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Adam Peaty: ‘You have to be better than everyone else, there’s no sugar-coating it’

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

The 26-year-old swimmer and father-of-one swept all before him at the Tokyo Olympics… but his exit from Strictly, he admits, was humbling


World champion swimmer Adam Peaty, the unbeaten world record holder of the 50m and 100m breaststroke, is friendly and engaged, but he makes no bones about being hypercompetitive. He once said that he felt like a “god” in the pool. He says now, “You have to be better than everyone else, there’s no sugar-coating it.”

A swimming phenomenon (think of him as a kind of national Aquaman), Peaty has had a stellar year, even by his standards: he won two golds and a silver in Team GB in the Tokyo Olympics; he also signed up for Strictly Come Dancing, where he was partnered with Katya Jones. After seven hip-swivelling weeks, he went out on a jive that placed him bottom of the Strictly leaderboard; his mother was so upset, she thought it was a fix. Was it humbling to learn a new discipline? Peaty gives a kind of groaning laugh: “It did humble me. I’m not used to getting last place, to be honest.”

Humbling moments on the dancefloor aside, Peaty says constantly winning in the pool can become a problem. “I dream of losing, honestly. You can’t match the hunger, adrenaline, fight-back, that losing gives you. It can make you even more successful. You cannot be afraid to lose.”

I’m literally just a normal person who trained really hard and worked my arse off every single day

For Peaty, 26, the Tokyo Olympics allowed Team GB to shine: “For all the hard times we’ve gone through over the past 18 months, we showed we can still perform at the highest level. Obviously, the Olympics is a very, very special event.”

Leaping into Olympic pools, or dancing on Strictly, it’s clear he has an intimidating, muscular, alpha body. Does he feel macho? He laughs: “I guess so. My job is to look like that. I’m a big guy. I have lots of muscle. That obviously helps me go faster and faster in the pool as well.” Competing in Tokyo meant travelling, something Peaty enjoys: “I love experiencing different foods, different environments, different people and cultures. That’s one the best things about sport, you get to travel the world.”

Peaty comes from a working-class background in Uttoxeter, and his recent book, The Gladiator Mindset, lays out his conviction that anyone can fulfil their potential: “I’m literally just a normal person who trained really hard and worked my arse off every single day.”

For all the giggles and spangles, the Strictly regime is gruelling – a veritable showbiz Olympics – sportspeople usually do it once they’ve retired. “It was almost like a boot camp,” says Peaty. He considers Jones to be as much an athlete as he is: “It’s unbelievably hard. Sometimes I was like, wow, my brain is absolutely fried.” Then there was the media focus: on him, his family, his partner, Eirianedd Munro, with whom he has a one-year-old son, George. Peaty is philosophical (“It is what it is”), but it was intense: “I’m not used to being in the headlines on a Sunday morning. For a dance! Some of the articles ruined the experience a little bit for me. They obviously made Eiri feel bad, which made me feel bad.”

For Peaty, Strictly was a chance to get away from the pool, mix things up, bolster his longevity as an athlete. Avoid burnout? “Exactly. Avoiding actual burnout and avoiding a scenario where you start to hate what you do every single day.” He isn’t tunnel-visioned about sport. “I enjoy my lifestyle and my life as much as my training. It’s a very good balance to have… especially as I’m getting older.” Adam, I say, you’re 26! He laughs drily: “I’m 26 and I feel like 40.”

Munro is part-Nigerian, part-Welsh, which illuminated race issues for Peaty: “It gives you more clarity. It can be a horrible world out there.” He’s also aware about sexism, especially as he has a female coach, one-time British swimmer Mel Marshall: “Has she got the recognition of a male coach who’s achieved the same things?” This year, Strictly featured a same-sex male couple (John Whaite and Johannes Radebe), and Peaty is similarly scathing about anti-LGBTQ prejudice. “Homophobia? It’s ridiculous that we’re in the 21st century and we’re still having these conversations.”

“No one’s born with hate,” he says passionately. “If you look at two little kids, they’ll play together and show love.” He thinks the answer could lie in education and upbringing: “The conversations we have with our children. That’s why I like being a father, because I can be a voice on that.” What else does he enjoy about fatherhood? “I honestly love the little things – going to the cafe, park, picking him up from nursery. I want to give him my wisdom, my world. I love being a dad, it’s incredible.” For all Peaty’s achievements in 2021, he also learned a lesson: “Strictly showed me that competition doesn’t always have to be serious – that I can just relax and enjoy it.”

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