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'I was born to race and I'm obsessed with winning'

Published 27/08/2016

Snappy dresser: Adam Peaty
Snappy dresser: Adam Peaty
In competition: Adam Peaty going for gold
Making a splash: Adam Peaty proudly displays his medals

As a child, he was terrified of water, but swimmer Adam Peaty won Britain's first Olympic gold medal in Rio in the pool. He tells Gabrielle Fagan how doubting himself helps him achieve, and his hopes for the future.

Swimmer Adam Peaty's still struggling to process his feelings about winning gold at the Rio Olympics - memorably he got the first gold of the Games. "I've had to pinch myself a lot of times so that I know it's really happened. It's definitely going to take a few weeks before it really sinks in. The whole thing's been surreal, but I'm so proud and happy all the hard work paid off," says the charming 21-year-old, who's become the poster boy for British swimming and has just returned to the UK.

"It's pretty cool to think that of all the billions of people who've been on the planet, I've swum faster than any of them. Pushing the boundaries and seeing what's possible is what motivates me."

The champion, who's 6ft 3ins with a 46-inch chest and a powerful physique to match - he has to have his suits specially made - powered his way to glory in the 100m breaststroke.

Peaty not only broke the world record (his own) with a time of 57.13 seconds, but also became the first British man to win a swimming title in 28 years. He followed that by helping team GB win silver in the 4x100m medley relay.

"People ask if there was a point when I knew I could win a medal or set a world record, but that was never the objective. The only goal has always been to be the very best I can be," says the sportsman, whose consistently calm temperament and single-minded determination has undoubtedly contributed to him already being no stranger to gold. He's the reigning Commonwealth, European and World Champion for 100m breaststroke.

"I was very relaxed in Rio when I got in the pool for the 100m final because I knew what I had to do. Previously, I've been worried about the past and the future, this time I just focused on the present and went for it, and it worked," says Peaty.

He makes it sound simple, but it's been quite a journey for this down-to-earth young man who, as a small boy, was so terrified of water he wouldn't even sit in the bath and was taken swimming to help him overcome his phobia.

"It's funny to think back to that. I didn't even want to shower when I was younger - that's how scared I was. Once I began swimming lessons at five years old though, I just didn't want to stop. I was born to race really and I'm obsessed with winning, but not in a bad way.

"When I played board games when I was young, I'd swipe the board off the table if I didn't win! Luckily I've changed a bit since then. Nowadays, if I don't win, I analyse it and work out how to come back stronger."

He's dismissive of the much-talked about concept of pressure. "Pressure doesn't exist. You have to view events as opportunities. After all, I enjoy racing because I want to do it and no one's forcing me to do it. I tell the younger athletes, all the people - coaches through to media - predicting what you will do or expecting you to achieve, are just wanting the best for you. It's not something to hold you back, instead it's something you need to deal with and use positively.

"For me, the roar of a crowd when I compete in a big event is what empowers me. It feels gladiatorial and the adrenaline pumps through me, gives me goosebumps, and fuels me."

Although he exudes self-belief, he admits to feeling doubt at times, and credits his local barber with giving him a much-needed confidence boost a few months before the Olympics.

"I had a bit of a mental dip, which happens sometimes, and started questioning things and worrying about Rio. During a haircut, I mentioned it to my barber, a really wise guy with loads of life experience, and he said, 'You've got nothing to worry about. It's simple, you're a World Champion aren't you?' He sorted me out.

"Being a gold-winning Olympian won't dispel those doubts. Far from it, I always train with doubt and then get rid of it before I compete. It's part of me and is what keeps me grounded, on point and totally focused."

Behind the Rio triumphs lie years of dedication and training for the sportsman from Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. He's had the unstinting support of his family - his father, Mark and nursery manager mother, Caroline, who for years acted as chauffeur getting him to his dawn and evening training sessions - as well as mentoring from Olympic gold medal swimmer, Rebecca Adlington.

She's described Peaty as someone with "a heart of gold, who never wants an easy ride, won't give up and is just so likeable, with a great sense of humour".

"Rebecca's a friend as well as a mentor who's helped me so much because she's been there and won gold herself. She'll always offer advice if I ask, but most importantly, she's believed in me. That counts more than anything.

"I couldn't have achieved what I have without my family. Words weren't really necessary between us after I won the gold. You could tell everything we felt from the hug we gave each other. It was wonderful to have them in Rio watching me."

His glory might never have been, had he not had a life-changing moment four years ago when he watched a friend, Craig Benson, racing at the London Olympics.

"I was just going out to a party and saw his name and I thought, 'Hang on, I could be like that', and it made me consider what I'd feel like if I didn't really push myself. I resolved there and then to make it happen. It really kick-started my motivation and sent me up to another level from then on."

At home - he still lives with his parents - any talk of swimming is banned, so that Peaty can "stay sane, otherwise it would take over my life and everyone else's which wouldn't be fair" and on his rare free days he relaxes with his girlfriend of 18 months, university student, Anna Zair (19).

"She used to swim competitively, which is how we met. It's hard to fit in a relationship with my schedule, but she's very understanding about not seeing me as much as she'd like because she knows I have to dedicate myself to training. Swimming has to come first."

His goal now is Tokyo in four years' time, where the 200m breaststroke offers him another opportunity to shine. "I just want to go on pushing the boundaries and achieve more. I know all my competitors will now have me marked as the man to beat, but I'm prepared for that.

"I'm just looking forward and can't wait to start the next challenge."  

Belfast Telegraph

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