training in the GB VIII. She was a few days from making her senior debut at the first World Cup when, during the last session of a camp, her back went into spasm. A ruptured disc cut short her season and severed any dreams of a home games. Having got so close but ultimately missing out she was left devastated. After much soul searching she decided to continue rowing, initially almost on a month by month basis, but eventually committing to her original Olympic quest.

Her medical studies were put on hold while she bagged a World Championship gold in 2013 and continued on to make the Olympic team in 2016. The night before her Rio Olympic final Polly declared to her crewmate that she did not regret the choices she had made which had led her away from Edinburgh and culminated in the summer they had just shared. She was proud of her crew, of the bonds they had forged and the manner in which that team had conducted itself. Even if the next day’s racing did not go to plan she knew she had made the right choice.

Two and half minutes into the Olympic final Polly’s crew lay dead last. This was not part of their plan. Time was escaping them and with burning legs they were forced to take drastic action. The sprint finish was required much sooner than anticipated. They made the move at the halfway mark and it pushed them back into the mix. Through the third quarter they continued to pick off their opposition, they were storming back towards the front of the race and were nearly on terms with the favoured Americans.

“We were really moving and with 300m to go I just thought: We are going to bloody win this! Then with a 100m to go we all blew our doors off. We did not win it.”

They held their nerve in the face of adversity and clung on to win the silver medal. Polly recalls her podium moment as a surreal experience: “…thousands of people staring directly at you cheering and you look around and you see loads of people that you know and their faces are just lit up with happiness. I remember thinking I can’t imagine feeling happier than in this moment.” These are the rare experiences that produce the addictive rush of Olympic racing and the pure joy of team success. A few weeks later the adoring crowds and the Brazilian heat was but a memory. Polly was back studying full time, frequenting the cold lecture theatres of Edinburgh University. 

Photo Polly Swann (three seat) trainin in the GBR W4- in 2019.
Diagnose the present:

Her worst moment on the wards came when a loved one was rushed into hospital. Her day had started innocuously enough seeing pregnant ladies during triage in Obstetrics & Gynecology. The phone rings and they want her in A&E. Her registrar was excited – perhaps they have an interesting case to observe. Polly wanders down the corridor, but something felt off and a million thoughts collide in her head. “Why me, why not another student? How did they know me by name?” Her pace quickens and suddenly she realises: “Oh! It is someone I know.” She is running and mentally ticking off a list of potentials. Not mum, she’d just messaged her, not her brother, mum would’ve said, not Dad, he works in the hospital, it must be Matt (her partner). “Oh crap it’s Matt!” She bursts into A&E and all the bays are empty so she descends upon the nearest nurse. They search the system, “either ‘Swann’ or ‘Langridge’” Matt’s been in a car accident. She thinks the worst.

“He’s going to be dead. Dead and mangled.”

He’s not. He gets wheeled in on a stretcher. He has a neck brace on and is boarded up so he is completely immobile. They have given him a lot of painkillers and his leg sticks out unnaturally to one side. At that moment relief pours through Polly, still concerned of course but relieved to see him alive. While cycling Matt was hit by two cars. He punctured his lung and broke four ribs, both collar bones, and his leg. After a long stay in intensive care, fighting off a blood clot on his lung, and even longer in rehab, Matt made a full recovery. Polly: “He doesn’t quite know how serious it was but I had all the knowledge so it was super stressful.”

Combining fulltime study and enough training to return to elite sport Polly admits she was flying by the seat of her pants and went to some “pretty dark places”. Mostly she was in “survival mode” bookending the long days in hospital with training and revision. It challenged her motivations but now that she is back in the team she says it feels awesome: “You forget how much fun it is and how privileged we are to be in the team.” She says overall the experience has given her a fresh appreciation of what it means to live and breathe Olympic ambitions. Right now, her hope is that she can bring this positivity and enthusiasm to her new crew that seek to qualify for the Olympics via their performance at the Linz World Championships.

Foretell the future:

“I want to win gold at Tokyo. I am aware that it might not be possible but I’m not afraid.”

Polly is clear on her reasons for returning, she is focussed on winning gold at the Olympics, but moreover she is passionate about the sport and loves competitive racing. She recognises the challenges inherent with such a late return in the Olympiad but nevertheless is brimming with enthusiasm for the challenge. For Polly the journey is as important as the end goal. Beyond Tokyo she foresees a return to the medical pathway. She believes rowing has made her quite a hands-on person and she likes to be proactive and goal-orientated in her approach, so her preference for specialism is likely to be within surgery or anaesthetics. 

A surgeon or an anaesthetist was a distinction unmade in the 1820s. By the end of his career Dr Robert Liston bridged two worlds and saw the beginnings of the anaesthetic era. He was the first person in Britain to perform an amputation with the use of anaesthesia. American dentists and surgeons had successfully used ether as an operative anaesthetic. Thus, when Dr Liston addressed his audience for said amputation, he exclaimed “we are going to try a Yankee dodge today, gentlemen.”

Whether Polly makes it back to the cheering Olympic crowds or achieves her golden dreams remains to be seen but given the run of American victories in the women’s eight it might require a Yankee dodge to win it. This time, Polly, don’t get caught napping on the start line!