“This is my arena,” says Adam Peaty defiantly, looking back towards the Loughborough University swimming pool. The three-time Olympic champion envisions a grueling 11-month journey to the Paris Olympics from here as he sets his sights on defending his 100m breaststroke title for a second time. Then, with an unwavering gaze, Peaty recites a famous quote from Mike Tyson: “The closer I get to the ring, the more confident I become.” “Once I’m in the ring, I’m a god…” “That’s what we have to do at the Olympics. “The closer I get to this, the more of a god I must become.”
Peaty is convinced of this and appropriately has a tattoo of the sea god Poseidon on his left forearm. Until last year, Peaty was untouchable after an eight-year unbeaten streak. The three-time Olympic champion has set new standards in the breaststroke discipline and particularly dominated the 50 m and 100 m races, where he still holds world records with 25.95 and 56.88 seconds.
But a hasty return to the pool last year after breaking his foot meant his run ended and he finished fourth in the 100m at the Commonwealth Games. A “terrible” 48 hours followed, only for Peaty to activate his “survival instincts”, rally and win gold in the 50m in Birmingham. But despite his admirable resilience, Peaty was still feeling the effects after years of extreme dedication to his sport. He says The Independent He never hit the snooze button on alarms, a mentality that took him to unprecedented heights, even if it ultimately came at a cost. The 28-year-old withdrew from this year’s British Championships for mental health reasons. The relentless and sometimes destructive path to greatness eventually taught him the value of “balance.” And after a long break, Peaty is back.
“I pretty much hated it. But now I’m enjoying it so much again,” says Peaty, a Bridgestone ambassador, in a wide-ranging interview. He’s just returned from a walk with Ada, his beloved Doberman, and busted through a strict exercise regimen of up to 7,500 calories a day. “I am the happiest I have ever been and also the most calculated and balanced.
“Paris is obviously 11 months away now, it’s a big challenge and I thrive when I’m given a big challenge. I am looking for my final form, in everything: in my life and also in my relationships with people. How I operate in the center and on the performance side: swimming, gym, recovery, nutrition and psychology.
“I’m going to Paris, of course I have to qualify first, so we’ll stay grounded. But when I get there, hopefully I’ll give my best performance. No stone is left unturned, that is my goal. No regret.”
After successes in Rio and Tokyo in the 100m, Peaty has a rare opportunity to join the immortals in the Olympic pool by winning three consecutive gold medals in an individual event. Michael Phelps is the only man to do so in two events, including his fourth consecutive gold medal in the 200m individual medley. Katie Ledecky (800m freestyle), Krisztina Egerszegi (200m backstroke) and Dawn Fraser (100m freestyle) also won three straight titles.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the rest of the story is Qin Haiyang, who won all three breaststroke events at this year’s world championships in Fukuoka, where Peaty kept a watchful eye at the pool. Although the Chinese swimmer’s winning time in the 100m, an Asian record of 57.69 seconds, is still 0.81 seconds shy of Peaty’s world record.
“I’ve never met the guy, but I’m up for the challenge,” Peaty says with a twinkle in his eye. “It will be a good race. This is what the sport needs. When one person is constantly dominating, the question is, ‘Should I tune in or not?’ I welcome that, because that’s how great things happen.”
Part of that challenge will be avoiding distractions caused by the increased attention brought by one of Team GB’s faces, who hit the headlines last week after a “minor altercation” with teammate Luke Greenbank.
“I challenge myself to be effective but balanced,” adds Peaty. “I think it will give me a good performance. How not to get lost in the noise. Obviously, as you said, there is a lot of noise around you, that may not be true, it could be true. The noise is the same. The most important thing for me is that the performance is protected.”
It remains to be seen whether Peaty will use his previous world record pace to upset Qin. He claims swimmers have “no idea” whether they are ready to rewrite the history books until they hit the wall and that to claim otherwise is “all lies.” “It’s better if there’s a person next to you.”
Last week, UK Sport set out its aim for Olympians and Paralympians to not only win in Paris, but also to “win well”, as the organization prioritizes athlete welfare in the wake of recent scandals. It is a subject that brings a passionate touch to Peaty, having gained extensive experience over the years from Uttoxeter to Loughborough and on the world stage.
“You can, but on a large scale? “Probably not,” Peaty remarked as he reflected on the potential to continue Britain’s recent success, which finished fourth in the medal table in Tokyo, while prioritizing athlete welfare. “It’s just honesty, people don’t want to hear the honesty of an athlete who has been through the system. There is a good way to win, and what they mean by that is defined by different values. But it is incredibly difficult to achieve mental wellness and well-being at the same time.
“We have to sacrifice a lot, but more and more in the world we don’t want to sacrifice, we just want the result.” That’s how I see the world, it’s just my opinion. People coming through, younger kids, not everyone, but they want it now. On the welfare side, there is a fine line between what is acceptable and what is not.
“Do we need to get closer to that to achieve performance? A coach has to be tough, he has to be brutal. I’ve been called things and it makes me go faster. I say: ‘Yes, then go ahead!’ But not every athlete is like that. Coaches have to learn. And they will learn. The best individual coaching would not suit a completely different personality than me. I love it when people yell at me. I love it when people are angry. I ask them [Peaty’s coach Mel Marshall] yelling at me, just getting mad at me.
“We don’t want to lose what makes us good. We don’t want to become a PC environment where we can’t do or say anything. This is my worst nightmare and it’s the worst nightmare for the children coming through. We need less of it, we need to be human, crack a joke, know when the joke is over, get to work and that’s how the best teams in the world work.
“Ten years ago, how do we protect the next generation from going too far on this side? We have to work harder. We will see. This is something I am passionate about. There has to be a line. On both sides. We can’t make sure that line is too far on this side.
“There is no way I would have achieved what I have without tough love. My brain would go crazy and be arrogant like a teenager if I didn’t have someone yelling at me. Mel was incredible, I wouldn’t have made it through the sport without her. And maybe I wouldn’t be the athlete I am today, maybe there would have been a new type of athlete.”
So Peaty still appreciates what it takes to be the best and the potential risks that come with it. But a new perspective and wisdom means he’s now able to press pause when necessary. His three-year-old son George inspires him, while Peaty is content to spend an evening with a cup of green tea and an episode of Ballers.
No longer addicted to the grind, Peaty can approach his craft more efficiently while redefining his legacy beyond the pool.
“It depends on what people think of you, so you have no influence or control over your legacy,” Peaty explains. “The ego in me wants to say I did it [changed breaststroke], but the person in me wants to say that I don’t deserve that much credit. I’d say it’s somewhere halfway there.
“I think I’ve had a big impact on the community in terms of stroke, how people perceive stroke frequency and number of strokes, how quickly you do it and what’s possible. Hopefully I have inspired many people to make their own lives better. The most important thing is to provide a platform for the next generation. At the top it will take a lot, take, take, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I believe that for a sport to be authentic and grow over time, you have to start at the grassroots. That is the true legacy.
“This is my world. People know what I’ve done and maybe think I’m the greatest of all time. Everyone will have their opinion, look at Messi and Ronaldo, they’re both incredible athletes, but people will “Kill each other because they like to clash. Hopefully they’ll just say he’s an incredible athlete and give a lot back to the sport, that’s all I really want.”