This article first appeared in Attitude issue 294, Summer 2017.
Words: Adam Duxbury
Photography: Daniel Jaems
Fashion: Joseph Kocharian
He won Olympic gold in the 100m breaststroke in 2016 — Team GB’s first in Rio — and holds three world records. now, the amazingly built Adam Peaty tells us about an early hatred of the water, his work ethic and inspiring others…
On a recent trip to Indianapolis, Olympic gold-medal-winner Adam Peaty noticed that his fellow competitors were filming his underwater performance. He shrugged and took the sneaky tactics in his stride. At 6ft 3in, weighing 89kgs during race days, and with a tiny waist, epically broad shoulders, huge hands and flexible knees, he’s a natural-born swimmer. And last year he smashed world records at the Rio games.
It’s hardly any wonder that his rivals want to copy his unique style after he became the first man to dip under 58 seconds in the 100m breaststroke in 2015 — a record that was only broken when Adam himself cut the time to 57.13secs in Rio, securing team GB their first gold in the process. And with all the talk in swimming now on Peaty’s “Project 56,” he’s too far ahead of the pack to worry about anyone copying him.
When we first meet the 22-year-old Staffordshire native, we’re squeezed into a taxi with his girlfriend — sorry guys, he doesn’t swim our stroke — as we head to the photoshoot. He’s about to step up his training in preparation for the World Championships in Budapest, where he hopes to break that 56secs record. He tells us about his gruelling training regime, how it felt to win Olympic gold and why swimming is more about brains than brawn.
Am I right in thinking that as a child you had a fear of water?
Yeah. I used to go in with my mum, then crawl up her arm and do anything to get out of the water. Eventually, when I saw my mates were enjoying it, I relaxed a bit. But as a kid I didn’t even like having showers!
Your coach, Melanie Marshall, said she wasn’t that impressed with your performance in the freestyle but that she noticed “something special” from the first time she saw you swim breaststroke. What was that quality?
I think my technique for breaststroke was very different to everyone else’s. I would come very high out of the water, to do that you need to have a very strong upper body. A lot of breaststrokers don’t have that. But once I started to train with her, she noticed that I had an unparalleled work ethic — I just used to work much harder than anyone else. I loved to race as well so I kind of have that perfect match, and I also love to win.
When it comes to your teammates you’re both training with them and competing against them. How do you balance that but remain friends?
There is a lot of rivalry but at the end of the day you’ve just got to make yourself stand out. The key moment for me was when I was on one of these swimming camps where all the top juniors make it to the senior level. When we arrived at the first session, they asked who wanted to go first. Everyone was just standing back but I volunteered. You’ve got to be the first to stand up on those blocks and say: “I’m gonna lead this.” It’s small things like that. If you can join them all together, you’re already becoming that more senior athlete.
Is the discipline required to be a swimmer at your level the hardest part?
Yeah, it is. Anyone can turn up to one session and absolutely smash it. But not everyone can have the consistency to keep going, especially at this level because it’s so much about what goes on in the head and not in the body. If you can continue to push yourself, find new areas to improve, then you’re laughing.
Is a swimmer’s body built at the gym or in the pool?
I’d like to think it’s all mental, but you do need that talent and the correct gene pool to have the performance. I do alot of gym work compared with most swimmers, to get a stronger torso and the upper body I need. We do about 20 hours in the pool, 10 hours in the gym — so actually a lot of it is in the pool. Normally, swimmers are like a reverse triangle, I’ve got a small waist and big shoulders so I guess I’m shaped by swimming but the gym benefits me in a big way.
I know some swimmers have certain natural physical characteristics that help them — Michael Phelps has those huge feet that are like paddles. Do you have anything in particular that helps your performance?
I’ve got double-jointed knees so I can do this [demonstrates his ability to turn his knees sideways, making everyone stare].
And does that actually help you in the pool?
I guess so, because I’ve got hyper flexibility when my legs move sideways. So maybe that helps with breaststroke. Also, I’ve got enormous hands compared with most people so that helps. And my family — my dad and brother — can put on muscle easily. To be able to grow muscle quickly is a big bonus. When I was 17, I put on 12-15kg of muscle in a year. Someone else who was doing the exact same programme only put on 2kg. That advantage is vital.
I just watched you scoff a sandwich. Are you allowed to eat whatever you want?
[Laughs]. When I’m in full training it doesn’t really matter because I’m burning everything and the quality of intake doesn’t have to be that high. If I’m in full training — proper, hard, winter training — I’m on about 8,000 calories a day. When you’re racing though it does need to be of a better quality.
So, does all that attention to your diet make you a bit of a dab hand in the kitchen?
I’m not too bad, I guess. I like to cook chicken, salmon and sea bass but that’s about it. I like my spices to get my metabolism going, but I avoid the sauces because they are empty calories.
I saw you did an advert for Quorn. Is that something you find useful?
I will sometimes have it but I try to eat as much real meat as possible because it helps in my training. I don’t eat red meat and just try to stay on chicken and then fish. I do care for the environment; if I could be a full-time vegetarian it would be easier. Maybe one day. I don’t drink milk either, just soya. It’s stuff like that, just making little changes. But for an athlete it can be difficult because when you’re at hotels abroad they often have such limited options if you’re not eating meat. If you say vegan, in lots of other countries they don’t know what you mean.
How did you feel when you won gold in Rio?
It was crazy, I did my first heat and was like: “Oh my God, what have I just done?” My first Olympic race and it’s a world record. That was pretty cool. And then in the semi-finals I was just 0.04 seconds slower. In the final, I just thought: “OK, let’s push this on.” But I’ve never felt quite as I did on that last 50m because obviously you can hear the crowd but only when you come up. So I was down, silence, and then when I came back up there was a roar — you could just feel the energy and the atmosphere. I remember touching the side, turning underwater and seeing everyone behind me and thinking: “You can’t bottle this now.” It gave me 10 shots of adrenaline and I went for it.
What goes through your mind in moments like that?
It’s weird because I didn’t really get that nervous during the Olympics. I’d swam that race a thousand times in my head. I’m a big fan of visualisation so I’ll always visualise my race beforehand. I was so confident in the heats and semi-finals — the next person was about two seconds behind me — that really helped. Sometimes I have to make myself nervous to ensure that extra performance.
Tell us a bit about your visualisation technique.
I would imagine myself walking towards the block, looking around, taking my clothes off as I do, slapping my legs, getting on the block and rubbing my feet on the sandy surface. If you start feeling your environment and seeing it at the same time — what will the water feel like? Who’s going to be beside me? What’s it going to be like when you touch the wall? —you can prepare yourself for every situation and that’s something that really helps me. I’ve done that since day one. It could be weeks ahead and right up to half an hour before the race. Now that I’ve seen the pool in Budapest, I’ve already swum the race in my mind.
At the British Championships recently you gave your gold medal to a young fan in the crowd.Why did you do that?
I finished my race, got my medal, and, I don’t know how to say this without sounding arrogant, but because I’ve won so many, it doesn’t mean that much to have the actual hardware whereas for a kid in the crowd it could mean the world to him. Even if it’s for a week where he starts smashing his training. For me it’s all about titles and qualifications, whereas for him it’s about his future — he might look at that medal and think he can do the same.
Do you like to see yourself as a role model?
Yeah, that’s very important to me. To leave a legacy and inspire the next generation of Olympic athletes. Not just that, but also to inspire people in the country to be the best doctors or the best teachers. I want to spread a positive attitude and inspire as many people as I can through sport. Sport is a very powerful thing, you don’t need a language, you don’t need any communication, you can just get in the pool together and then shake each other’s hand. That’s how powerful sport is to me.
Your career has brought you to the world’s attention. Do people stop you to ask for an autograph as you walk down the street now?
Yeah, and it’s been a big learning curve. Everything changes. As soon as you touch that wall and win gold, especially it being the first one for Team GB, life changes. But I never really expected [it to change] this much. To me it’s just a medal but it does have such an effect on the country back home and it does alter everything. I had to move house after that. I live up near Loughborough now and it gets hectic whenever I go back home.
Did you get the tattoo to celebrate your Rio victory?
Yeah, I did. Obviously the lion is a patriotic symbol and it’s got 2016 below. I am very proud to be British, so that’s also one of the reasons I got it. And then obviously there are the Olympic rings on my arm.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a swimmer?
I’d probably still be in the sports industry. I’ve always had an interest in bodybuilding or maybe I’d be in rugby or boxing, although it was my ambition to join the army as a kid. Then swimming took over [laughs].
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Location: With kind permission, at the spa at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel.