Adam Peaty bares his soul on his torso: a cross and the words ‘Into The Light’ tattooed on his midriff mark the champion’s personal ‘road to Damascus’ in search of salvation, swimming and the rest of life.

It took a crisis to rekindle the gratitude and grace in one of the greatest pioneers of the pool since the stopwatch became an official measure of worth in swimming back in 1908.

Time ran out on Peaty’s passion last winter. After winning three Olympic, eight world and 15 European titles over eight years, the losses had poured in throughout 2022.

Winning gold at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

His season on the popular TV dance-off Strictly exposed him to a Wild West of celebrity coverage “I just wasn’t used to”;  his hyper-feel for water was washed away in a long post-Olympic break from the pool; a broken foot ruled him out of the World Championships and scuppered his comeback; and returning too soon not only meant lost gold and the end of an eight-year winning streak, but no medal at all in his signature 100m breaststroke at the Commonwealth Games for England.

At 27, confidence shot, momentum lost, Peaty sank further into the depths of despair when his home life fell apart with the breakdown of his partnership with Eiri Munro, the mother of their two-year-old son George.

The first British swimmer in history to retain an Olympic title and race at a pace that grants him a place in the pantheon of greats, Peaty had much to be proud of,  but all he could see was the “failure of missed targets, lost goals and defeats”. He felt “worthless”.

Peaty told The Times back in April 2023 that he’d been “on a self-destructive spiral” to escape the “incredibly lonely journey” at the top of his sport. He had a “devil on his shoulder” telling him “I’m missing out on life”. He had come to “hate the thing I love” – swimming.

On training camp in Australia last winter, the sacrifices of a life dedicated to sporting excellence overwhelmed him. “It really hit me again and again: I missed George, home, family. I just felt hopelessly lost.”

In his hour of need, he spoke to Australian and fellow 2016 Olympic champion Kyle Chalmers, who urged him to get in touch with Dr Ashley Null. Not long after Peaty had flown home, he walked into his local church on a dark February day together with the Olympic Chaplain who has made the pastoral care of athletes a part of his calling.

“In my youth, I didn’t have a sense of needing a guide, a higher voice, but I started  to go to church in February because it felt like the missing part of the puzzle,” says Peaty,  who was born into a Presbyterian household and attended Catholic school in his youth.

Day 3 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

We’re in a Berlin bar on the 14th floor of a hotel as the sun sets to the sound of chill beats and the chink of cocktail shakers. It’s October, on the eve of Peaty’s return to international racing after almost a year, his last competition preceding what the ace racer now calls the “breakdown” that led to withdrawal from squad training at Loughborough and the World Championships.

You could be forgiven for not knowing Peaty from Adam. Back in spring, when he couldn’t complete a length of the pool without sobbing and feeling “stretched in every direction”, he’d have been only too happy to drown his sorrows in whatever ale was to hand. Now he sips water as we overlook the 11km Landsberger Allee, Berlin’s longest road.

It’s the longest climb Peaty has in mind: back to Olympic Heights by July next year, but this time with a radically different map for a third Games at 29. If the body is a cage, it is not just the mind that holds the key but the spirit, he says.

“I see it as a triangle. You have your spiritual up top, the mental and physical sides below,” he says, drawing the base line of the triangle in thin air. “I’ve been working down here for a long time: physically, mentally. I never acknowledged the spiritual side… when I walked into my first service with Ashley…”

Peaty pauses before the relief billows from him: “It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it because I went in there and the sermon was all about the Olympic torch passing the building [in 2012] and about athletes. I’d gone in there pretty much with my hood up, it was all pretty scary to me, but then that happened and the community was just so welcoming. I felt a huge sense of peace, calmness, grounding and perspective, belonging even. It felt like I was home, in a place where people understand there’s a higher level to this very superficial world.”

In the infancy of his theological journey, Peaty ponders humanity’s great spiritual odyssey: “People will talk about ‘God and religion’ in very specific ways but exploring my spiritual side is much wider than that. I prefer the word faith because ‘religion’ puts up a lot of barriers to understanding.”

In prayer with Null, Peaty had no idea how to fall back in love with swimming until the Chaplain referred him to words spoken by Bob Marley two days after he’d been shot during political tensions in Jamaica in 1976: “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”

“That’s when I knew the answer,” says Peaty with a nod to the question Mel Marshall, his coach at Loughborough, had posed: “What do you want?”

She reminded him of the note she had sent him after he won his first Olympic crown at Rio 2016: “As the sun sets on the history you have made, enjoy every second. Breathe it in and know it’s yours forever.”

Peaty only came to accept the truth in that when he got to work on ridding himself of what Null described as a “profoundly unhealthy” feeling.

“Ashley said to me, ‘An Olympic gold medal is the coldest thing you will ever wear’,” recalls Peaty, who added two more victories to his pantheon at the Covid-delayed Tokyo 2020 Games and had felt like he was “towing golden expectations into every race for years”, the Covid pandemic having extended his second Olympic cycle to five years rather than four.

“Ever since 2018-19, when my mind became too focused on and too aggressive with what I saw as ‘losses’, I’d beat myself up and that got worse and worse until I burned out… As Ashley said to me, you feel the glow because you’ve achieved your goal – but at what cost? As athletes, we expect a gold medal to fix all our problems… When you realise it doesn’t, it can be the coldest thing because you’ve sacrificed so much.”

Dr Null, a Yale and Cambridge theology scholar based at Humboldt University of Berlin, summed up one of his key messages in a chat with Christians in Sport last year: “The first thing you do is to recognise there are two reasons to compete. One is healthy, the other profoundly unhealthy. The healthy way is to recognise that competition is a really great way of self-discovery…”

The dark side of that moon is, he says: “When an athlete sets out ‘to prove my worth and value’. That’s profoundly unhealthy because if you get on the hamster wheel of having to prove you’re worth being loved, you’re worth being invested in, you’re worth having a relationship work, then you never get off that wheel… You’re constantly putting your performance on the line and if your value is determined by performance, you never know whether today you can like yourself or hate yourself and shame yourself to try to get back to a safe place of winning.”

Peaty laps up Null’s wisdom: “So much of what he says brings great perspective and answers to a lot of my problems. I don’t think anything can match the peace and calmness I’ve got from it and the way he interacts with people. I’ve found a lot more balance in my life, more calm, peace and joy every day. I’ve really benefited from the church community. I’ve been made to feel so welcome. I’m not judged. I’m just Adam. It’s family. I belong. I’m home, wherever I am. It’s grounding.”

With his OBE at Windsor Castle, November 2022 (Andrew Matthews – Pool/Getty Images)

Adam Peaty did not have far to reach into his reserves of experience to reconnect with gratitude and grace. Marshall does not attend church with her charge, but believes in the power of Null’s guidance: “The key messages… are really educational and centring for him.”

Marshall had already taught her pupil some of the same wisdom. Back in 2013 before anyone outside Peaty’s backyard had heard of him, the coach took the 17-year-old on a bike ride across Zambia of about 300 miles, from Livingstone to Lusaka, to raise money for The Perfect Day Foundation, of which Marshall is a patron. The charity works with young people in communities in and around Lusaka, where poverty is acute and where HIV, homelessness, teenage pregnancies and sex-based violence are all significant problems.

On the bikes alongside Peaty were double Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington, Olympic bronze medallist Joanne Jackson, and double 2006 Commonwealth champion Ross Davenport. The British swimmers raised £35,000 for the charity, but Marshall says that Peaty took home what money can’t buy: “That’s where his great character was born… He appreciates what those experiences did for him; he’s in a place where he wants to make sure he gives back as well.”

Attending church, speaking to psychologists, writing a daily journal, and clearing his head over long walks and jogs in nature have all contributed to reminding him of lessons Marshall had taught him on his way to the summit as the hunter.

As the hunter and the most dominant sprinter in any stroke in his sport, his competitive edge became so sharp that triumph or disaster, as Kipling’s poem “If” puts it, were the only options. The pain is tangible as Peaty recalls his defeat at the Commonwealths last year: “I should have taken the summer off and given myself time to recover. That defeat stung. It ate me up inside. I just couldn’t find a way to use it as fuel. It was just dark.”

It haunted him all the way to Australia and crisis point last winter. The coach was swift to put her Marshall Plan in place: she sent Peaty back to his roots and old haunts like the Repton School pool that he used as a youngster with Derby Swimming Club. “They are places where he could be in a little ball, just him,” she says. “He wanted a bit of peace and quiet away from the high-performance hub, to go more slowly, go for lots of walks, and decompress.”

From here, Marshall launched ‘project recontracting’ to reflect the new contract Peaty, his ambitions and entourage all needed. Marshall called the Peaty think tank together at a barbecue. Agent Rob Woodhouse, Dr Kate Jordan, Matt Ashman and Richard Chessor of British Swimming’s sports science and sports medicine unit, were joined by Steve Peters, the author of the mind management book The Chimp Paradox and a psychiatrist who has worked with Bradley Wiggins, Ronnie O’Sullivan, and the England football team.

Every aspect of the previous plan for the Paris 2024 Olympics was changed. The new trail sent Peaty on the World Cup tour in October to collect the data needed for his entourage or coaches, doctors and scientists to assess how steep the climb would be in a seascape that had changed since the British ace last wore the crown.

On tour, he raced Qin Haiyang for the first time since the Chinese swimmer made a spectacular breakthrough to become the first man in history to win all three breaststroke World titles, the 50m and the 100m in the second best times ever, after Peaty’s World records, and the 200m, in World-record time. Qin, 24, is 0.81sec (a gulf) shy of Peaty’s pugilistic 56.88sec 100m global standard from 2019.

Only four swimmers in history have ever won the same Olympic title on more than two occasions since Australian Dawn Fraser became the first, in the 100m freestyle in 1964 after wins in 1956 and 1960. The only man to have managed the triple is Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time with an otherworldly 23 golds atop 28 medals for the USA. “That would be very special. It’s really hard to win Olympic gold once, crazy to do it twice. Three times? Out of this world.”

Peaty had attached a mental cilice of sorts to his anchorite devotion to being ‘the best’. His work with Null has helped him shed the pain and aim for “the very best I can be”.  His answer to Marshall’s ‘what do you want’ was this: “I’m not too fussed about gold, silver, bronze, world record. I’ve done all that, I’ve achieved all that but this is more of a personal journey, more of a vendetta against my old self to honour my new self.”

His new philosophy is on his skin: a cross on his torso, another on his neck opposite Poseidon, the words ’fuel your soul’ and ‘enjoy the ride’ across the backs of his hand.

Now dating Gordon Ramsay’s daughter Holly, Peaty nods to his newfound faith and says: “It’s about being a better person, not only being a better athlete and fulfilling my gift, but also being a better dad for George. I was scared of hanging up my goggles one day because I didn’t know what was on the other side. But now, I’m like, ‘It’s brilliant, it’s so good’. I’ve got so much to look forward to in my life. I’m turning things around and going on the attack again but with a different perspective of ‘let’s see where it gets me’.” 

Cover image: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Craig Lord

Craig Lord has covered every Olympic Games and specialised in aquatic sports for The Times and Sunday Times since 1989. In the past 35 years he has not only covered the action in the pool but been at the forefront of breaking stories related to doping and corruption in swimming. A recipient of the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s Al Schoenfield media award and the American Swimming Coaches Association media award, Craig was runner-up in the 2021 British Sports Journalism Awards’ Specialist Correspondent category and in 2023 was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year with Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies for Unfair Play.

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