Adam Peaty tells me he is addicted to the pain. The British swimmer is talking about the intense training required to compete in the Olympics. Day after day, hour after hour, he drags his body through water. Lactic acid floods his muscles. Fatigue fogs his mind. Yet he says he loves “the hard graft and hard hustle of swimming. It’s a gruesome sport to train for.”
If all goes to plan, 26-year-old Peaty will become one of the first Team GB athletes to collect a gold medal when the Tokyo Games begin on July 23. Don’t mistake this for hype or hubris. Peaty’s discipline is the 100m breaststroke. Not only does he appear to be free of competitors capable of snatching the title he first won at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but Peaty is much faster than any swimmer in history over this distance. His world record is 56.88 seconds. No one else has even come within a second of matching that time.
To put this feat in its proper context, it helps to understand that the 100m breaststroke is essentially a sprint through water. A second’s advantage is practically an unclosable gap. Put another way, Peaty is an eight-time world champion who has broken the world record on 13 occasions. His dominance in the pool is the sort that Usain Bolt enjoyed on the track and Michael Jordan had on the basketball court. Quantifiable, indisputable, know-it-when-you-see-it greatness.
“The majority of the public only see the gold,” Peaty says. “Nothing wrong with that, it’s just a very different understanding of the sport.”
So he’s set himself the task of not only beating his rivals in the 2020 Games, but all those who will enter the pool after him too. The swimmer’s goal is to shave just a few tenths of a second from his existing world record, completing the 100m breaststroke in as little as 56.5 seconds. To manage that, he’ll have to do one thing that has so far proven beyond him: swim the perfect race. Peaty has called this “Project Immortal”.
On a sweltering June afternoon almost a year after the pandemic-delayed Olympic Games were supposed to take place, I travel to Loughborough University in England’s Midlands, known as a training base for dozens of top British athletes. Peaty emerges from a red-brick building housing a pool, its roof the shape of a wave. We sit outside to remain socially distanced. The lingering fear is that a positive coronavirus test is the one thing that could yet scupper his Games.
Otherwise, Peaty acknowledges that he is the hottest of red-hot favourites in Tokyo. He also wants me to know that a top place on the podium is well earned, taking me through the exacting steps of his relentless daily schedule. “It makes you fight harder for those moments which define you. So the Olympics? I’m not letting this come past me because I’ve trained my arse off for this.”
Every morning except Sunday, he rises at 6.30am, often aching from the impact of the previous day. He leaves girlfriend Eiri Munro and their 10-month-old son George and takes a short drive to the pool while playing music to pump himself up. “Heavy rock, hip-hop or dance music,” he says. “I just press shuffle and then go with that mood.”
Fuelled by little more than a black coffee, he’ll swim 10,000 metres, or 200 lengths of an Olympic-sized pool, grinding his heavily tattooed arms through the water. He also hits the gym to sculpt his 6ft 3in body into the shape of a human torpedo. With broad shoulders that narrow into a small waist, Peaty looks a little like an action hero from a manga cartoon.
When he can’t cope with any more physical torment, the swimmer moves on to the next phase of his routine, spending many more hours in “recovery”, a process that allows his body to absorb the intensive training to ensure he gets better, stronger, faster.
To fuel himself, he consumes 8,000 calories a day (the average adult male needs 2,500), mostly a wholesome diet of chicken and fish, lentils and legumes, plant-based yoghurt and milk. When he’s not eating, he sits in ice baths — the cold stinging his skin but soothing his muscles — and once a week undertakes acupuncture, which releases painkilling endorphins into the bloodstream.
On the day we meet, I notice that his back is disfigured by dark round marks, the result of “cupping” therapy, in which heated cups are placed on the skin to ease inflammation and swelling. Peaty describes this as part of a “constant cycle of suffering”, one he’s keen to endure because “I’m obsessed with getting faster.”
“You just look at [my] results, and it’s getting faster and faster . . . but what [people] don’t see is the fucking 35 hours to 40 hours a week where I’m doing that,” he says, pointing at the pool. “The highest level I could possibly do it. Then I walk over to the gym and do the highest possible level there.”
Peaty was a less-than-intense 14-year-old when he first met his coach, Mel Marshall, at the City of Derby Swimming Club. The future Olympian grew up in the nearby market town of Uttoxeter, where his mother Caroline managed a nursery and father Mark worked in a local supermarket. An enthusiastic if unrefined swimmer, Peaty joined the club on the recommendation of a childhood friend. Marshall, a former British Olympian who competed at the Beijing 2008 Games, was initially unimpressed. “I just remember seeing him do freestyle. I thought goodness me, this will be interesting,” she says with a chuckle. “Then I saw him do breaststroke and I was like, this is quite special.”
One of the four recognised styles in competitive swimming, breaststroke requires swimmers to bob in and out of the water, taking sharp breaths, arms sweeping around them, legs propelling their bodies forward with a frog-legged kick. Even in his earliest days, Peaty’s technique set him apart. His legs remain narrower than others, allowing him to kick and glide with less water resistance.
But it was Marshall who forced him through the practice required to achieve the other key skill that marks him out: the ability to maintain a fearsome pace. Peaty takes 46 strokes to complete 100 metres. His rivals more typically take about 40 strokes. “He was a super-adapter,” Marshall recalls. “When we started doing gym with him, he couldn’t do a pull-up. Within two weeks, he could do 12.”
Peaty began to fully commit to swimming after watching the 2012 London Olympics, inspired by the outpouring of adulation for victorious home athletes. As a teenager, he set himself the aim of competing for Britain at the next Games.
Within two years, he was beating the then Olympic breaststroke champion, South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh, at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Two years after that, at the Rio Games, Peaty won, collecting the first Olympic gold by a male British swimmer in 28 years. The legendary US swimmer Michael Phelps described his performance as “one of the grossest swims I’ve ever seen”. (In American jock-speak, “grossest” means “best”.)
Peaty, however, kept getting faster. At the 2019 World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, he became the first man to complete a 100m breaststroke race in under 57 seconds.
There are varied theories as to why certain elite performers are capable of staying ahead of the pack and continually finding new ways to improve even further. Genetics plays a part. Peaty can generate immense force from his long legs and flexible ankles, all acting as huge paddles.
Since his competitors have similar physiques, a better answer comes from the late psychologist Anders Ericsson, dubbed the “world’s reigning expert in expertise”. The Swede’s life-long research suggests that behind every young prodigy, be it Beethoven or Bobby Fischer, there are many unseen years in which they honed their skills. The idea was popularised by the writer Malcolm Gladwell, who described a “10,000-hour rule” — the training time needed to reach the top of any field.
Ericsson reckoned that this rule, partly based on his research, was too simplistic. In his view, rote repetition should be distinguished from focused practice. To become a true master, certain conditions must be met. One is that the student must go beyond their “comfort zone”, constantly attempting skills outside their current ability. The “gold standard”, according to Ericsson, is “deliberate practice”, where a pupil also has an experienced teacher who knows the steps required to reach the top in a given field.
Peaty enjoyed all these conditions. He gained from an elite training that is the result of Britain’s recent obsessive focus on winning Olympic titles. After the country won one solitary gold in rowing at the 1996 Atlanta Games, successive UK governments have diverted millions of pounds of taxpayer money and proceeds from the National Lottery into training Britain’s best medal hopes. At the Rio Games, Team GB finished ahead of China and second in the overall medal table, achieving success in sports where multiple medals were up for grabs, such as track cycling, sailing and rowing.
Ahead of the upcoming Games, British Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, was granted close to £19m for its “Tokyo World Class Programme”, making it among the best-funded elite swimming regimes in the world. The cash paid for technical experts who analysed Peaty’s posture, allowing him to make infinitesimal improvements to his stroke to add power and reduce drag. In Marshall, he also had a sherpa who knew the route to the sport’s pinnacle.
“Mel had extreme expectations of me as a kid,” he says. Instead of doing 10 lengths of the pool, which was normal, “she’d say do 30, 40 or 60 . . . And I could process that very quickly. I’ve got 12 years of extreme training behind me.”
Ericsson’s work has shown that deliberate practice also leads to changes in the neural circuitry in the brain, boosting the capacity to achieve ever-more impressive feats. Focused training does not just improve ability, it increases the ability to improve. In the case of swimming, however, continual uplifts in performance are only possible through enduring physical pain too. This means churning through hundreds of thousands of metres in the pool.
“He can cope with so much,” says Marshall. “I would struggle to think of anyone who could match what he can do in training and preparation. I’ve never come across it before in my lifetime, and I’ve been swimming for 25 years. I’ve seen some incredible people. But he’s just relentless.”
Relentless performance comes with one major risk: burnout. When Peaty suffered a shock defeat to van der Burgh at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, it was his first competitive loss in four years. Looking back, he blames the failure on a new diet that led to rapid weight loss in the weeks before the event. “It’s like when a boxer cuts . . . weight too quick,” explains Peaty. “They lose all their testosterone, because the body just can’t produce it. You’re restricting so many calories that your natural hormone levels can’t be reached . . . I got on the block and felt weak.”
In response, Peaty trained less. He went out drinking with friends on weekends. It was a release of stress, an easing of pressure. His coach Marshall knew to back off during his “blowout”. “Mel lets the fire die out naturally,” he says. “Because if you force it, if you say to an athlete . . . you need to stop drinking, you need to focus on this. It’s like, whatever. I’ll continue doing it. Because it’s not my choice . . . It’s like any party, it is eventually going to stop.” He pauses, then laughs. “Unfortunately. As fun as it might be.”
After a few weeks, Peaty’s intensity in practice began to return. A year later, he broke the world record again. He went through a similar up-down-up cycle last year after hearing that the Tokyo Olympics were postponed. He allowed himself a few glasses of wine and spent more time with his then pregnant girlfriend.
Lockdown led to other disruptions. With no access to a pool, Peaty hit his home gym, his weight ballooning to 102kg. (In Tokyo, he aims to weigh around 94kg.) He began trimming the bulk by going on long walks. Then British Swimming installed the sport’s equivalent of a treadmill in his back garden: a Jacuzzi that produces a powerful current, allowing him to swim in place. Marshall ran his training sessions by watching over a video call on a phone.
As lockdown restrictions eased, Peaty returned to the pool at Loughborough. The old relentlessness returned too — and it has been paying off. At the British Olympic trials in April, Peaty posted a time of 57.39 seconds, meaning he then held the top 20 fastest times in the 100m breaststroke ever recorded. Dutchman Arno Kamminga snuck on to that list in April, becoming, with a time 57.90, only the second person ever to even swim under 58 seconds.
Unavoidably, coronavirus continues to mess with training. There’s the inconvenience of near-constant Covid-19 tests. Headspace must be given to adhering to social-distancing protocols at all times. No spectators will be present at the Tokyo Games. Peaty admits he’s a “showboater” who enjoys the shot of adrenaline gained from performing in front of a big crowd. Yet he won’t accept any excuses.
“If you’re a high-performer, you always have to find a way to high-perform,” he says. “That’s a non-negotiable in sport. Because as soon as you lose that non-negotiable, you’re in the back of the queue. You’ve lost your spot as the top dog.”
It is August 7 2016. Peaty walks into the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, goggles and red swimming cap tightly fastened. He peels off a blue tracksuit and lines up on the blocks. At the starting buzzer, Peaty dives into the water. From the corner of his eye, he sees that his old rival van der Burgh is slightly ahead. “He was always fast off the block,” recollects Peaty.
The chase is on. Each time Peaty comes up for air, his ears are hit by a deafening roar from the steep stands lining either side of the pool. A split second later, the noise is muffled as he submerges himself again. Amid this wave of sound, a blur of words and images runs through Peaty’s mind. “Push forward, push forward,” he tells himself.
In these moments, he’s largely unaware of what his body is doing. Thousands of hours of deliberate practice have given him the muscle memory required to make his stroke automatic. By the turn at 50 metres, van der Burgh is behind Peaty. At that point, he says, “I knew it was over.”
On the return length, observers are witnessing an optical illusion. Peaty appears to be speeding up, breaking away from the chasing pack. In reality, he is maintaining his stroke rate, decelerating less than fatiguing opponents. By the final 25 metres, Peaty is having an out-of-body experience, “picturing people cheering back home”.
“That’s a really powerful thing,” he says. “There’s literally people watching you around the world, no matter where they’re from. There’s always people that will be staying up to watch that race.”
Touching the wall to finish, Peaty already knows he is the Olympic champion. He turns to see a scoreboard that shows he has also recorded a new world record. Screaming in delight, he punches the water with his right fist, spray rising around him.
When you watch Peaty in the 100m breaststroke final in Tokyo on Monday 26, cast your mind back, if you can, to what happened in Rio five years ago. If he is ahead at the turn at 50 metres, the race for gold is effectively over. He simply won’t be caught on the back stretch. After that, keep one eye on the clock: 56.5 seconds — that’s the time Peaty wants to hit, the time he thinks means that he will effectively beat all those who come after him too.
Getting there will require perfection: his best ever reaction time to the starting buzzer, holding his high stroke rate, nailing the turn, retaining top speed into the final few strokes. Victorious or vanquished, the swim will last less than a minute.
Murad Ahmed is the FT’s sports editor
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