As the clock ticks towards hopefully more promising days, there can be no hiding from the valuable time that has been lost.
For swimmers, every second spent in the pool is vital. From youngsters making their first splash to elite athletes training for the biggest events of their careers, access to the water is crucial.
With the delayed Paralympics in Tokyo still on the horizon this summer, Andrew Mullen has reason to be cheerful and grateful. But the swimming landscape has changed — and he fears what the impact could be on the sport he loves.
Andrew Mullen has voiced his concerns about how swimming has been affected by Covid-19
Mullen has delivered medals on the greatest stage. The Scot returned home from the Rio Paralympics in 2016 with one silver medal and two bronze, breaking into new territory to stand proudly on the podium.
Born with only his right leg fully formed, the boy who started swimming aged seven has developed into a man who has eyes on winning gold.
But as he focuses on his own preparation for the Games, he remains concerned as to what the future holds for his friends in the pool — and those who may never return to swimming due to the impact of the pandemic.
‘The guys who are in their 20s or younger, they’ll be aware of how difficult it will be to get back to fitness,’ said the 24-year-old from Newton Mearns.
‘In swimming, it’s pretty common to have maybe three or four weeks off a year. That will have been a common theme for the past decade for a lot of these swimmers. A little bit of time off in the summer and possibly some time off during the Christmas break.
‘But then, all of a sudden, they’re chucked into a year when they haven’t swam, which is basically unheard of in swimming. That’s not something that people tend to do.
‘Realising how long they have had out, it will be daunting. The work that will have to be put in to get back to where they were, you’re probably talking about at least another year of training to get anywhere near where they were pre-Covid.
Mullen won three medals at he Paralympic games in Brazil in 2016
‘I think that will discourage a lot of people. It will probably discourage a lot of younger people, as well. Kids at school will think: “You know what? I’ll just do something else now”.
‘You just hope swimmers have coaches around them to reassure them it will be a gradual process and it can be done. But, on the other hand, there will be a lot of swimmers who come back simply because they love the sport.’
Mullen continues to train at Tollcross International Swimming Centre in Glasgow and recognises how fortunate he has been, as an elite sportsman, to have access to these facilities. But as he perfects his techniques, he has sympathy for those who have been denied entry to the pool.
‘We’ve had access for quite a long time now,’ said Mullen (right). ‘When I say “we”, it’s a very limited number of us. Essentially, it’s what sportscotland and Scottish Swimming have deemed to be elite sport.
‘It’s quite a tough threshold. There are still a lot of good swimmers who don’t have access because they are not deemed elite. These swimmers are racing at a British level and competing with the fastest swimmers in the country — but still don’t have access. I’m sure that’s quite common in a lot of other sports.
‘There’s a hierarchy: people at the top are getting to train and the people below aren’t. I guess it’s how it had to operate under the Covid protocols.
‘They want the people who are training for Tokyo to train but it is unfortunate and seems unfair on the other guys, as well.’
Reflecting on the suddenness of pool closures last year as Covid-19 hit the country, Mullen recognises how damaging a time it has been.
Of course, all sports have been hit hard by the limitations now in place. However, for swimmers, being denied access to the water was a new and unwelcome challenge.
‘Prior to the pandemic, not having access to a pool was something we never even considered,’ added Mullen. ‘There is an abundance of swimming pools in the country. We’ve always had access in the past. It was definitely a massive blow.
The 24-year-old will be going for gold at the postponed 2020 Paralympic games in Tokyo
‘For people who pursue swimming at a reasonably competitive level, the time commitments are so massive. To have that pulled away from under your feet, it was a massive blow to the system.
‘There will be a lot of age-groupers that swim eight or nine times a week, so they’re putting in 20-plus hours to a sport they love.
‘Fortunately for me, the only time I didn’t have access to a pool was during the first lockdown. But Scottish Swimming managed to work with sportscotland and the government to put some protocols together to allow performance sports to continue training.
‘A bunch of my team-mates who I swim with in Glasgow, they are great swimmers and great people but a year on they still haven’t had access to a pool. It’s really sad, especially when you’re coming towards the end of university.
‘That tends to be the time when people will stop swimming and they’ll get a full-time job or a graduate job. Those are usually the best years of your swimming career in terms of performance.
‘So many people have had that taken away from them. It’s a real shame and I really feel for them.’
l Andrew Mullen is sponsored by Glasgow housebuilders Mactaggart & Mickel. Director Joanne Casey said: ‘We are all delighted to have extended our sponsorship of Andrew for a fourth year, at a time he needs our support more than ever. We’re confident he has what it takes to do Great Britain proud at the Paralympic Games.’