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In the months before Tokyo, Adam Peaty experienced something new and a little unnerving. Unlike the build-up to his first Olympics in Rio, he experienced days when he didn’t want to get out of bed at 6am to train, or force down his 8,000 calories, or feel his muscles burn in the gym. There were times when he didn’t want to swim any more.
Peaty had always been absorbed by what he calls “the pursuit of excellence”. He saw pain as an occupational hazard, a temporary side-effect that dissipated and left behind a minuscule gain. That’s how he knew he would win the next race: Peaty pushed his body so close to its outer limits that he was certain his rivals could not have put in any more. But in the run-up to Tokyo he had to overcome his own mind telling him to stop. “Do I actually want to be here? Do I want to do this? Am I just turning up for the sake of it?” he says. “In the pursuit of Olympic gold there were days like that.”
Peaty’s is a story of hard work paying off, of what happens when talent is coupled with dedication and sacrifice. There is the tale of his lightbulb moment, getting ready for a night out with friends in the summer of 2012 when he saw on TV that junior rival Craig Benson had reached the semi-finals of the Olympics in London, and it lit a fire. But at times, Peaty admits, his addiction to success has become too intense. “Being the one that wins, wins again, wins again, and keeps winning – I haven’t lost the 100m breaststroke in seven years – of course it’s going to be an unhealthy obsession with sport and with progression. There’s no way around that, I really don’t think there is.”
This was one of the contradictory things about the Tokyo Olympics. On the one hand, the stories of dedication to sporting excellence like Peaty’s were inspiring, promoting the idea that anything can be achieved if you are prepared to sweat and hurt and bleed for the prize. But it was also a Games when mental fortitude presented itself in a different light. The stories of Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles delivered a message that it is OK to say no, to prioritise your own wellbeing and listen to your mind, and not bow to pressure.
Peaty is now another voice advocating the need for mental breaks in sport, and announced his own four-month hiatus as he immerses himself in activities a world away from swimming, like Strictly Come Dancing, to refresh his frazzled mind as much as his burnt-out body. It was time to give himself what he describes as an almost spiritual revival. “We need more time for ourselves. We need to refuel. If you’re driving a car you can’t drive it without fuel and you need to make sure you refill before you go again. It’s how your soul feels, how you feel in yourself, in your purpose. And I think if that needs to be replenished then the physical work becomes a lot harder.”
Don’t his mantras of stop-at-nothing determination and psychological preservation conflict with one another? “If I turn up to training it doesn’t matter what mood I’m in, I have to complete it, I have to do it, so that’s where I stop at nothing. But also on the flip side of that you have to take a break, and that’s why I’m taking four months off now. So, there is a time and a place. I think the best athletes in the world know when to take a break and know when to push on and stop at nothing.”
Even after defending his 100m title and collecting his fourth and fifth Olympic medals, Peaty does not necessarily think his aggressive clocking of minutes and miles in the pool was the right approach. Taking time to ensure his mind is refreshed might be the missing link to completing ‘project immortal’, his ambitious goal to lower his world record, currently 56.88 sec, to 56.5.
“Maybe I couldn’t have worked any harder [before Tokyo] – I don’t think I could – but maybe I could have taken more rest at the start of the season and gone ‘OK, this is what’s gonna happen, this is how I’m probably going to feel, it’s going be hard’. I could have tried to calculate it, and then go for it and feel fully replenished before I started again. So it’s not just the physical approach we take, and that’s probably why I was missing the final thing in my project.”
It is an interesting admission from someone who might be considered the ultimate macho role model: tattoos and rippling muscles, dominance of his rivals, with a deep patriotism and pride in winning for his country. Peaty’s step back from the pool shows another side to that alpha image. “I want to be known as the greatest breaststroker ever, someone who’s pushed the limits,” he says. “But also as a person who is approachable, a nice guy who works hard, those kinds of attributes.”
When Peaty reunites with his long-time coach Mel Marshall around Christmas, he will begin his journey towards next summer and the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. “Birmingham’s almost like a home town for me so this is like a home home Games, you couldn’t get any closer. Hopefully people will snap up the tickets and see me in action. I think it’s going to be an incredible week.”
He will strive to break more ground, but this time he will not push himself to the edge to achieve it. “I know now if I want to get back to that place then I've got to be relentless, the relentless pursuit of excellence. But I've got to have this rest now, and then it's all about balance, isn't it. If you go with one extreme, you've got to pull back the other extreme.”
The main ticket ballot for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games is now open. Apply for tickets now at Birmingham2022.com. The ballot closes at 8pm on 30 September.