Adam Peaty grabbed the world’s attention at the Rio 2016 Olympics by breaking his own world record to win gold in the 100m breastroke. In July this year, the 22-year-old followed up that achievement by becoming the most successful British swimmer in a single World Championships, smashing his own world record twice in the 50m breaststroke. But Peaty’s focus isn’t only on the pool.
In August, Peaty travelled to Zambia for the third time with his coach, Melanie Marshall, to raise £50,000 for local children with 50 hours of sport through the Perfect Day Foundation and Sport in Action. On the day I caught up with them, they were playing netball with the pupils at Kalinglinga Primary School. The tournament was soundtracked by a fine selection of pop music, afrobeats and Congolese Rumba under the hot Zambian sun.
Peaty and Marshall were happy to be involved, enjoying the “spirit and positivity” of the Zambian people, if not the country’s staple food Nshima, a dish made from maize flour and water.
“We are out here playing sport and we’re terrible, but we’re trying to show that it doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad at something, just give it your best,” said Marshall. “I think that’s the philosophy that we try to show, whether we’re in Zambia or the UK, or whether we’re coaching young kids, big kids or adults.”
Peaty has taken a break from his rigorous 36-hour a week training schedule, with Marshall even allowing him the occasional beer. Earlier he was enjoying a packet of crisps and some melted chocolate, with his training set to resume when he returns to the UK.
“From a young age, just like these kids, I was enjoying swimming but I wasn’t taking it too seriously, which is kind of a downfall, especially in England,” said Peaty. “Parents are trying to find the next best Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and it just doesn’t happen like that – you have to let the kids enjoy it and follow their own path.
“It’s great to come out here because everyone’s enjoying it and putting in their best effort. There doesn’t need to be talk about marginal gains just yet!”
Peaty is disarmingly humble, which stems from a background where money was tight but support from his family and peers was ample.
“I didn’t come from a wealthy background at all. I am a massive believer that if you see a dream, you can feel it, and it will come to you. It’s about working hard and working smart, working with the best coach in the world who understands that different characters have different needs.”
Peaty describing Marshall as the best in the world underlines the high regard the duo have for each other. Marshall has been fighting Peaty’s corner ever since she recognised his talent as a 14-year-old.
“I always knew he had something and I knew we had something very unique. As it grew year upon year, when I first saw him, I thought ‘bloody hell, this kid is good’,” she explained. “In 2012, I stood in front of all the British swimming coaches at a conference and said ‘I bet you anything, any money you’ve got that this boy will swim 57 [seconds]’. They looked at me and said ‘shut up’ but I knew.
“When he was a young lad, it was me at the front, leading him on. He turned into a young adult in the sense of me more at the side, we work at it together. It is a partnership; I wouldn’t do something or force him into something without consulting him. It is a mature relationship, he wants the same things I want which is to dominate the world. It is concentration and constant communication, I am reliant on his feedback.”
Despite his success, Peaty is very down-to-earth. He listens to grime and hip-hop between races as he tries to stay relax, while he is grateful to his family for helping maintain his focus and the relentless desire to improve.
“Anyone can go out there and be the best for a year. Real athletes and real characters can do it for ten years. If you want to do it for ten years, you have to see yourself as a spider web in terms of your network of family, friends, Mel, my management team and all the people around me in the media,” said Peaty.
“Everything has to join together and not work against each other, if that all works it keeps you grounded. I get a lot of questions saying ‘You’re on top of the world, you’ve got the sponsors, you’ve got World Championship Medals and records. You’ve done everything you can do in two years, why don’t you just retire?’ I’ll know when I’m finished and that’s a long way away yet. There’s a legacy to chase for me to continue doing what I’m doing. I just like going to the pool and training right now.”
The 22-year-old is wearing a tight short-sleeved shirt that reveals a Lion tattoo on his arm that he got ‘just because I’m British’. He’s an imposing figure, with Marshall emphasising Peaty’s natural ability in becoming a swimmer.
“There’s some people you teach and there’s some people born with natural talent and he’s ten out of ten in terms of breastroke,” she says. “Everyone around him has a job to bring that out to maximize the best of his ability. You can teach the basics but the people that really excel are ones who can take the best of the basics and make them their own. Look at Michael Johnson, he didn’t run like anybody else, look at Bolt at six feet four, then there’s Phelps, and Adam’s different again.”
Being a role model is something that is important to Peaty. He grew up without a true role model in swimming, instead looking up to boxer Muhammad Ali. In the World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, he gave his gold medal to a beaming young fan. Now he is in Zambia to help inspire local children to find their passion for sport.
“The amount of difference you can make to a child’s life…you can’t put a price on that, so for me to go into Mel’s camps with kids around me, to give something to them that will change the way they think, the way they live, the way they do things, it’s just so powerful.
“They’re not going to listen to their parents, that’s natural, but they take to someone who’s won the Olympics and Worlds if you portray the right message. The generation of swimmers and next Olympians will also come through.”
Peaty and Marshall are enjoying their journey together that has already brought so much success. There is a chance that Peaty could even compete in the 200m breaststroke at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but for now it’s important to reflect on how far he’s come.
“Commonwealth and European Championship next year and back to training next week,” says Marshall when I ask what is next for the duo. As he strolls off to the netball court, Peaty adds, “To enjoy the journey day by day.”