Why learning how to lose has given ‘underdog’ Adam Peaty new life

Adam Peaty is Britain’s greatest-ever swimmer  (Getty Images)
Adam Peaty is Britain’s greatest-ever swimmer (Getty Images)

The legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi famously said: “Show me a good loser and I will show you a loser”. What is often omitted is the second half of that quote, which changes the meaning entirely: “But show me a gracious loser and I’ll show you someone who will always be a winner”.

It is the latter implication that Adam Peaty, Britain’s greatest-ever swimmer, is applying to his own sporting ambitions.

The world record holder and three-time Olympic champion spent more than half a decade as a god, even among swimming’s elite. But after becoming the first British swimmer ever to retain an Olympic title – doing so in the 100m breaststroke in Tokyo – Peaty’s invincibility has been broken over the last three years.

He suffered a first loss in his specialist event in eight years at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, and a combination of injury and a break for mental health reasons, mean that he has missed three successive World Championships.

His world record remains a distance clear of the field, but Peaty heads to Paris for his third Olympics in an unfamiliar position. He might not quite be the underdog he claims, but he is no longer the overwhelming favourite.

And the ultimate winner is happy with that position, having learned how to cope with defeat.

Adam Peaty’s winning record during his career is remarkable (Getty Images)
Adam Peaty’s winning record during his career is remarkable (Getty Images)

He said: “Going into these Games, especially the last 12 months, I’ve enjoyed being the person with the bow and arrow and not the person being fired at. It gives you a different approach to it. There’s no real pressure on me.

“Yes, I’m Olympic champion and people are going for that crown but anyone that follows the sport, will know I haven’t really raced, I haven’t really won anything since 2022 or 2021 but I’m ok with that.

“I’m the underdog and I enjoy being the underdog, fighting my way through the ranks. If anything, it’s shown me how to lose with grace. Before, I used to lose and I would tear everything up, I didn’t like it. I’ve been like that since I was a kid.

“Now, at 29 years old, I’ve learned how to lose. It does suck because I know how much I invest in myself and train and how much Team GB and Aquatics GB put in. We don’t lose the ferocity, but you must bear in mind that you must lose sometimes to get these wins.”

Peaty is one of over 1,000 elite athletes on UK Sport’s National Lottery-funded World Class Programme, allowing them to train full time, have access to the world’s best coaches and benefit from pioneering medical support – this is vital for his pathway to the Paris 2024 Games

Peaty will aim to win the men’s 100m breaststroke for a third straight Olympics (PA Wire)
Peaty will aim to win the men’s 100m breaststroke for a third straight Olympics (PA Wire)

Peaty heads to Paris looking to match Michael Phelps and become only the second man to win gold in the same swimming event at three successive Olympics.

And after three years in which he experienced some of his lowest ebbs, struggling with depression and alcohol problems, Peaty is at peace with himself.

He explained: “When you achieve what I have in the sport, Olympic golds, world records, that comes at a cost. We all know that sport is extremely demanding.

“We are continually learning as athletes and as people. Sport is very relatable to life because it is so, so tough. You have those tough moments in your life where you must overcome them. It’s the same in sport. I wouldn’t say it’s a new me. There is still the deep chimp inside me who gets the job done, with a lot of anger. But there is also a new side of me which can process things a little bit more easily and consistently. I’ve had a lot of help from various people to help me get to that place.

“This person now is going to carry on for the rest of my life. The one I had in Tokyo and Rio is not sustainable for the rest of your life because you cannot have that approach for everything.

“I’m more relaxed in my approach now, I’m a bit more knowledgeable of self and I guess when I look at myself in the mirror, I’m very peaceful. As soon as you stop running from yourself, that is when you start living your true life. In sport that is when you are most dangerous to everyone else. I’m not afraid to lose, I’m not afraid to win. How can you beat an athlete like that? I can’t control what anyone else does but I can stand behind the blocks and give it my best.”

Peaty’s intensity has made him one of the greatest swimmers of all time (Getty Images)
Peaty’s intensity has made him one of the greatest swimmers of all time (Getty Images)

The more sustainable Peaty is ready to accept that if his best is not enough this time, he will be able to lose with grace. Knowing Peaty, we might not find out.

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