Adam Peaty: The man who made British Olympic history in the pool

Peaty became the first British swimmer to retain an Olympic title.

David Charlesworth
Monday 26 July 2021 05:54
Adam Peaty has won another Olympic gold (Adam Davy/PA)
Adam Peaty has won another Olympic gold (Adam Davy/PA)

Adam Peaty is part of a select band of athletes in Olympic history where the burning question is not so much about whether he will win but by how much and if another world record will tumble.

For Peaty, who as a child developed a fear of water and being put in a bath after his older brothers mischievously told him sharks could get in via the plughole, is redefining what appears possible in the men’s 100 metres breaststroke.

Being unbeaten in seven years in major events is remarkable but to be almost one second clear of anyone in history is scarcely credible. It seemed only coronavirus or a slip on a wet board could have denied him glory at Tokyo 2020.

Adam Peaty celebrates his gold medal (Adam Davy/PA)

On the horizon with a time of 57.8 seconds in Friday’s heats was Arno Kamminga, but, to put that into context, Peaty breached the 58-second barrier for the 20th time after retaining his Olympic title.

No British swimmer had ever done so but Peaty’s path to gold in Japan has seemed inevitable. He duly delivered in Monday’s final in a time of 57.37secs – half a second slower than his personal best, but that was a mere footnote.

Peaty’s status as one of Britain’s best swimmers is well established and some would argue he already tops the list. He could remove any doubt in the minds of some by claiming a hat-trick of golds at Paris 2024, before he turns 30.

It is a far cry from his early relationship with the pool, where aged 14 his front crawl underwhelmed the coach who would become his guru so much that she packed him off in one of the slower lanes with younger girls.

(PA Grahpics)

However, Mel Marshall spotted his natural ability in the style he has come to master, helping to hone a chiselled 6ft 3in frame that is able to power adroitly through the water and leave all his rivals struggling to keep up.

It was at the City of Derby Swimming Club where the pair first met and it was his mother Caroline who woke up at 4.30am every morning to take the youngest of her four children from their home in Uttoxeter to training.

Peaty has credited his father Mark for instilling a relentless work ethic that only surfaced in a sliding doors moment while watching London 2012, which put the then unfocused 17-year-old on the right path.

He has not looked back, rising to prominence at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow by pipping his idol Cameron van der Burgh to gold. Peaty and the South African would go toe-to-toe many times with the Briton often prevailing.

European and world honours swiftly followed – as he dominated both in the 100m and 50m, which to Peaty’s chagrin is not an event included in the Olympics – before making his presence felt as he won Team GB’s first gold in Brazil.

A time of 57.13s – a jaw-dropping 1.56s clear of the field – shattered the world record he had set days earlier as he became the first British male to become Olympic champion since Adrian Moorhouse in the same event at Seoul 1988.

The great Michael Phelps was left astonished in his final race later on in the Games as Peaty clocked 56.59s in his split of the 4x100m medley relay. The United States won but Peaty had a fan in the 23-time Olympic champion.

Peaty had a lion and the Olympic rings tattooed on to his left arm as a reminder of his success but pride did not come before a fall on this occasion, as his achievements in Rio only spurred him on further.

Adam Peaty with his gold medal in Rio (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Thus ‘Project 56’ was born and conquered as he clocked 56.88s en route to yet another gold medal at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, to continue a hegemony few have enjoyed in any sport.

Peaty talks well about offbeat topics such as his beloved grime to more serious issues such as diversity, having last year become a father to a mixed-race baby boy with girlfriend Eiri Munro, who is of Nigerian descent.

He has credited the arrival of son George with giving him a fresh perspective on life and while many questioned whether the burden of expectation would get to him, Peaty spoke with authority about how he embraces pressure.

Peaty certainly showed no sign of being overwhelmed on his way to making history. He may not finish with the medal counts of the likes of Phelps or Usain Bolt, but what he is achieving is no less extraordinary.