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Doctor in waiting

In anticipation of Edinburgh University Boat Club’s 150 birthday next year, we spoke to their latest success story, Olympic medalist and new Honorary President, Polly Swann.

Polly Swann Olympic silver
Polly Swann (4th from left) and Great Britain's women's eight team.

Current fourth year medical student Polly Swann is in many ways just like her fellow undergraduates. She is preparing for hospital placements and ready to develop skills in diagnosis and revisit the biomedical and clinical sciences taught in years 1 and 2.

Except that, for Polly, years 1 and 2 seem a very long time ago because, as well as being a medical student, she is a member of the Great Britain Rowing Team and spent the summer winning an Olympic silver medal as part of the women's eight competition in Rio.

Rowing over rugby

Polly started rowing at George Heriot's School in Edinburgh and when she started at the University she joined EUBC, progressing to women’s captain in her second year. Along with her partner Jen Reid, she won a silver medal at BUCS regatta and a gold medal at the European Universities Championships in 2009.

In 2010 she attended a trial for the Great Britain under-23 team and was successful in selection. It could have all been very different if her first choice of university sport had turned out better.

I spent a few weeks training with the Women's Rugby club because I wanted to try some new sports out. I soon learnt that a complete lack of hand eye coordination and my propensity for bruising meant that contact sports weren't for me and my dreams of playing matches at Murrayfield might have been a little far-fetched.

Polly Swann

London calling

It was success at the GB U23 trials that captured Polly’s imagination and inspired her to try to make the Olympic team for the 2012 home games. With this at the forefront of her mind she decided to take a sabbatical to concentrate on rowing.

2012 was, however, not to be, as a back injury just 2 months before the games began meant that she was unable to compete. This could have been the point where Polly gave up on her Olympic dream and returned to Chancellor’s Building, the home of Edinburgh Medical School at Little France, but the prospect of Rio and another chance to represent her country led to an additional 4 years away from the University and a new focus for body and mind.

Team GB women's 8s rowing
Great Britain's women's eight team.

Olympic success

On Saturday 13 August 2016 at 11.06am, Polly Swann lined up with 7 other rowers and cox Zoe de Toledo to compete in the final of the women’s eights at Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in Rio de Janeiro.

Just over 6 minutes later they crossed the line in second place just behind the boat from the USA. It was a historic silver medal for the women's team a moment that Polly remembers as one of the happiest, and proudest moments of my life. She is still in awe of what was achieved by what the crew achieved together.

The Olympic Games was unlike any event I've ever been to and while as an athlete you attempt to imagine what it might be like to stand on a podium and represent your country, nothing can really prepare you for the reality of the experience.

Polly Swann

From Edinburgh to Tokyo?

The feeling of standing on the podium has also given Polly a taste for success and she now hankers for the ultimate accolade of Olympic Champion. A feeling very familiar to another alumna, five-time Olympic medalist Katherine Grainger.

With one eye on Tokyo and one eye on Edinburgh we asked what it was like being back at the University after everything she has experienced after the last few years

I'm very much enjoying being back at university although I'm a little rusty and suddenly feel much older than my counterparts! I had always planned to return to study and while the temptation to carry on rowing in an attempt to win Gold in Tokyo is very real, for now I'm happy to be progressing my medical degree and that I've started to use my brain again after such a long break from studying.

Polly Swann

Birthday celebrations

It’s the Edinburgh University Boat Club’s 150th Anniversary in 2017 and the Club are keen for alumni to return to Edinburgh to join in the fun. Celebrations start on Saturday 11 February with the Bow Ball at the Balmoral Hotel. This will be followed on the Sunday by an  EUBC regatta at Strathcylde Park, which will include an Old Guards versus Young Blood race. To round things off, there will be afternoon tea at Tigerlily on George Street.

It's going to be a spectacular affair and a chance to catch up with old friends, find out more about recent successes and developments, and celebrate 150 years of EUBC.

Book tickets online

Related links

Olympic medallist inspires fellow students

Edinburgh University Boat Club

Edinburgh Medical School