By Rob Cole
Dan Jervis won’t be alone when he prays ahead of his Olympic debut in the 1500 metres freestyle event in Tokyo on Friday.
Back in Neath, the congregation of Sardis Baptist Church have been on their knees for weeks hoping to invoke some divine intervention for one of their flock.
Pastor Fortunato Santos has put Dan at the heart of his prayer chain in a bid to help him bring back some gold from Japan.
Leading his life as a Christian means so much to Dan, who is fiercely proud to be the first athlete from Resolven to go to the Olympic Games.
He carries a Bible with him that was presented by the congregation at Sardis Baptist Church wherever he goes.
“Daniel is a real home bird and hugely popular within our church. He always brings his medals to show to the children when he wins competitions. His father Jonathan, who is a deacon here, used to take him to training at 5am, so it’s a great reward for everyone. He is very committed in his faith – he speaks about it openly on Facebook – and he attends lots of different meetings with us,” said a very proud Pastor Santos.
“He was baptised with us a few years ago as he publicly confessed his faith in Jesus. As he was going through the waters of Baptism in our church he splashed the water all over himself and we wanted to swim a length of our very small pool.
“We’ve all been praying for him this year. Firstly, to help him achieve his goal of going to Tokyo, then when he lost his grandfather and more recently when he went into virtual isolation to steer clear of COVID. Now we are all hoping he can achieve his lifetime ambition of bringing home a medal from the Olympics.”
Dan recently spoke about his faith on the Sunday Worship radio show on Radio 4, which was dedicated to the Olympic Games and Team GB. Shades of Eric Liddell and the ‘Chariots of Fire’ film about the 1924 British Olympic team in Paris.
“I was brought up in a Christian household and I’m a very proud Christian. It sounds a cliché, but the world is a mean place at the moment, and I just want to treat people the way I would like to be treated.
“Sometimes you don’t always get that, but as long as I can put my head on my pillow at night knowing I’ve been the best person I can be, that’s all I want,” he said.
“The role of my faith as a Christian has certainly impacted on me in an elite sport. Being a Christian is the most important thing in my life.
“I remember in the 2016 Olympic trials and everything was going well. I was going into the final and I remember a feeling of God being very close to me just before my race.
“I was thinking to myself there’s a reason why I feel he’s very close to me right now – because I’m ready to do this.
“In the race, it didn’t go well. My race plan fell apart completely. When I got home, I remember thinking to myself, what just happened?
“It took me a few weeks to realise that I was feeling the presence of God more strongly than ever because I think he knew that I could not deal with this on my own.
“I remember vowing to myself that I would never feel disappointment like that again. I told myself that in four years time I’m going to nail it. It turned out to be in five years time.
“I remember touching the wall, looking at the clock and pretty much knowing straight away that I’d qualified. The relief was just unreal, it was brilliant.
“When you are in the presence of God it is not a weird feeling, you feel very calm and safe. I pray before every single race. I don’t so much pray to win, and he knows that.
“If it isn’t what he wants for me then, as hard as it will be, I will go with it. God takes you in completely different directions at times, and sometimes in directions you don’t want to go, but it always works out in the end.
“There is a particular verse from the Bible that is my favourite and which stays with me. It is on the back of the Bible that my church gave to me and I have it tattooed on my arm. It is Deuteronomy 31 verse 6: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid and do not be terrified before them, because the Lord your God is going with you. He will not abandon you and he will not forsake you.”
His alliance with God has worked out pretty well so far.
He was crowned European junior champion, won a bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, a silver four years later, has raced at the World and European Championships and posted the second fastest time in the world over 1500 metres earlier in the year as all eyes turned to Tokyo.
But the fact he has made it to the greatest sporting show on earth is down to his grandfather. He will be front and centre in his mind when he goes for glory at the Olympic Aquatics Centre, even though he died in May this year.
“I first got into swimming through my Grandad. The year I was born, he had a heart attack and swimming became a big part of his rehabilitation.
“Because I was so young, and I wasn’t in school, he used to take me down to the pool. It was through him and my Nana that I learned to swim from such a young age,” recalled the 25-year-old.
“My big claim to fame is that I could swim 10 metres without any armbands when I was one. From then on, I followed my older sister Rhian to the swimming club at Glynneath. I moved to Neath in 2010, before going to Swim Swansea in 2012.
“I lost my grandfather on 9 May. He’d been sick for a few years, but he got to see me qualify for the Olympics.
“I was able to go into his front room, where my Nana had put his bed, and show him my kit that had the Olympic rings. I was able to tell him, ‘we’ve done it, you taught me my first stroke and you’ve just watched me qualify for the Olympics’.
“He’s been my number one fan all my life and it was obviously very tough when he passed away. He died on the Monday and I had to leave to compete in the Europeans two days later, so I missed the funeral.
“But it was a big comfort to me that I was able to sit down with him in his final few weeks and tell him everything I wanted to say to him.
“It’s an amazing legacy that he has left. Unfortunately, he won’t get to see me compete at the Games, but he knew I was going and I know he’ll be with me.”
Swimming was always his first sporting love, even though he came from a rugby mad area. Both he and fellow classmate, Swansea City and Wales star Connor Roberts, both bucked the local trend and made their way in sports that don’t involve an oval ball.
“It’s not a bad boast for Llangatwg Community School, is it, having one ex-pupil playing at the European Football Championships this summer and another going to the Olympic Games!
“I’m from Resolven and it’s all rugby up there. Crynant is in the next valley and that’s when Connor is from. I grew up with Connor and he used to swim with me actually,” he added.
“When we were in secondary school he was in my form and we had classes together. I used to get along with him really well, but we never thought an Olympian and a Premier League football player would come out of the same class.”
From humble beginnings in a 25 metre pool in Neath, where he learned his trade under the watchful eyes of coaches Chris Wheller, Neil Golding and Mike Spittel, he switched to Swim Swansea.
All of a sudden things became more serious under the guidance of his current coach Adam Baker, who has helped him develop into one of the greatest Welsh swimmers of recent times.
His workload grew from 25 to 65 kilometres per week and in 2014 he won the European junior title at 1500 metres.
That was quickly followed by a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the 17-year-old was on his way into the big time.
His progression has been steady and he has already swum at two World Championships, the senior Europeans and upgraded to silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Earlier this year he added two more British titles to his growing collection and clocked the then second fastest time of the year in the world over 1500 metres. After missing out on the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, the relief at achieving the qualifying time for Tokyo was obvious.
This has been a dream of mine since I was a young boy. I’ll be swimming for that young Welsh boy from Resolven who had a a dream that has now become a reality. I’ll be full of pride to swim with the flag of my country behind me,” he said.
“I’d like to thank everyone who has been part of this journey with me so far for helping me achieve my goals. To me it proves that anyone can achieve they’re aims with hard work and dedication.
“I’ve got a few goals in mind for Tokyo, but I would never give them away. Only me and my coach know what they are, not even my parents know. My goal now might be different to my goal in three years’ time.
“I’ve made the Tokyo Olympics, but I want to get to Paris in 2024 as well. I just have to take it all in, I know what I’m capable of and I know what I can do. I just want to leave Tokyo knowing I’ve done myself proud.
“In the trials I dropped 30 seconds off my time because of the buzz of the event. And then in the final I dropped another 10 seconds. It’s hard to explain the buzz that comes with these events, but when you’re in it you don’t fully appreciate it.
“I knew I was qualified as soon as I touched the wall because I was under the consideration time. It was an amazing feeling. I was just so happy for my coach, Adam, because I’m his first Olympian and he’s such an amazing coach. I certainly won’t be his last.
“It was a good time, but it was early in the season. I think I’m fifth or sixth ranked in the world now, which is still good.
“Obviously, my dream is to be first – I will be first in the world one day – but that will come with time and progression.
“I want to be a threat in Tokyo. I think it was Simone Biles, the great American gymnast, who said ‘smiles don’t win you gold medals’. That’s the perfect thing to hear. Outside the pool I want to represent myself well and I want people to like me, but when I’m in the pool I want to be a warrior.
“Everything we’ve done and all the training is worth it, and I want to make myself proud. I also want to inspire people, so when they look at me, they see themselves. That’s a big goal of mine.
— Swansea Bay Sports Park (@SB_SportsPark) July 30, 2021
“I know the responsibility that comes with being an Olympian and that goes beyond swimming. There will be millions watching when we compete, and anything we can do to make an impact on the world will be worth it.
“I just couldn’t wait to get out to Tokyo and to be with the rest of the Team GB swimmers. They are great swimmers and amazing people who I’ve got to know over the years. This will be the pinnacle of many of our careers, and certainly of my life so far.
“I’m excited to be part of Team GB and it was a very proud moment for me to be able to wear the Olympic rings on my chest.
“In 2019, I shared an apartment with Adam Peaty, an Olympic champion going for another title this year. People like him are my idols.
“Since 2012, I’ve been swimming in the same pool as Jazz Carlin. I was there when she won her Commonwealth gold medals in Glasgow. She’s such a nice person and such a great role model for the sport.
“The last few months have been so stressful because we were told that if we caught COVID our Olympics could be over.
“Even up until we flew out this week my life’s work could still have been taken away from me. It means everything to me to be going to Tokyo.”
The podium will be the main target, but there is also the small matter of trying to wrestle the Welsh 1500 record away from another great distance swimmer, David Davies.
His time in winning bronze in Athens in 2004 of 14 min, 45.95 sec was not only a European record, but has lasted as the best of British to this day.
Dan managed 14:46.51 in 2019 and between them the two Welsh swimmers own the top 11 fastest times by British swimmers over the 30 length race.
It will take something below Davies’ Welsh best to win a medal and at least something around his best this year (14:51.49) to make Sunday’s final.
But who knows what be possible given the power of prayer. They say God moves in mysterious ways, but can he help to propel Dan through the water in Tokyo at record breaking speed?