Adam Peaty: ‘It’s a fight in the pool. That’s when I feel I’m a god’

Show caption ‘The closer and closer I get to that call room and the closer I get to that block, the more I’m free,’ says Adam Peaty. Photograph: Jake Stevens Adam Peaty Adam Peaty: ‘It’s a fight in the pool. That’s when I feel I’m a god’ The fastest 100m breaststroke swimmer in history and Olympic favourite on his anger with dopers, his aims in Tokyo and becoming a father Donald McRae @donaldgmcrae Fri 16 Jul 2021 12.00 BST Share on Facebook

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Adam Peaty, the son of a bricklayer from Uttoxeter, often feels like “a god” as he approaches the deep blue pool where he dominates his Olympic event. Peaty has set the 20 fastest times ever swum in the history of the 100m breaststroke. It is a staggering statistic that captures the extent of Peaty’s supremacy and explains why he is regarded as Team GB’s one overwhelming favourite to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics.

On a quiet Saturday morning at home Peaty takes off his shirt to soak up the sunshine in his garden. He then reveals why, beyond his extraordinary swimming, he is one of the most interesting sportsmen in Britain. Having recently become the father to a mixed-race baby, as his girlfriend Eiri Munro is an artist of Nigerian descent, Peaty talks about racism and prejudice. He reflects on suffering and doubt, rages against doping in sport and tries to live in the moment. Peaty can also talk about so many kinds of music, from grime to classical, while displaying a clear intelligence and lightness of touch not usually associated with an Olympic giant.

We’re near the end of a long and absorbing interview when I mention the fact that his mum caught a plane for the first time in 2016 when she flew to Rio to watch him win his Olympic gold medal. Peaty smiles before reminding me that his modest background has fuelled his sporting drive. “I’ve always worked hard,” he says. “But my dad was a bricklayer so he was carrying bricks on his shoulders every single day. He was extremely hard-working and I inherited that. I’ve always loved to suffer, I’ve always loved hard work. It sounds weird, but I love suffering.”

The 26-year-old laughs. “I know that suffering will eventually pay dividends in victory. That relationship with suffering has driven me since I was a kid. I am working class – but millions of people in this country are also working class. They live paycheck to paycheck and can’t have luxury things. I was in a larger family with two brothers and one sister, so you had to fight for what you had and because I was the youngest I always had hand-me-downs. But that gives you an appreciation for the things you do have. I now really respect everything I have earned, such as my house. I’ve got a roof over my head, I can feed my family and enjoy the luxuries if I need them.

“Now, becoming a dad, I want to be the best role model possible to George to show him that if you want something, you get it by working hard. Don’t become lazy and ever think anything will be handed to you. That’s my upbringing in a nutshell. I don’t want to sound too harsh on my parents because they did so much for me, and gave me so much, but there were also so many kids that had so much more and that’s spurred me on.”

Peaty: ‘It sounds weird, but I love suffering.’ Photograph: Jake Stevens

Last year, just before Covid swept across the world, Peaty and Munro discovered they were going to be parents. Their lives changed forever in lockdown, in a positive way, and Peaty feels he is now a different person as a father and partner in a mixed-race family. “I really think I am,” he says, “and I have a platform being an athlete, especially coming into the Olympics. Eiri obviously has more of a perspective and an understanding because she’s half-Welsh, half-Nigerian. She calls it an unusual cocktail but, apart from her brothers and sisters, she was the only black kid in her area.

“She can speak about race much more powerfully than I can. For me it really comes down to being a decent person. There is so much hate in the world and I always think back to the film American History X [made in 1998 and starring Edward Norton as a reformed white supremacist] where the main guy is basically a Nazi who hates black people. He goes to prison and the guy who is trying to reform him asks: ‘Has any of this hate made anything in your life better?’ We should ask that question to anyone racist or sexist or homophobic.

“Why do people even care about the colour of your skin or your gender or who you love? For me it’s silly we cause so much segregation it becomes embedded in our culture and everyday lives. It’s hard for me as a white male to say this because I definitely had so much privilege that I didn’t even realise at the time. I think there is a new understanding, especially since last year, that we don’t really know how lucky we are [as white people].”

Peaty watched the video of George Floyd being murdered beneath the knee of a white American policeman in May 2020 with this deeper awareness of racism building inside him. “The scariest thing was that it’s not an isolated issue,” he says. “You see it happening all the time in America and over here where the police abuse their power. We need to change things and no hashtag or single movement will solve that unless we really address issues deep down in society. For us as parents to George it’s about education and understanding your brothers and sisters are around you every single day. They might not be part of your family but they are your neighbours and part of your community. We should all be proud of that and not be disgusting about the colour of anyone’s skin.

“No baby is born hating anyone. They are all innocent until they are poisoned by prejudice. I want to educate George as best I can so he can be proud of his heritage and where his ancestors come from and able to speak out on whatever matters most to him.”

Peaty at the official announcement of the Team GB swimming squad in April. Photograph: Alex Pantling/Getty Images for British Olympic Association

Peaty has the platform to make a small difference because, during the Olympics, he will be one of the most visible athletes in the GB squad. He also carries the conviction of a champion. “Mike Tyson said: ‘The closer and closer I get to the ring, the more I become a god,’” Peaty remembers. “I know what that means. When I’m preparing for the Olympics I’m very chilled because preparations are going well. But every day I get closer and closer [to racing], the more confidence I get. In sport you need that aggression.

“I obviously don’t have to knock someone out to win but it’s still going to be a scrap that involves technique, strategy and power. But, basically, it’s a fight in the pool. So the closer and closer I get to that call room and the closer I get to that block, the more I’m free. That’s when I feel I’m a god in the sense I’ve got full capability to do what I want. I can fully utilise that gift I’ve been given by whatever maker there is because I don’t necessarily have a religion. But I believe the universe has ways of giving you gifts and taking them away as well.”

Peaty’s god-like status in the pool was confirmed in April when, at the British trials, he swam the 100m breaststroke in 57.39sec. While it was not close to his world record of 56.88, Peaty’s swim meant he had recorded the 20 fastest times in history. He followed it up a week later by winning four gold medals at the European championships. “It’s a great milestone to have the top 20 times,” he says. “It’s definitely not easy to do. But I’m not happy until I do what I need to do in the Olympics – to prove I can do it when we’ve had a lot of shit thrown at us, a lot of Covid protocols that we’re all fed up of doing. Disrupted training, no camps, no competitions abroad which usually keeps that motivation firing. It’s been so hard but for me to do the top 20 swims and then go so fast in the Europeans is a testament to my versatility and resilience.

“The Olympics now feels like one of the easiest championships in terms of preparation. All the hard work is done and I’ve fought extremely hard battles. I fended everyone off in the Europeans when I was tired and they still couldn’t get me. I’m not sure many people would understand, but being free as an athlete means you can find your flow instead of worrying about other competitors. Instead of being anxious I’m trying to live that Buddhist point of view, being in the present instead of the past and the future. I’m thinking about now and that can unlock me as an athlete when it comes to the Olympics.”

Apart from when he is living in the moment, Peaty is exceptional in setting himself future targets. The idea of a swimmer taking less than 57 seconds to complete the 100m breaststroke seemed outlandish even to an icon of the pool in Michael Phelps, who won 28 Olympic medals. When Peaty won the 2016 Olympic final in 57.13, Phelps described it as “one of the grossest swims I’ve ever seen. I’m just glad I don’t have to race him.” But Peaty was just getting started and he set out to crack Project 56 – as he motivated himself to dip under the seemingly impossible 57-second barrier. Peaty achieved the feat in a monumental swim at the 2019 world championships.

Peaty on the blocks ahead of the men’s 50m breaststroke final at the European championships in May. Photograph: Tamás Kovács/EPA

“It doesn’t matter what number it is,” Peaty says now. “It could be Project 55 or 54. I’ll always push further if I’ve got a goal in mind. But I break down those goals into smaller ones to make them achievable. You’re pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible so it can be quite overwhelming. But I told myself: ‘Just break it down, enjoy the stroke and do a few laps in the baths.’ It’s that simple.”

Peaty is now pursuing Project 55. Could he really swim the 100m in less than 56 seconds? “We’ll see where we’re at after the Olympics. But, potentially, I could. You’ve got to go out 26 low and get back in 29. That’s outrageous … it will take a lot.”

Peaty has not lost a race in the 100m breaststroke in major competitions for more than seven years. But, at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, he was beaten narrowly by South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh, his former hero, in the 50m breaststroke final. “It wasn’t a moment of hate,” Peaty says. “It was a moment of: ‘This is sport.’ Cameron’s one of my fiercest competitors. I enjoyed every single race with Cameron because I didn’t know what he was going to do. A lot of my main races with him were in my early 20s when I still had a lot to learn. His son Harry is only a week or two older than George so it’s crazy how it all turns out. Maybe in 20 years’ time we’ll have another head-to-head. A grudge match.”

What happened in his 2018 loss? “I overprepared and overfocused on that race. The key is hard work but not overthinking it. A few months later at the Europeans I broke the world record. So I needed that loss to re-establish my stroke and who I was – which is that I work extremely hard. I remember sitting down with Mel Marshall [his coach] and I was like: ‘What have I done wrong?’ It’s one of those things where your diet came into play and you didn’t have enough muscle, you didn’t have enough technique, you weren’t really that focused in your gym work. So we rectified these things and we’re back at it.

“I’m glad it happened. It’s just as important to lose as it is to win because it gives you a sense of equilibrium. Otherwise there is no balance, no hunger. If you never take a loss you get complacent and you don’t do the things that made you successful in the first place. I knew Cameron had me because I felt so weak in that 50m. I touched the wall and I was like: ‘Yeah, fair play, he had one of his best swims and it’s great to see South Africa across the pool.’ They were dancing and cheering. It meant a lot to them.”

Doping is fraud and, until we treat it like fraud, nothing will change

There is more regret that the 50m breaststroke is still not an Olympic event. Longer races have been introduced which Peaty believes is a mistake. “People can’t engage with long races. You want to see the fast stuff. Look at athletics. The most popular race is the 100m sprint. How can swimming grow the sport by putting 800m and 1500m in the Olympics? Why do people watch sport? To be entertained and inspired. Show them entertainment, show them the background stories, show them what it’s like in the call room, get the right interviews and people will buy into the sport. Unfortunately, it’s more political than that and it’s going to be a long time before anything changes. But hopefully we all agree that dopers should definitely be out of the sport.”

Peaty has long been one of swimming’s most outspoken advocates against doping. Is the war on doping any closer to being won? “No way. If you look at Covid, I’m pretty sure there was plenty of opportunity for people to cheat. How much doping control was there around the world? I’m not even sure if it’s back to normal now because I had probably five months off without having a drugs test in the UK. That’s ridiculous and I know halfway round the world they’re not even bothering with testing. It’s going to take years and years to catch them.

“So much comes down to how we treat dopers. We give dopers a slap on the wrist, a one-year ban, and they’ll be back again. It’s not enough. It’s embarrassing for Fina [the international swimming federation], it’s embarrassing for the IOC.

“How are you going to grow the sport when it’s rife with doping issues and it’s rife with cheats? You wouldn’t get a promotion if you cheated and said you went to Harvard when you actually didn’t go to uni. Doping is fraud and, until we treat it like fraud, nothing will change. Unless you go to prison for doping and gaining money from other athletes and other companies, nothing is going to change.

“It’s other sports as well. The track is ridiculous. I see someone win and he has been banned three times. How can anyone say: ‘Oh, he’s amazing, he’s inspiring?’”

Peaty will be one of the most intriguing and provocative athletes in Tokyo where, he stresses, he will fight for his expected gold medal. “I’m confident but I’ve still got to go into that arena. I’ve still got to fight. I need to earn it. Anything can happen in sport but it comes down to the mindset and not giving an inch. I am not going to say gold is already mine. I’m not an arrogant person. I’d just say that other people are going to have to fight extremely hard to get anywhere near it.”

On Tuesday 20 July at 12pm BST, join British Olympians Mary Peters, Fatima Whitbread and Alistair Brownlee for a Guardian Live livestreamed event as they look ahead to Tokyo 2020. Book tickets here.