Daniel Rowden has joined some of the most beloved athletes in the history of British athletics. In February this year, Tokyo 2020 spoke to the British champion about everything from injury comebacks to academic goals, Olympic dreams and using maths to resolve training disputes.
On a lecture hall wall in St Mary’s Medical School hangs a plaque - one of the famous blue plaques that you find scattered around the streets of London to commemorate the great and good who lived, worked and studied there in years gone by. This particular one reads:
‘Sir Roger Bannister
While a medical student at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School from 1951-54, trained on the cinder track on this site in preparation for the first under 4-minute mile run in Oxford on 6th May 1954.’
Bannister, an alumnus of St. Mary’s - now part of Imperial College London - remains to this day one of Great Britain’s most celebrated athletes. When he ran sub-four minutes, he did what many deemed impossible.
But 67 years later, another Imperial College student is hoping to create his own slice of history.
2010 Getty Images
Following in the footsteps of the greats
It's not only Bannister that Rowden is emulating these days. More recently, the Essex-born athlete has been compared to arguably the most famous middle-distance duo in British athletics history: Seb Coe (now President of World Athletics) and his arch-rival, Steve Ovett.
As an 800m runner and current British champion, Rowden made headlines in 2020 by equalling Ovett's best-ever mark of 1:44.09 at just age 23. And for a British public who still have fond memories of Ovett and Coe swapping world records before winning Olympic gold in the 800m and 1,500m respectively at the Moscow 1980 Games, the prospect of another middle-distance runner gunning for gold at the Olympics is mouthwatering.
But just a year ago, that prospect seemed far from likely.
The first knockback
Pushing yourself to the limits of your capability is like stepping into the unknown. It can be a lonely place to be, as so few people have travelled there.
For Rowden, the pains he felt after every training session were the hardest thing to understand. When you see enough doctors and none of them have an answer, it's easy to start believing that the problem is you. Maybe, despite your talent, you're not cut out to be an elite athlete? Maybe you just can't hack it on the highest stage?
"Any time I was doing longer tempo work, I'd say for five or six years, I had on and off kinds of pains. I remember being just very confused by it because it didn't seem like there was very much pattern to my pain," Rowden recalled.
"Sometimes I'd be totally fine, other weeks I'd not be able to train at all."
As he bounced from one doctor to another, Rowden was diagnosed with a number of different conditions, from vitamin D deficiency to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). But every time he found one or two weeks respite, the pain would return.
"It was just a roller coaster ride of feeling like I'd overcome it and then getting back down to it, to the point where I thought maybe it was just something that was in my head, that maybe all runners went through it and I just wasn't strong enough to cope with the training that I did."
But the pain Rowden felt was far from something he was imagining. In 2019, after years of being misdiagnosed, the 800m runner discovered he was suffering from MALS (Median Arcuate Ligament Syndrome), a condition that causes chronic abdominal pain. The diagnosis was the beginning of a road to recovery that would lead him to the cusp of the Olympic Games.
As Rowden remarked: "I knew that if I was able to fix my problems that I'd be able to come back stronger."
The second knockback
Bannister, Coe, Ovett, all have their stories. Bannister, for his part, was involved in one of the most unforgettable finals in Olympic history, as he came home fourth in a race where the first eight finishers broke the world record.
But while the legends of these runners will live long in the memories of athletics aficionados, not many of them could have claimed to have had such a dramatic build-up to the Olympics as Rowden, or any of the Olympic class of 2021.
When COVID-19 caused the Games to be postponed, Rowden lost his will to train.
"I found training really, really tough and I lost a lot of motivation to try," he said. "I felt like there was no point, because that was what I was gunning for. And then I think the Europeans got postponed, or cancelled, as well, and so around that time I hardly trained at all. I think I did 60 miles of running the whole month of May."
I don't just want to train,
I want to know that I'm doing it for a purpose and it's going to help me do the things I want to do.
A reason to run
For Rowden, the reason behind his running almost seems to be as important as the running itself.
One of the most endearing - and revealing - stories about the young athlete was the time he used Pi to settle a training ground dispute with his coach.
"I think he was saying to run on the edge of lane one around the bends, just to put less pressure on my ankle," he recalled.
"And I was telling him that wasn't a very good idea because it adds like six or seven metres by the end of a race. And then obviously, because it's a circle you find the circumference and the relationship between diameter and circumference, and if you're running half a metre outside of lane one on each side that makes a one-metre difference..."
To cut a good maths story short, Rowden proved his point and his coach adapted the training session accordingly.
But if anything, this training ground tale says more about the attitude that Rowden takes into training and races.
He analyses everything.
"I have to buy into what I'm doing in terms of training," he explained. "I don't just want to train, I want to know that I'm doing it for a purpose and it's going to help me do the things I want to do. So I am quite analytical in terms of what sessions I'm doing, how exactly this is going to help me in terms of the 800 metres. Because if I buy into the training I'm going to train well and I'm going to do it properly."
The comeback kid
When injury and then COVID-19 derailed Rowden's Olympic journey, you might have expected his performances to suffer.
But in September 2020, Rowden became the British 800m champion, swiftly following it up with the 1:44.09 that equalled the fastest time ever set by Ovett.
It represented a phenomenal comeback for an athlete who just 18 months earlier had been lain out on a hospital bed and who four months later was averaging just 15 miles running per week.
"If you'd told me at the start of the season, 'this is how your season would go', I would have found it very surprising, particularly as I was very clearly aiming for the Olympics."
"When the announcement came that we were going to be able to start racing, I was a little bit apprehensive because I didn't think I was in good enough shape and I didn't think I'd train hard enough to be able to race."
But after some encouragement from his coach, Rowden began to believe in himself. The performances - and results - followed.
"Once we started really kicking through the gears in training I realised what kind of shape I was in and I knew what performances I could do."
The dream's a gold medal.
I think if you're not gunning for that then I don't know what you're doing.
When they call your name
Bannister practised medicine for 40 years after ending his career as a runner and famously said: "I'd rather be remembered for my work in neurology than my running. If you offered me the chance to make a great breakthrough in the study of the autonomic nerve system, I'd take that over the four-minute mile right away."
For Rowden, his dreams have always been two-fold, with the academic holding as much importance as the athletic.
"It's funny, when I was in primary school in year six, as part of our leavers' ceremony we had a leavers' book and everyone put in what they wanted to do when they were older. Some people put footballers, pop stars, things like that.
"My one said that I wanted to be an engineer and an Olympian."
Now he is well on his way to fulfilling both of his dreams, and at Tokyo 2020, he has the chance to reach his athletic goals before the year is up.
"The dream's a gold medal. I think if you're not gunning for that then I don't know what you're doing. If I'm in the final I'll be aiming for gold. I don't want to settle for a lesser medal if that's a possibility."
Sixty-seven years ago, when Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier - a time that had been deemed impossible - the crowd shouted so loudly that when the result was announced, the only thing that could be heard was "The time was three..."
You didn't need to hear the rest. It was all that mattered.
And when the Tokyo 2020 800m final comes to its conclusion on 4 August 2021, the only thing Rowden will need to hear above the roar of the crowd is "Daniel Rowden, your new Olympic..."