Adam Peaty: From a fear of the bath to Britain's most decorated World Championship swimmer by age of 22

Adam Peaty
Swimming hasn't always come quite so easily to world champion Adam Peaty Credit: Reuters

It says something about the superhuman standards which Adam Peaty has set for himself that a second gold medal of the World Championships in the second fastest 50m breaststroke time in history can feel like something of an anticlimax.

So high has Peaty raised the bar that nothing less than a world record is now expected whenever he dives in the pool. After all the Olympic 100m champion had set two world records of 26.10 and 25.95 seconds in the space of a few hours in his 50m heats and semi-finals on Tuesday. On Wednesday night he was just 0.04 seconds outside that semi-final time in winning the final in 25.99 seconds with something to spare. An hour later the Uttoxeter swimmer was back in the water for the 4x100m medley relay in which Britain finished fifth.

After his victory in the 100m breaststroke on Monday, Peaty has now become Britain’s most successful swimmer at World Championships with five gold medals having defended the individual titles he won in Kazan in 2015. David Wilkie, the next most successful British swimmer, won three world titles between 1973 and 1975. At 22, he will probably double or even triple that tally.

It is quite a leap for a child who was once so scared of water that he would refuse to sit down in a bath and who as a teenager spent the 2012 Olympics getting “drunk in a field” after missing out on qualification. Now he is targeting nothing short of global domination. Having become the first swimmer to go under 26 seconds in the 50m, he wants to break his own world record in the 100m of 57.13 seconds in what he and his coach Mel Marshall dub “Project 56”.

“My main aim when I won the Commonwealths (in 2014), even though I was a young, skinny kid, was to try to take on the world – ‘Can I win all the grand slams in two years?’” Peaty said. “I didn't even think about world records. I just wanted those four titles within two years. Now I've done that. I’ve had an extra year now, got 16 international gold medals with all the world records.

Peaty in full flow Credit: Getty images

“These last four days have been very, very hard work. I've been on a rollercoaster of emotions – world records at the top and then trying to get myself grounded for the next race. I’m over the moon with my performances - 57.4 (in the 100m), the second fastest in history. It gives me confidence that I can one day go 56. That dream now is burning more alive than ever.”

Brazil’s Joao Gomes was second in 26.52 seconds while bronze went to Cameron van der Burgh, of South Africa, in 26.60. If half a second’s difference does not sound like a lot, in sprint terms it is a light year. As way of comparison, Ben Proud, Britain’s other gold medallist in Budapest, won the 50m butterfly by 0.04 seconds.

Truly Peaty is a freak. His gym workouts documented on YouTube are that of a circus act. Even Michael Phelps had his breath taken away by Peaty in Rio after witnessing his split of 56.59 seconds in the 4x100m medley relay. Collecting his 23rd and final Olympic gold medal, Phelps turned to Peaty on the podium and whispered “what the f*** man?”

Peaty celebrates yet another win Credit: Reuters

Peaty received another seal of endorsement from Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Olympics describing him in a newspaper interview as “incredible”. Unlike Spitz and Phelps, Peaty does not have the option of doubling up in other events, such are the unique biomechanics required for breaststroke.

Furthermore the 50m event is not part of the Olympic programme leaving Peaty just the 100 and 200m as individual events, effectively sprint and middle distance events. For now his focus is on the men’s medley relay on Sunday as he sounded a note of slight disappointment that he could not set a hat-trick of world records.

“In the final it's obviously going to be a little bit more tense,” Peaty said. “You're fighting for a title, not the world record. I just wanted to get out there, get the gold, get back, do the relay and focus on Sunday (in the 4x100m men's medley relay) now.

Peaty on the podium with his well-beaten opponents Credit: Reuters

“(Finishing in) 25 (seconds) makes it official that I'm a 25-point swimmer now, so that's good. I don't want to set it to 25.7, 25.6 and then not be able to do it again. We're starting to look at very fast times now for 50 breaststroke and I'm pretty sure I took an extra stroke that I shouldn't have taken, that slowed me down.”

There was further disappointment however in the mixed medley relay. Together with Georgia Davies on the breaststroke, James Guy on butterfly and Siobhan O’Connor on freestyle as Britain finished fifth in 3mins 41.56secs.  

The mixed medley will be added to the Olympic programme at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and Peaty is convinced Britain will be among the front-runners. “I’m immensely proud of these guys. In three years’ time (in Tokyo), I don’t want to say it, but we’re going to make history.”