Allow me to be rude for a moment about Maidenhead - but for a reason. What does that name mean to you? A road sign on the M4, a Berkshire market town full of sensible folk, a place that’s just solidly and safely there without tempting you to visit.
In Maidenhead, and all the Maidenheads in Olympic sport, you can find wild passion, 3am revelry and togetherness that’s a magnet for people wanting other people to do well. In the unbridled celebrations in his mum’s garden that followed Tom Dean’s victory over Duncan Scott in the 200m freestyle we saw the best kind of Olympic jubilation. The shouting, straining, stress, fist pumping and bear hugging was a love letter from Maidenhead to Tokyo, a salute to his mother, Jacquie Hughes, and a reminder of how many unseen allies contribute to the making of an Olympic champion - sometimes just by being there, as friends and supporters. Sometimes that’s enough.
“I think we swam every meter with him, but on land,” Hughes said as she reflected on a clip that touched the whole country. Inviting the neighbours, she said, had been “a clever move,” because you could probably hear this “watch party’ in Newbury. All in the raucous gathering knew they were cheering a 21-year-old swimmer who had contracted Covid not once but twice - the second time in January, at a terrible point for an Olympian in full training. It left him, he said, unable to "walk up the stairs without coughing and wheezing".
Marathon Swimming - Men's 10km - Tokyo 2020 - Olympic Highlights
As British medals in the witching hour multiply, “watch parties” are becoming ‘a thing.’ This one was an eclectic mix. Even “the odd lodger” of friends turned up. Seven people slept over and six were still out cold when Hughes spoke to journalists. Perhaps the most telling detail was that Tom Dean had watched the clip “over and over again.” If gazing at his medal failed to tell him what it meant, footage of his nearest and dearest going crackers in his mum’s garden did the job.
The video of the 2.30am race that shot round twitter like a mood enhancing drug was posted by Lewis Coombes, sports editor for BBC South News. Coombes was doing his job - covering a big story on his patch. A local interest tale was going national, global, in a way few do. Local journalism sees many hopeful preview packages go down in flames. This one didn’t. This one came home to Maidenhead Marlins, where Dean learned his trade before joining the National Centre in Bath. It came home to fellow swimmers, club mates, siblings, relatives and most of all to his mum, who saw a talent in him when he was 12 “but knew all the stats” about how many promising young swimmers actually make it to the Olympics.
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Sitting snugly in Britain’s “silicon corridor,” Maidenhead makes you think of David Brent reeling-off target markets on his patch: Slough, Reading, Bracknell, Maidenhead. Like every town and city on the Olympic striving map, it features families who are pitched by a flash of talent into a dilemma.
Should they just enjoy it, win a few local prizes, not let it get in the way of “life,” let it go at 16, watch others swim on ahead with the flag? Or should they redouble the commitment, keep the alarm clock set for 5am, hammer the mileage for drives to training and competitions, say no to parties, keep busting a gut in a chlorinated pool on the slim chance that one day a shiny disc of Olympic metal might hang from their neck?
Knowing the gulf between potential and an Olympic coronation, who among us would really choose option two, especially in a world where competing ‘clean’ could conceivably cost you that chance of glory? And for the mother of five children the question must rear up everyday. With so much to deal with, so much quotidian stuff to get through, weekends spent driving back and forth to training or tournaments must feel sometimes like a surrender of one’s own time with no guarantee of success.
In fact, as we know, it can go the other way. Young athletes can be exposed to bullying, abuse, or disappointment they never conquer. The idealised picture of parents selflessly devoting swathes of their own lives to a sport conceals the many anxieties that go with it.
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Before these games Jacquie Hughes told Berkshire Live: “Suddenly before you know it they’re encouraging you to come twice a week and – I’m sure a lot of swimming parents will say this – I think if you knew what it involved I might have thought twice about it, because of how consuming it is as a sport. But we just fell into it through my love of water and my love of swimming.”
For Tom Dean, his mother, his four siblings, friends from the Maidenhead Marlins club even “and the odd lodger” who showed up, it led to the kind of 3am hedonism the town has probably not seen in a while. "Thanks so much to everyone back home - my mum, my family, my girlfriend. All the boys back in Maidenhead - thank you for staying up,” Dean said.
That grainy video of joy unconfined told a story more powerful even than him touching the wall first in Tokyo. It showed where the victory came from, how it started, and who, besides Dean himself, it belonged to.
No longer just plain old Maidenhead, it’s now the home of Tom Dean. A town that never sleeps.
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