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Adam Peaty back in the pool after mental health break

Jonathan Crane in Berlin
October 9, 2023

Britain's Adam Peaty took time out from swimming because of burnout. The three-time Olympic champion has now returned to action for the first time since March, and talked with DW in Berlin about getting back to his best.

Adam Peaty at the World Cup in Berlin
Three-time Olympic gold medalist Adam Peaty is seen as the best breaststroke swimmer of his generation.Image: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

After a few minutes in the company of  Adam Peaty, you quickly realize he is fond of a metaphor. He speaks of roller coasters and mountains, and of scoreboards telling their own story.

It is surely a sign of the journey that the three-time Olympic champion has been on over the last year or so, following his well-documented mental health break and his dealing with what he describes as "the devil on my shoulder."

This past weekend's swimming World Cup event in Berlin marked Peaty's first competition since March, during which time he took a complete break from the sport. 

"I'm very grateful for the opportunity, it's great to be against some of the world's best," he said after competing in the 100-meter breaststroke, the event in which he has won back-to-back Olympic gold medals.

"It's a lot of fun for me at the moment, and if we have the fun, we can build on whatever we need to build on."

To hear Peaty talk in such terms — he is, after all, the fastest breaststroke swimmer in history — shows where he is in his life right now and the daily battle he still faces.

"I wish it was a constant up," the 28-year-old said. "It's still a rollercoaster, this sport is extremely demanding. You're going to have those lows, no matter how happy you are. The scoreboard is always going to say what it says. But as long as you find happiness in that and enjoy it, no one can take that away from you."

'I'm doing this for me'

Rewind to last year and Peaty was in a very different place. He was burnt out and had turned to alcohol after a broken foot, a disappointing Commonwealth Games and the end of his relationship with the mother of his son. "I've been on a self-destructive cycle," Peaty confessed to the British newspaper The Times in April.

Adam Peaty at the World Cup in Berlin
Peaty's career slowed down due to injury, alcohol and his well-documented mental health battleImage: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

The relentlessness of the life of an elite swimmer — hours plowing up and down a pool, racking up the kilometers, alone with your thoughts — coupled with the sacrifices required to maintain a world-beating level, had finally caught up with him.

"You are on your own all the time," Peaty told DW in Berlin. "It's an individual sport. It's me, every single day. And in that is loneliness because you've got to be selfish. You've got to push away opportunities that you'd otherwise enjoy so it doesn't compromise the training."

"It's a challenge to myself now, to be honest. Because you can stop this sport or life in a place which is down and low. I'm not doing this for any other person than me, for the first time ever. I don't have to be here. I want to be here, enjoy it and be the best."

If taking part is currently more important than the winning, Peaty can count himself satisfied with finishing in sixth place in the 100-meter final. But his time of 59.85 seconds — nearly three seconds slower than his world record — suggests there is a lot of work to be done to recapture his best form before the Olympics in Paris next year.

Adam Peaty at the World Cup in Brazil
Peaty is trying to rediscover the fun in competing as an elite athlete ahead of the 2024 OlympicsImage: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

"I'm missing a lot," he told DW after the race. "It's going to be a steep mountain to get to where I want to go to. I've been out of the game for a while. I just need to get back to racing again. And it's  going to need a lot of it."

China's Qin the big rival

Waiting for Peaty at the top of that mountain will be China's Qin Haiyang, the world record holder over 200 meters and the biggest threat to the Brit's Olympic crown in years.

Qin took an unprecedented clean sweep of the three breaststroke events at July's world championships in Fukuoka, a feat he repeated at September's Asian Games and here in Berlin. He has made no secret of his desire to break Peaty's 50- and 100-meter world records.

The 24-year-old clocked 57.69 seconds in the 100 meters in Berlin — identical to his time in Fukuoka — which is 0.81 seconds off Peaty's best and puts him second on the all-time list. He told reporters here that he "respects" his rival. But there is not much room for sentimentality at this level.

"I think I can do better," Qin said ominously. "This year I've had so many competitions, so my body feels a little tired."

Peaty, on the other hand, says he is trying to stay realistic.

"We're in two very different places as athletes," he said. "He's coming off a superb summer, I'm coming into a nice winter with no racing. So it's very different. It's very hard to stand up there at the start of the season and race those kinds of people because it's basically an Olympic final."

The Olympics, though, are for another day. And although Peaty may not yet be back to his best in the pool, he remains the biggest draw out of it. Having completed his interview duties, he was pulled aside for a selfie by two young German swimmers, duly obliging with a laugh and a smile.

For Peaty, right now, that is what it is all about.

Edited by: James Thorogood