Adam Peaty is one of the fastest swimmers the world has ever known.
An Olympic and world champion, he holds the ten best times on record for the 100m breaststroke, remains the only person ever to dip inside 58 seconds for the same event and also holds the world record for the 50m.
You hold your own breath when you watch him in the pool, so rapid and superhuman are his movements.
Which makes it all the more surreal to meet the 23-year-old on land, going nowhere fast, all 6ft 2 and 15 stones of him shoved into the back of a taxi outside an airport in Rome, sitting on the motorway in rush-hour traffic.
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Peaty, from Uttoxeter, has been a star since splashing into the spotlight when he won Team GB’s first gold medal at the Rio Olympics. That triumph – in which he broke his own world record – opened a glorious summer of British sport, in which he’d go on to win a silver medal in the 4x100m medley relay, too.
“I’m still on a high now!” he says of the 100m breaststroke gold. “Thinking about it gives me goosebumps. I thought, ‘If I can get this first gold medal for Britain, the whole mood is going to be lifted.’ It was a relief. You can’t think of anything that has more pressure, or is as prestigious as that.”
Rio is the crowning glory of his career so far. As well as being the first swimmer to hold Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth gold in the same event at once, he has now been nominated for Sports Personality of the Year and has an MBE, an achievement he values just below the Olympic gold: “It’s something you can’t win.”
Now, he’s gearing up to win again at the European Championships in Glasgow. After suffering a rare setback when he missed out on the gold in the 50m at the Commonwealth Games in April, victory in Glasgow is part of a carefully planned route to the Tokyo Olympics in two years’ time.
“I know I’ve got a target on my back and everyone’s after me,” he says.
Elite sportspeople – particularly the young – have a reputation for ego and bombast. Despite the obvious strain of a delay, lost luggage, and the matter of being flown around the world in the middle of a tight training block, Peaty, with his boyish face and Herculean, tattooed body, is cool as he sits in the back of the small car.
“This year I’m not too fussed about my times – they’re irrelevant,” he says. “I’m just going out to enjoy it – and for the wins. I’m a little bit slower than I was last year but that doesn’t affect me because I’m not against the rest of the world this time, I’m just against Europe, which is a bit easier on my mind and body.
“Why put your foot down, full gas, when you can take it off a bit to 80, 90 per cent, and still get the job done?”
That, he says, is because of his focus on Tokyo, and the fact that a fixation on times threw him earlier this year. “Nobody has touched 57 seconds [in the 100m] except for me, and everyone started talking about Project 56 – trying to go under 57 seconds. The past year I’ve been obsessed by that, and it’s almost had a negative effect on my training.”
Peaty’s defeat at the Commonwealth Games broke a four-year unbeaten streak. “If my preparation had been better, I probably would have been able to defend it,” he says, also mentioning a tiny injury on his shoulder in January, though he doesn’t like to use that as an excuse.
“But I’m glad I didn’t win, in a sense, because it’s recharged me, it’s given me that push that I needed. Everyone loses – it’s whether you use it as a benefit or let it hinder you.”
Peaty grew up the youngest of four children in Staffordshire, and started swimming at the age of nine. When he was 14, he joined City of Derby Swimming Club, where former Olympic swimmer Melanie Marshall noticed “something special” in his breaststroke.
She’s still his coach now. “You don’t see many successful female coaches in sport, at the level Mel is. Plus, she’s ten times the man some men are. Loyalty is everything, and hopefully I’ll be with her until I retire.”
It’s clear from the way he speaks that Peaty has grown up a lot. “Back in Rio, I was still a boy, really,” he says. “I’m a big man now.”
He’s talking – accurately – about his body, but his attitude, too. “I used to be horrendous – if I didn’t get the results I would throw a tantrum and start swinging stuff about.”
Back in 2016, as one of Radio Times’s stars to watch in Rio, his mum Caroline told us about his childhood fear of water. Was he mortified? “I get asked about that in every interview now!” he laughs. “But I’m not embarrassed. There’s a seriousness to that story. If I can be scared and go on to be a champion swimmer, then anyone can learn.”
After years of being ferried around by his mum, he’s now moved out of the family home and is living “pretty much on my training base” at the National Centre for Swimming in Loughborough.
“I see my family once every two weeks, but that’s more than enough for me! They’ve finally come to the understanding that I need my own space. Everyone needs to leave the nest at some point, don’t they?”
The universe he lives in – 6am starts, strict diets, no drinking – has meant that he doesn’t relate much to his age group. “I didn’t go to uni – I committed fully to training. I can’t go to the pub, I can’t go to footie matches…” (He’s a huge Nottingham Forest fan). “When your mates say ‘Come on a night out,’ I can’t do that.”
What he can do is shop. “I believe that retail therapy is a cure! When you’re training, following a black line [at the bottom of a pool] for hours and hours all week, your mind can get a bit numb. I love going to Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols.”
Do you have expensive taste? “Yeah, but I did before – I just couldn’t afford it! I do like a bit of Gucci… But once you’re looking at T-shirts that go up by £100 every season, you start to think about what’s really important in life.”
His other thing is cars – his is a Mercedes S63. “It keeps me busy. Waxing my car, polishing my car – I wouldn’t say it’s a prize or trophy, because nothing can replace an Olympic gold. But it’s kind of a reward for hard work.”
He’s also learning a language to keep his brain active, but is hesitant to say which one, until he’s good enough.
He’s serious about music – says that if he weren’t a swimmer, he’d be a producer – and loves Birmingham grime artists in particular. “If a good beat comes on, that changes my mood. Music is the number one thing to psych myself up. I have to be nervous. At this level, you’ve got to be nervous.
“I’ll trick my mind into being number two. The mind is the driver but the body is the vehicle. Once my headphones are in it’s just me, and the lane ahead of me.”
It’s interesting to hear his thoughts, at such a young age, on sport in general. When speaking about competing for Team England at the Commonwealth Games, he says he’s struggled with the concept of an “English” identity.
“I don’t really see myself as English, I see myself as British, whereas the Scottish see themselves as Scottish first, and the Welsh, Welsh,” he says.
I ask about his rivalry with South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh – his former idol who beat him on the Gold Coast. “We’re close. But I don’t believe in the kind of rivalry where you’re best mates. You look at tennis, some players say ‘We’re really good friends’,” – he means Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – “but you can see it in their eyes that they want each other dead in the arena. If you’re best friends it doesn’t add spectacle to the event. It should be like gladiators against each other. That’s what people want.”
Making sport a spectacle is important to him. “Why not have press conferences where you’re going against each other? Promote it so there’s hype. At the Olympics, swimming has that ‘amateur’ label – but it’s one of the most-watched sports.
“Until there’s a professional league, nothing’s going to change. If it happens in my career, great. If not, I’m going to make a move to make sure, when I retire, that it will be put in place.”
Swimming is still, obviously, the priority. But Peaty loves the opportunities that come with celebrity – sitting in the royal box at Wimbledon, posing on the cover of Attitude magazine (“I’m always half-naked in the pool so why not?”) – but is careful that fame won’t overtake his career: “Half of it gets lost when they start replacing the sport with the stars and flashing cameras.”
Heading back to Glasgow, Peaty is confident. “It’s where I was born in my senior career, at the Commonwealth Games in 2014, so I’m looking forward to racing there again. It’s a chance to defend – everyone is after me.
“I can’t take a break. That’s what comes with being the world-record holder; that’s what comes with being an Olympic champion.”
Peaty will compete in the breaststroke over three distances: 100m (heats begin Friday morning BBC2, Euro 1), 200m (heats begin Sun morning BBC2) and 50m (heats begin Tue morning BBC2). He was speaking ahead of an Arena event in Rome