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Tonight the Tokyo Olympics games will officially kick off with the opening ceremony at 12.00 BST.

This summer we are looking at a number of Scottish athletes who have come through the Winning Students scholarship scheme.

The Winning Students programme has been one of Scottish sports’ success stories over the past ten years.

The programme ensures that student athletes get support and flexibility to train and compete while studying at a Scottish college or university. Since its inception in 2008, Winning Student athletes have performed at every Commonwealth and Olympic Games.

The way it works is that gifted young athletes are supported by scholarships of up to £6,000 a year. The money can be used for a range of sports services such as physiotherapy, coaching, psychology and training as well as academic related expenses such as accommodation, living costs and study fees. Winning Students scholars are identified and nominated by the governing body of their sport and the scholarships are funded by the Scottish Funding Council.

This week we hear from swimmer Duncan Scott who in July 2019 claimed his first individual-medal at the World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju. Bronze hardware earned from the 200-metre Freestyle – and the ideal way to commence the 12-month countdown to the Tokyo Olympics.

The University of Stirling student was on an upward curve, competing with the best and making waves, however, personal ambitions soon became an afterthought as COVID-19 struck and decimated the sporting calendar.

During the initial lockdown, Scott spent 16 weeks out of the pool, the longest he’d been away from the water since learning to swim as a five-year-old. “It was a really strange time,” Scott remarked, during a rare few hours off.

“I think the most difficult period was the first few weeks, the unknowns about the year ahead. It was still an Olympic year, and there was so much we’d worked towards. Our Olympic trials were due to start in a couple of weeks and we’d just done our preparation phase – and then the country goes into lockdown and we can’t swim.

“I think once the initial announcement of the Olympics being postponed was made, I became more relaxed and realised that I wasn’t the only one in this situation. If anything, another year can benefit me, a year more of maturing and further chances to learn.”

Without the opportunity to hone his craft in the pool, Scott shelved the swimming gear and dusted down his bike in an attempt to break-up the repetitive nature of life under restrictions.

“I did some cycling and it was my first time out using the roads,” said the 23-year-old, who won two relay silvers at the Rio Olympics five years ago.

“We did gym work three times a week via Zoom calls, and it was good to keep engaged. The gym work was the main focus during lockdown and it brought quite a few challenges. It became quite monotonous at times, but that’s just life in lockdown anyway.”

In January this year, Scott received the welcome news that he was amongst four British swimmers pre-selected for Tokyo. The foursome – also including Adam Peaty, James Wilby and Luke Greenbank – benefited from British Swimming’s revision of its selection policy.

Scott punched his early ticket to the Olympics thanks to outstanding performances at the 2019 World Championships, and whilst thrilled to secure his berth on the plane, he was quick to emphasise the hard work ahead.

“I was grateful to hear that I’m going to be a part of the team,” he beamed. “It’s great to get that part of it done. It is strange, though, because I haven’t got any events secured and I could be going as an alternate or, I could be going with quite a few events.

“I’ve still got to earn all the events I would like to swim and also earn my spots in the relays. I need to show why I’ve been picked early, so there is still plenty for me to do at the trials. With the depth in British swimming now, it’s important I’m in really good shape.”

“It’s about staying consistent and, from then on, starting to freshen up,” he continued. “It’s going to be the first time I’ll be able to race long course, which is quite exciting. It’s not something I’ve been able to say I’ve done since August 2019.”

With the Olympics about to start Scott is, naturally, contemplating his Tokyo prospects. ”It’s not just this year I’ve been thinking about the games,” he admits. “It has been the last two to three years I’ve been thinking about it.

“Last year I didn’t have the benefit to say I’d qualified, so thinking about it then was quite difficult, knowing anything could happen at the trials, but now my mind can drift and I can go to Tokyo in my head and think about things. I find visualisation is something I quite enjoy doing, it helps quite a lot, so I do that every so often. I think in terms of targets, it’s about getting through the rounds.”

Throughout the last few years, Scott has been juggling life as an elite athlete with the demands of being a student. He has now completed a joint honours degree in Business Studies and Sports Studies.

I’m looking forward to becoming a full-time athlete. As much as I’ve enjoyed university, it’s been a real challenge. It’s probably been quite good for me in that I don’t find it easy. I find it quite difficult; it’s something I need to think about. It’s been a big learning curve regarding time-management and doing things I don’t necessarily want to.

“The university has always been very accommodating, which has been great. Whether it’s exam deferrals or being allowed to submit essays a little bit later, they’ve always been aware of the different dates I’m away.”

As a beneficiary of the Winning Students sports scholarship programme throughout his time at university, Scott is wholesome in his praise of the support he’s received.

“At the start of my university career, when I was a little unsure about finances, Winning Students was a great help to me,” he acknowledged. “At that time, a lot of the squad were at university and all part of Winning Students, so we were all just very appreciative of it. It was not just helpful from a university perspective in the first few years, but also with travelling for competitions and my general swimming career.”

Based on article by Graham Semple. Image from Scottish Swimming.