Tom Dean knows the ecstasy and agony of the 200m freestyle too well. Four lung-busting laps of the pool, the roar of the crowd bouncing off the walls of the arena, and the patience behind every neat stroke, harnessed over thousands of hours in the pool each year, to glide through the water. Hundredths of a second will separate glory from utter despair and dejection.
Great Britain’s double Olympic champion in Tokyo, the first swimmer to achieve as much at the same Games since 1908, snatched gold away from his close friend and teammate Duncan Scott by four hundredths of a second. But roles were reversed in Fukuoka at this summer’s World Championships and, reflecting on another gripping race, Dean conceded that he was “owed an unlucky touch”. This time, another teammate, Matt Richards, stormed home to pinch gold by a mere two hundredths of a second.
“You can’t even measure it,” Dean tells The Independent, while looking ahead to next year’s British Championships in April, the Olympic trials, where the trio will do battle for just two Team GB places in the 200m freestyle. “It’s quicker than you can click your fingers.”
“Fukuoka might be a blessing in disguise. I know every 0.1 per cent will make a difference. I’m now so fired up. When it gets tough in training, I just think about that race. I’m good friends with both of them. But it’s the biggest stage of our lives and we want to knock each other off the Olympic roster,” he added.
In addition to defending his 200m freestyle title, which would be an Olympic first, Dean is plotting an audacious bid for five Olympic medals from one Games in Paris, which would surpass Scott’s historic four in Tokyo.
The towering 23-year-old could contend for a medal in the 200m freestyle, 200m individual medley and 100m freestyle, while further opportunities could emerge in the men’s relays: 4x100m freestyle, 4x200m freestyle and 4x100m medley.
“We have three of the fastest guys in the world,” he adds. “Somebody will have to miss out [for the 200m freestyle] in April. That’s just a fact. It’s bloody hard to book your ticket on the plane. You have to do it on the day, but you only have one shot at the Olympics too, so I like how they do it. It’s going to be ferocious.”
With the strain of more than 30 hours of training per week and a grueling schedule, including the Doha World Championships in February and then the British Championships before the final countdown to Paris in July and August, burnout is a real issue. Teammate Adam Peaty highlighted the precarious nature of pushing your body to the limit earlier this year, later admitting he grew to “hate” swimming, leading to a prolonged break to improve his mental health.
And Dean has praised Peaty for his role in making mental health a more accessible subject.
“Not just in swimming, but as a topic of discussion, men’s mental health has become much more prevalent today,” Dean says. “I’ve had a lot of frank discussions with swimmers, lads on the team, especially post-Olympics. Everybody puts so much pressure on the Olympics, because it’s the pinnacle, you go to the Olympics and it makes the World Championships feel like a little gala, because the coverage you get is on another level. So the comedown from that can be brutal.
“After the highs and lows, win or lose, it’s still a comedown. We’re heading in the right direction and what Adam’s done has only played a positive role in that.”
Helping Dean in his quest for immortal status in the sport is his long-standing relationship with Speedo and this week’s launch of the Fastskin LZR 2.0 swimsuit. More than 15 years on from the supersuit era, Paris will inevitably provoke fresh discussion surrounding the balance between technology and athletic performance in both swimming and sport in general. Speedo, at its Nottingham-based Aqualab, continues to push the boundaries, despite Fina’s 2010 rule change after the company’s collaboration with Nasa years earlier to produce the original LZR Pulse. That swimsuit inspired a staggering 98 per cent of all medals won, according to Speedo, and 23 of the 25 world records set at the Beijing Olympics.
Now, abiding by Fina’s current rules to produce suits made from air-permeable materials and limiting how much of the body is covered, Dean believes the balance is right.
“I was too young to try on the super suits,” Dean says with a smile and perhaps a hint of regret. “I want a suit that I’m confident in and brings the performance element. In terms of the technology, it’s the buoyancy, especially as a freestyle swimmer, you want to be held high in the water, you want your hips held high. Buoyancy, efficiency, and durability too.
“Speedo has always been knocking on the door of what’s possible and how far they can push the technology. They had to get the laws changed because they were so technologically ahead of everybody else, it’s super exciting. There’s a reason why Phelps wore Speedo. You want it to be a test of the athlete.
“It’s also about the psychology of the suit, like a golfer who is dialed in, complete confidence in their clubs, you’re in the suit that all these world records have been broken in. You’ve been given the best equipment and then it’s purely down to you as an athlete.”
Speedo’s Fastskin 2.0 is now available to purchase from selected retailers and online at https://www.speedo.com