A strict focus, fast cadence and indomitable confidence: What makes Adam Peaty swimming's equivalent of Usain Bolt?

Adam Peaty has constantly rewritten the history books during his career
Adam Peaty has constantly rewritten the history books during his career Credit: Rex

So just how exceptional is Adam Peaty? What makes him so good? And where does he now stand among the greats of swimming?

Questions that extended beyond simply the usual positions and times were in the air in Gwangju, South Korea on Monday after Peaty followed up his extraordinary world record on Sunday with a third straight world title in the 100m breaststroke. His quest for the triple double and who knows, yet another world record, begins on Tuesday in the 50m breaststroke.

The first of the questions is answered most easily, where it is perhaps sufficient simply to say that there are good judges who now regard him better in his own chosen discipline even than Michael Phelps, the most successful Olympian of all time. 

Phelps has admitted that he was happy not to be in the same event following the 2016 Olympics when he described Peaty’s new 100m breaststroke world record of 57.13 secs as “one of the grossest swims I’ve ever seen”. Gross, in this context, can be safely interpreted as high praise and Phelps was equally effusive when he heard about Peaty’s ‘Project 56’ attempt not just to be the first under 58 seconds but also 57. “You’re going 56 seconds in breaststroke? Are you kidding me?” said Phelps. 

We discovered this week that Peaty absolutely was not joking when he won his semi-final in 56.88 secs. He finished Monday's final - a British one-two - fully 1.32 second ahead of James Wilby. To put this into perspective, and just like with his world records, it is a relative level of domination over the next competitor that comfortably surpasses even Usain Bolt at his peak. 

Peaty now has all of the 15 best times at 100m breaststroke and has been unbeaten in the event at every major international competition for five years.

Two things were especially striking when watching Peaty training earlier this month in Japan immediately before the world championships.

The first was a meticulous and relentless focus on his starts amid a very definite tangible sense within the coaching team that something exceptional was possible.

Peaty celebrates a third consecutive 100m breaststroke world title Credit: Getty Images

Even in becoming the world’s best breaststroker, Peaty was a relatively poor starter and so working rigorously on this part of the race with coach Mel Marshall has been an obvious priority.

To the trained eye, Peaty’s wider breaststroke style is not classical but eliminates what swimmers call the “dead spot” in the stroke. A fast cadence has also prompted an indirect comparison in athletics to the similarly groundbreaking Michael Johnson. 

After training in Japan, Peaty made a point of saying that his desire to “push the boundaries” meant that he positively needed to do things differently from previous champions and record holders.

Marshall first spotted Peaty at the relatively late age of 14 at the City of Derby Swimming Club and soon became convinced that she had stumbled across a unique talent. When Peaty was still only 17, Marshall told a conference of leading British swimming coaches that she was ready to bet anything they wanted that her protege would become the first swimmer under 58 seconds.

Also striking in watching Peaty train earlier this month was simply the aura and confidence that he carries around the pool. Having added five kilograms in weight and tattoos that include a lion and various Greek gods since Rio, you can just imagine how he must intimidate some of his competitors. Peaty’s mantra before arriving in Gwangju was not that “I want to defend my titles” but rather that “I want to attack my titles” and he often talks in terms of legacy and global domination. He regards Alexander the Great as one of the most inspiring historical figures not just because of how much he conquered but how he reinvented warfare. 

His coach Mel Marshall is instrumental in maintaining his success Credit: Robert Gilhooly

He is also utterly forthright in speaking out over the sport’s most controversial issues and has been a vocal critic of Fina, world swimming’s governing body, over their development of the sport.

One inescapable fact for Peaty is that he is the outstanding current performer in a sport with a significant history of doping. On Monday, Australian Mack Horton refused to stand on the podium with the Chinese simmer Sun Yang who had served a three-month suspension in 2014 following a positive test but was later cleared to compete. Yan is also now the subject of a separate allegation of a missed test, which he denies, that will be considered by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Peaty’s stance has been uncompromising - “if I see him [Yang] in Korea, I won’t be moving my shoulders for him, if you know what I mean” - and one of his main issues with Fina has been his desire for automatic life-time bans. He is also urging other swimmers to speak out with similar force.

The ultimate focus is of course Tokyo next year where he could become the first British swimmer to ever defend an Olympic title. Still only 24, Peaty also seems likely to know that no breaststroker has even won three consecutive Olympic golds. Until his triumph on Tuesday, no breaststroker had ever won a hat-trick of world titles in either the 50m or 100m.

The most dominant swimmer in the world and arguably Britain’s best sportsman is poised to end his career not being compared by his immediate contemporaries but simply the all-time record books.