AS the Rio Olympics approached almost five years ago, Mark Szaranek hoped he would be there, but there were few expectations of a seat on the plane.  

This time around though, his ambitions are far loftier. 

“I wasn’t far away from making the team for Rio but there wasn’t a feeling in the build-up that I was a dead-cert to make the team or anything, it was more of an outside shot,” he says.  

“This time though, I feel like I should make the team.” 

In the end, Szaranek missed out on making Team GB for the 2016 Olympics and even though he approached qualification more in hope than expectation, it did not dampen the disappointment of failing to become an Olympian. 

The blow of failing to make it to Rio is, at least in part, what has driven him ever since. In the intervening years, he has become a regular in the British team, as well as picking up a silver and bronze at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 and he knows that come the British Championships in April, which double as the Olympic trials, selection for Tokyo will be well within his capabilities. 

Had 2020 panned out differently, Szaranek could well already be an Olympian. The postponement of the Games last summer was, of course, disappointing, particularly as he was in his best shape ever heading into the opening months of the year, but the 25-year-old medley specialist took the fact coronavirus turned the sporting world on its head in his stride. 

“We did a big block of work at altitude in January and when I came back, I was feeling in the shape of my life and ready for the trials,” the Glenrothes native says.  

“I was feeling very optimistic about things and I was in the best shape I could be in and so it was a shame to not be able to show it. 

“I wasn’t as heartbroken as some other people made out on social media. Some people were talking about how devastated they were but I felt, yes it’s a shame, but it just gives me an extra year to prepare.” 

Szaranek had a whopping fifteen weeks out of the water at the start of the pandemic – his longest time ever out of the pool – but he was lucky enough to get back into competitive action as early as October. As a member of the Cali Condors, Szaranek, along with dozens of the world’s best swimmers, travelled to Budapest for the International Swimming League, a recently-formed team event which sees ten teams battle it out for the title.  

This year, the event took place over six weeks, in a Covid-secure bubble, and the opportunity to get stuck into some world-class racing was just what he needed to salvage something from an extremely competition-lite year. 

Szaranek’s team, the Cali Condors, came out winners and with the Scot just a shade off his fastest times, he was satisfied with his re-entry into the competitive arena, as well as having the luxury of being able to banish at least some concerns over the pandemic, at least temporarily. 

Szaranek will spend the remainder of the winter months getting stuck into training with his squadmates at the University of Stirling, which includes the likes of Duncan Scott, Ross Murdoch and Stephen Milne, all of whom have their sights set on Tokyo too. 

Having spent the formative years of his senior career in Florida while studying at the University of Florida, Szaranek’s move to Stirling in 2019 was something of a shock to the system in terms of lifestyle, but now he’s acclimatised to the Scottish weather, he admits he could not be in a better environment as he attempts to fulfill his potential. 

“I’m really enjoying Stirling – it’s exactly what I need at this point in my career, and we all have similar ambitions which is great,” he says.  

“It’s very different from Florida – there’s a massive lifestyle change for a start and training-wise, the structure is different.  

“At Stirling, there’s a lot more recovery built into our training throughout the season whereas in the States, a lot of the programmes are very full-on all the time; train yourself as hard as possible and then you get a big rest at the end of the season whereas here, our training is a lot more science-based. It’s focused on our individual physiology and it’s very good for me and all the others too.” 

Szaranek must ensure he does what is required at the British Trials before he can focus too much on the Olympics themselves. Having said that however, he knows he can reach a level that, if luck is on his side, could see him make a real mark come next summer.  

“I look at the events I race and there’s opportunities in Tokyo I can take advantage of if I get things right,” he says. 

“I’m not going to talk about medals or anything but once you’re in a race, anything can happen. There’s so many little things that can happen on the day that can change the outcome completely so I just need to focus on preparing myself to be ready to go when I need to.  

“First of all though, I need to concentrate on qualifying.”