There are three of us in the conversation. Myself. Adam Peaty. And The Beast.
“Sometimes the beast has got to come out; sometimes it’s got to rest,” explains Peaty, casting his mind back to the day two years ago when he became the first swimmer to dip under 57 seconds for the 100m breaststroke.
The great curiosity of that performance was not just that he went so far beyond any swimmer in history but that he should realise that particular dream at the semi-final stage of the world championship. Why not wait another 24 hours for the final?
“There was just something about that day,” says Peaty. ‘I was ‘f— it’. I needed to unleash the beast.”
Full permission to prise open the cage would not arrive until the final hours before the semi-final when Peaty went for a walk in Gwangju with his coach, Mel Marshall. “I could have said, ‘Chill, you don’t need to gas it tonight. The big show is tomorrow’,” says Marshall. “Your language can hold them back…but I just knew. He was chomping. Itching. It’s a feeling: ‘If he doesn’t go now he will explode anyway. He had been desperate for this for three years. He doesn’t want to wait any more’.”
And so what did Marshall say? “I had a whisper in his ear: ‘Your night is tonight. Go and —-ing get it.’ His eyeballs were red and he was gone.”
Peaty in the Men's 50m Breaststroke semi-final at the 2019 World Championships
Credit: Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
What followed over the next 56.88 sec was a performance that was swimming’s equivalent of Usain Bolt’s 9.58sec 100m world record or Bob Beamon’s 8.90m long jump world record.
Peaty now holds the 17 fastest times in his event’s history. He is unbeaten over 100m in major competitions since 2014, when he was only 19, and had entered the pool in Tokyo not just as the overwhelming favourite for his second Olympic gold but as the most dominant sportsperson in Great Britain today. Perhaps ever.
“I think he sits among the greats of all time in any sport,” says Marshall.
Peaty, though, always wants more. “I’m nearing my peak,” he told Telegraph Sport… “but I’ve not reached it. I think I’ll know when I do.”
Duncan Goodhew will never forget the day he first set eyes on a teenage Adam Peaty. The first Briton to win Olympic gold in the 100m breaststroke was hosting an event where the best freestyle swimmers in the country were racing around buoys over a 250m distance without turns. Peaty was largely unknown even inside swimming.
“By the end, these top freestylers all had purple lips because this 17-year-old up-and-coming breastroker — Adam Peaty — was going to beat them,” says Goodhew. “What was extraordinary was that you could sense Peaty dipping so deep into his reserves just at the thought of chewing on their toenails. It was incredible. I just thought, ‘Wow, we are going to see some more of him’.”
At this time, Peaty had just begun working with Bill Beswick, a sports psychologist who can count Sir Alex Ferguson, Roy Keane and Steven Gerrard among his former clients. Beswick tells his athletes that all sports psychology ultimately comes down to “you versus you; your weak side against your strong side; your victim side against your fighter side” and spoke in a way that instantly clicked with Peaty.
“He said, ‘Don’t fear the occasion, embrace it and be a warrior’ and, ever since, I have got my head down,” says Peaty. Beswick defines the warrior mindset as “doing the right thing repeatedly despite pressure and fatigue”. And, in Peaty, who says that his “dying philosophy is that no-one will work harder”, he would help mould the ultimate example of an athlete who never loses that daily battle.
“As the excuses roll in, and they do roll in, you bat them off one by one,” says Beswick. “Adam Peaty doesn’t take any excuses, his character starts at 6am in the morning and goes through until 8pm at night. That’s how champions are born.”
To see Peaty train up close, as Telegraph Sport did in March 2020, was to understand Beswick’s point. His alarm clock had sounded shortly before 6am for the first of two sessions, each lasting two hours. There would also be an ice-bath, massage and gym session in between, before lights out at 9pm.
Adam Peaty during training at Loughborough University
Credit: David Rose for the Telegraph
By the end of an average week, Peaty would have swum around 40 miles — more than 2,500 lengths of a regular 25m swimming pool. “I’m addicted every day to going into my workplace, hammering it, and coming out tired with a smile,” said Peaty. “I do not see the point in trying 80 or 90 per cent. I think that’s what sets me apart. There’s a balance between belief and self honesty. We say, ‘Go get it, but don’t bull—- yourself’. A lot of athletes fall into the trap of saying, ‘I’ve done this right, I’ve done that right’ even when, realistically, they know that it is not to the best of their ability. The end goal is to be the best version of yourself, so why would you get in the way of yourself?
“I have normal feelings. I feel s— some days. It’s not a linear thing — it’s taking advantage of when you feel good, and getting on with it when you don’t. Sometimes you just have to shut your mouth and swim.”
British swimmer Adam Peaty trains at his house during lockdown
Credit: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire
Authentic greatness, says Goodhew, is the end product of fusing such dedication and ambition with vast raw ability. “Usually elite athletes either have so much talent that they don’t know what to do with it, or they have a mind which says, ‘OK, I’m going to get it’. Very rarely do you get both. When you do, you get a Michael Phelps, you get a Michael Jordan … and you get an Adam Peaty. To call him special is an understatement.”
The story that gets told most often about Peaty’s early years is how he was terrified of water when he was a baby. “He used to scream every time he got in the bath,” says his grandmother Mavis, whose proud and prolific output on Twitter has attracted her own following.
Most relevant in understanding Peaty’s relentless thirst to win, however, is his immediate family background. Peaty is the youngest of four siblings (two brothers and a sister) and the one time that he looked genuinely emotional during five interviews across two years leading up to Tokyo was while reflecting on the sacrifices that were made when the rewards were nothing more complicated than a certificate at the end of a local swimming gala.
Peaty's nan, Mavis Williams
Credit: David Rose for the Telegraph
The family lived in a three-bedroomed semi-detached house in Uttoxeter. His father, Mark, was a bricklayer. His mother, Caroline, managed a day nursery. They only made it to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 to see their son’s Olympic gold when, having had their washing machine repaired, a chance conversation with the call-out engineer resulted in Whirlpool funding their trip.
Caroline, who is now 55, would schedule all her holiday leave around Peaty’s competitions and had never previously been on an aeroplane in her life. “I come from a very working-class family and made it in a sport which is relatively middle class,” says Peaty.
“Swimming is expensive. We found ways to make sure that I could afford to get to competitions, afford the race suits, which are £250 to £300, and only last a few races, and the goggles which are £50. My mum was waking up at 4am to take me training half an hour away in Derby and then back again for school. I didn’t have any interest in school but I got it done because legally you have to.
Adam with his Mum and Dad
Credit: Uttoxeter Advertiser/SWNS.com
“Then I used to get the bus back from school to Uttoxeter, which was another 25 minutes — enough time for some food or sleep — be at home for 20 minutes, get a meal down me, and then back to training [in Derby] for another three or fours including travel. It would be going from 4am until 10.30pm at night. What I do now is easy in comparison.”
The memory of such sacrifice provides infinite fuel and it is noticeable that Peaty only mentions feeling angry twice during our conversations. One is when he describes the rare sensation of losing: “It’s not a mad anger like I’m going to start hitting someone – it’s an anger that is controlled that I can put into my training.”
The other is the thought of more privileged swimmers wasting their opportunities. “I saw kids I trained with messing around in the pool or not taking it serious,” he says. “Because of my background, I literally thought that I can’t afford to do that. There was a massive sacrifice in terms of time and money. Without competition, I can’t really live. I love winning. I love the opportunity to win. I wasn’t going to waste that.”
Mel Marshall only needed to watch a 14-year-old Peaty swim breaststroke for a few strokes to know that an unusual talent had just walked through the door of the City of Derby Swimming Club.
“I thought ‘bloody hell, who is that?’” she says. “He looked like a JCB eating up the water.” Peaty’s sheer size immediately struck Marshall – he now stands at 6ft 3ins with size 12 feet – but there were certain other God-given advantages.
“He has huge hands – and his feet are on backwards,” says Marshall, describing a rare flexibility in both his ankles and knees. When Peaty kicks his legs, it means that he can deliver optimal force with an unusually narrow stroke. Rivals must go wider to generate similar force, allowing Peaty comparatively minimal resistance through the water.
Adam Peaty as a county swimmer aged 14
Credit: John Robertson
This advantage is then further maximised by the precise timing of Peaty’s stroke. “There is a sweet spot when you are travelling and what he does is kick his legs at that point where there is no resistance so he travels and travels and travels – he is built to do that,” explains Marshall.
It has all made Peaty unbeatable at full speed while moving in a straight line but, rather like Bolt in a 100m sprint, technical deficiencies with his start amount both to some vulnerability and the tantalising prospect of going even faster. Marshall smiles when she describes the challenge.
“Adam has been trying to skip for 11 years and still can’t properly – his athletic ability in the air, away from water, is not his strength,” she says. And this relative lack of spatial awareness can be significant while diving into the pool.
Peaty during a training session at the 2019 World Championships
Credit: PATRICK B KRAEMER/EPA-EFE/REX
Cameron van der Burgh, who was beaten into second place by Peaty in Rio, was timed at 6.0 sec over the first 15 metres. Peaty was 1.5 sec slower but has since cut his 15m time to 6.3 sec. Marshall thinks that the realistic scope for further improvement is now 0.1 or 0.2 sec. It is an area they work on relentlessly, with Peaty often diving over props like a physio ball in order to improve his coordination through the air.
Other innovations have included a specially commissioned silicon mould of Peaty’s head to determine the best position to minimise drag through the water and an ‘LED Rabbit’ which creates a bright moving line across the water for him to chase. They are both also well aware – but unconcerned – by rivals discreetly recording Peaty in an attempt to replicate his style.
“They do try,” says Marshall. “But a copy is never as good as the original. Look at Michael Johnson – you wouldn’t teach someone to run like that – but it worked for him. It’s about being the best version of you.”
Peaty: What makes Briton built for success
When the Queen’s birthday honours list was published last month, the sporting focus inevitably centred on the MBEs received by Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson. Sitting rather more anonymously on that same list was the swimming coach Melanie Marshall.
Her gong was for ‘services to sport and charity’ and, for all the technical, physical and psychological detail that has helped transform Peaty into one of the best athletes on the planet, there has surely been no more important component than an extraordinary coach-athlete relationship.
Marshall was herself a leading international swimmer, competing at two Olympics and winning seven Commonwealth Games medals, but says that coaching gives her “a greater buzz”. She lists priority number one as developing “a better person”.
Peaty in training with Mel Marshall
Credit: David Rose for the Telegraph
Marshall sponsored Peaty towards the cost of his first car — a Renault Clio — and talks with as much enthusiasm about their shared charity trips to Zambia, when he was only 17 and then again after Olympic gold in Rio, as what he has achieved in a swimming pool.
Peaty says that Marshall “knows me probably better than I know myself” and it is fascinating to watch their almost telepathic dynamic during training. They are both direct, no-nonsense and the language is sometimes industrial. But you can also feel the passion.
“Of course we sometimes fall out – that’s healthy – we work for seven hours every single day,” says Marshall, who says that their arguments never last more than a few hours. “As long as he apologises at the end I don’t mind,” she says, smiling, before describing how their relationship has evolved through the stages of dealing with a wide-eyed adolescent schoolboy to now a father and, in the world of swimming, a sporting legend.
“At the start of the journey, you stand face on,” says Marshall. “He needs instruction, discipline and support. Then it’s more side leadership – you think together and make a decision. Now it’s back. I’ll be whispering what he needs to remember but he’ll be telling me what he needs. You become an advisor. He becomes the expert. He drives the car. I provide the information.”
Peaty: 100m breaststroke world record progression
And does she sense that Peaty is as motivated as ever? “God yeah,” she says. “You have to hold him back sometimes. He was aware, because of where he is in his life, that this may be the last one. Not the last Olympics, but maybe the last chance to go quicker one more time.“
The challenge for us was to get all the 20 things which are needed to be faster together at one time on one day. Rio was the first chapter. The perfect end to this chapter would be, ‘Can you go quicker one more time?’ That’s what we were trying to achieve.”
Upon speaking for any length of time with Peaty, it soon becomes clear that he was not just racing his immediate opponents when he stepped onto the starting blocks in Tokyo. In his mind, he was also racing all those who will follow.
“It would be nice to end my career in a place where it’s, ‘yeah no one is going to beat that’,” he says. “I want to make sure I push the boundaries of what is possible. Michael Johnson’s record didn’t get broken for a long time in the 400m [17 years]. We’re probably looking even longer than that.”
Credit: Clive Rose/Getty Images
And what happens post-Tokyo if he can still win, but no longer swim faster? “That will probably be the new strategy,” he says. “When I do reach my peak, I think I will be OK, we have to switch up the training because we are no longer looking to go faster but we are looking to win.
“I think my life will change a lot in the next four years. I’ll be nearing 29 in Paris. In sport, that’s towards the end. I won’t be going on if I can’t win. If I see silver, no.
“Paris is pretty much definite. If I do exactly what I want to do, I can see myself probably going to 2028. Not so good, and 2024 is probably when I call it. But if you live year to year, it frees you up. If you live in the past or future it makes you anxious and you are not as free as you could be.”
Peaty: Peaty would leave predecessors trailing – including himself
Peaty wonders if his knowledge and experience of high performance, as well as a passion for fast cars, could frame what follows after swimming but it is impossible just now to give that any more detailed thought.
The birth of a son, George-Anderson, with his girlfriend Eiri Munro, and the whole experience of the Covid-19 pandemic have been two life-changing reminders over the past 18 months of how quickly perspectives can change.
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"To have a family to provide for is a huge motivation,” says Peaty. “Even if you have a s— day at the pool or gym you still walk in and they smile like nothing has happened. The most important thing you can pass on is wisdom and life lessons. I want him to understand emotions. If I didn’t expend all this energy, you think what would I be?”
Marshall believes that Peaty derived even more strength from fatherhood and was always convinced that the one-year Olympic delay would, if anything, work to his advantage.
“He doesn’t want it easy. If someone told us that the Olympics would be in the sea tomorrow in Skegness, and we had to put our own lane ropes in, so be it.”
Peaty was sad that there can be no fans in Tokyo, but never expected it to impact the outcome. “I love a crowd – I’m a showboater – but whatever scenario it is, I’m prepared. Be prepared to be unprepared. I find a way to win.”
And his legacy?
‘‘I want to end my career with a marker that no one can get near. I want to leave a legacy I can be proud of, but the real freedom, the real legacy comes from how can we push on when we don’t need to.
"And you want to do it in a way to be happy and inspire people. That’s what sport really is. Why would it exist on TV if not? People want to be inspired by greatness. The more you can do that, the more of a legacy you leave.”
At precisely 3.13am, UK time on Monday, five years of waiting was over. And the beast had been set free in Tokyo.