When Rio 2016 Olympic star Adam Peaty was a child, he hated being in the water. It was so bad that when his mother, Caroline, sent him for swimming lessons, she couldn’t bear to be there.
“He was petrified – he didn’t even like having a bath or a shower,” says Caroline at the family home in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. “He was like Mark, his father. He’s not at all keen on water either. From the time he could stand, Adam would never sit down in the bath.
“When he was four I started taking him to swimming lessons because his two brothers and his sister had done them and I wanted all my children to be able to swim. But it was breaking my heart to see him scream, so I asked a friend to take him.
“Luckily Adam liked it. From then on he took lessons on a regular basis. Mind you, he still doesn’t like the sea, and if he goes in he likes to have shoes on, and wear a knee-length swimsuit. He can’t stand seaweed.”
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There won’t be any seaweed to worry about in the Olympic pool in Rio, where Adam Peaty is the best hope for gold in a talented British swimming team. He’s arguably Britain’s biggest favourite in any sport.
Peaty, 21, first came to prominence at the 2014 Commonwealth Games when he beat his great rival Cameron van der Burgh, the Olympic champion from South Africa.
He has kept improving since then. Peaty holds three world records, and is the reigning Commonwealth, European and World champion at 100m breaststroke. He was named the male world swimmer of the year last year – and he wants Van der Burgh’s Olympic title.
Adam Peaty, Chris Walker-Hebborn and Siobhan-Marie O’Connor at the 16th FINA World Championships
Swimming gold medals do not come along very often for British men. Since the 1908 Games in London there have been three, all breaststrokers: David Wilkie over 200m in 1976, then Duncan Goodhew in 1980 and Adrian Moorhouse in 1988, both at Peaty’s favoured distance of 100m.
Moorhouse is now a successful businessman but he will be in Rio to commentate on the swimming. “I think I’m looking forward to it as much as Adam is,” he says. “He’s the best swimmer in the world – he’s just got to get it out in the final.
“His technique is not dramatically different to mine, but he’s doing it better than anybody ever has done. He’s very powerful and he’s taken it to another level. He’s had a great couple of years and he seems to have a good support network, and to be managing himself very well.”
When he was named in the team, Peaty said, “It’s been a long time since 1988 but I like the pressure. It leaves me nowhere to hide. I’m definitely the strongest I’ve ever been. I want to make Britain proud.” He also wants a tattoo of the Olympic rings and has vowed to get one after the Games.
Back when he started, Peaty and his parents had no idea how good he was. “He was always very competitive – he’s different from his brothers and sister in that respect,” says Caroline. “Right from his time at Dove Valley, the local club, everybody who was faster, they were the target.”
When Peaty was signed up by City of Derby, one of Britain’s top swimming clubs, at the age of 14, his mother had no idea what she was in for.
“It was really hard going, I’d have given up many a time,” says Caroline. “I’d get up at four in the morning, drive him 40 minutes to Derby, sit and wait two hours while he was training, or go to Tesco, then drive him back again and do a full day’s work as a nursery manager. Then we’d do it again in the evening.
British Gas Swimming Championships 2015
“I’ve always hated driving, my husband doesn’t drive, and I was so tired all the time. But Adam’s willpower was stronger than mine and he’d say, ‘Come on Mum, no staying in bed.’
“This went on for three-and-a-half years, until he passed his driving test. Towards the end some of the neighbours would help out and take him to give me a break every few weeks. We have a very tight community on our road.”
For longer journeys, Adam’s coach Melanie Marshall was the driver. Marshall was a top swimmer – she won six medals for England at the 2006 Commonwealth Games – until she retired straight after the Beijing Olympics in 2008. “I needed a job and I walked straight into the head coach role at Derby,” says Marshall. “They took a chance on me, I took a chance on them, along came Adam and here we are.
“Without the support of his parents, Adam wouldn’t be going to Rio. All those journeys to Derby and back, day after day, were a huge stress for the family. They didn’t realise how talented he was – they thought I was some crazy coach telling them to take him swimming at 4am. His family has been a huge part of his success.”
They still are, and Adam acknowledges as much. He lives at home and has laid down a rule of “no talking about swimming”, which suits everybody. He walks his dog, Monty, when he can – otherwise Mark does it – plays computer games, watches television, and spends time with his girlfriend, Anna Zair.
Moorhouse says the family’s support could make all the difference, especially as it helps with “mental recharging”, which is crucial for top competitors. “It was the same for me, I lived at home. My parents sound similar to Adam’s; they weren’t from a swimming background and that can help. The conversation over dinner would be about something different. That gives you a daily mental break, which you need. If your parents are too involved you won’t get that.
“That support system around Adam is critical. Look at Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps – they kept coming back to a close-knit family.”
20th Commonwealth Games
Peaty has also needed a diet suitable for an Olympic athlete with barely an ounce of fat on his body. “I’ve coached him since 2009,” says Marshall, “and the first time I saw him swim breaststroke fast, I thought, ‘This lad’s got something.’ When he started he was like that threewheeler that Del Boy used to drive in Only Fools and Horses. Then he became a saloon car, then a souped-up saloon, and now he’s a Ferrari.
“The engineering is different for all those vehicles, and as he’s got older he’s needed different fuel. His nutritional plan is an evolution. Training sets he couldn’t manage before, he’s eating them for breakfast. He’s a man now, not a boy. He’s a Formula One car.”
The double Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington, also from the East Midlands, is a mentor for Peaty. “It’s scary to think about how fast he could go,” she says. “He has the best finish of anyone in the world, and he doesn’t let the pressure get to him. And he has a heart of gold, and a great sense of humour. He hasn’t changed at all – he’s the poster boy of swimming, one of the greatest of all time, but he’s still the same guy he was three or four years ago.”
The only time he will “be a bit moody around the house”, says Caroline, is when he is tapering – reducing the intensity of training in the weeks leading up to a major competition.
He loves cars and, thanks to his many successes and sponsorships, owns a Mercedes and an MG sports car. He is fiercely patriotic and, says Caroline “always talked about being in the RAF or the Army when he was younger”.
Adlington became an overnight star when she won gold in Beijing in 2008, and Peaty could do the same. If all goes to plan he could be Britain’s first gold medallist in Rio. “British swimming needs another gold medallist,” says Moorhouse. “Adam can lift the sport’s profile.”
Caroline, Mark and Anna will fly to Rio to support Adam, which will be quite an experience for Caroline. “I’ve never flown before, never been further than France. I’ve always taken my leave around Adam’s races in this country and I love to watch him, but this is going to be a shock.”
But better, surely, than driving to Derby and back in the wee small hours.