Editor's Note: This interview was conducted and published before Adam Peaty won gold in the 100 metre breaststroke on July 26.
Adam Peaty has enjoyed a spell of dominance in swimming that few athletes can boast in the world of sport. The 26-year-old can cement his status as one of the greatest athletes of all time in Tokyo by becoming the first Briton to win back-to-back Olympic swimming titles. But rewriting the history books is nothing new for Peaty.
In 2015, he became the first man to break the 58-second barrier in the 100m breaststroke (long course) before going even quicker four years later to smash his own world record with a time of 56.88s. No other swimmer has come close to breaking the 57-second mark.
Peaty was also the first to swim sub 26 seconds in the 50m breaststroke, has broken the world record eight times, won eight World Championship medals and boasted the 20 fastest times ever in his event until Dutchman Arno Kamminga entered that list on April 30.
Despite being awarded an MBE in 2017 for his services to swimming, there appears to be a lack of appreciation for Peaty's record-breaking career. If everything goes to plan at the Tokyo Olympics, he is one of a few British athletes who is favourite to bring home gold yet in a promo from a UK broadcaster which lasts just over one minute, Peaty's image appears for a matter of seconds before focusing on other medal contenders.
English sports fans will be familiar with the names of footballers Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Harry Maguire after their heroic performances at this summer's Euro 2020 led the men's national team to its first tournament final since 1966 but not many will be aware of Peaty's success.
Peaty is Britain's version of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps but doesn't enjoy the same fanfare on a national scale and he is aware his performances alone are not enough.
"It's down to the governing bodies to have their stars and getting that out to broadcasters and papers," he tells ESPN. "But when FINA [International Swimming Federation] demand £500,000-1 million to showcase [events] to the BBC which can distribute it around the UK, it doesn't become a very marketable thing and you can't get those performances out so it's very basic in terms of getting more people to watch it but not having to pay for it. Unfortunately, we live in a world where you have to bloody pay for everything so the more people you can get it out to, the more the stars will rise.
"Do I think I've got what I'm due? Yes and no but at the same time, I've done so much better than a lot of athletes who have probably done equally the same but that's just me being me, I'm quite humble. I just want the opportunity to keep doing what I'm doing and maybe one day, people will look back and say: 'Wow, that was incredible how he did that!' But for now, it's a different scenario."
The man from Derby will be competing in only his second Olympics and knows better than anyone that the Games represent the perfect platform to showcase his talents on the global stage to earn worldwide recognition. Peaty made a name for himself in his debut at Rio 2016, winning gold in the 100m breaststroke and breaking the world record in the process.
He was also part of the 4x100m medley team that picked up silver and his performance impressed USA great Phelps who described it as "one of the grossest swims I have ever seen."
Phelps is the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, collecting 23 gold medals -- 28 medals in total over the span of five Games. Peaty understands that success at the Olympics can lead to more awareness and is confident he can deliver on the big stage once again.
"It's great to have that experience and if anyone can do it twice then it would be me I guess," he says. "It's only my second Olympics but I've done multiple World Championships, Europeans, Commonwealths and Olympics back in 2016 so I've learned so much since then, so much has changed, but it's great to be in this position and I don't think I can be in a better position which is a great place to be."
Peaty heads into Tokyo at the peak of his powers after taking home four golds and leading Team Great Britain to its best performance at this year's European Championships, winning 11 golds and 26 medals in total.
As one of the experienced heads in a 34-athlete Team GB swimming team -- including artistic and marathon swimmers -- Peaty believes they are ready to replicate their strong performance at the Europeans in Tokyo despite more than half of the athletes set to experience their Olympic debut.
"It was definitely a morale boost and an eye opener for the rest of the European nations and the world as everyone is always watching. I think it gives us great confidence that the next generation of swimmers are coming through as well and you can see it continuously evolving and getting stronger.
"Especially among the young ones, it's really shown that this is our team culture and this is how we perform and we fear no-one really. Also, if there's a bit of adversity we smile in the face of it and be proud that we are putting that Union Jack on our chest with the Olympic rings and representing our country and that's what the Olympics is all about."
Peaty is the one who leads by example and even during the first lockdown, he had a small swimming tank placed in his back garden to keep him prepared for the delayed Olympics. His competitive edge refused to wane during the pandemic as he broke an 11-year-old world record in the 100m (short course) in November 2020. It was the first time he set a world record in the short course event (25m pool) compared to his record-breaking career in the long course (50m pool).
Although Peaty was lucky enough to adapt his training, the same cannot be said for others who had to endure lockdown life without visiting their local pools. Leisure centres are now open to the public after the UK government announced the end to COVID-19 restrictions from July 19 but research from Swim England has shown around 200 pools owned by councils across the country will remain closed.
The government has promised an initial £100m fund to support leisure centres and Peaty has urged for more investment and understands the role himself and fellow athletes can play: "I think that's why the Olympics take place in order to inspire people around the world -- no matter where you are, it can be reachable and for me, I know that I've got a job to do to defend my title but not only for me but for my country.
"I am worried that lockdown has forced multiple clubs and centres to close and it's the duty of the government and private companies to take hold of that and make sure that the investment that we've been putting in for the last 20 years through UK sport alone is not wasted.
"We all know that investment equals performance and some people might think sport is a waste of money but if you look at anything and you look at sport and the amazing things being achieved, I'm sure these people will agree that they've been inspired at least once by sport and that's what we do, it's entertainment.
"Hopefully if the investment remains or continues, I think the government has a good job on their hands to make sure it's still in place but as Olympians representing our country, we've got a job to do to keep those people inspired."
An extra source of motivation for Peaty ahead of the Olympics came in September 2020 when son George was born. Peaty is determined to push the boundaries even further to become a "role model" for his first-born child but also expresses gratitude to partner Eirianedd Munro for being a supportive rock during this period. The pair met in November 2019 and the relationship has enabled Peaty to be more aware of important issues such as diversity and inclusion with Munro being of Nigerian and Welsh heritage.
Peaty has been a vocal advocate of creating an environment where people from different backgrounds can get involved in swimming not just as a sport but most importantly for safety purposes. Alice Dearing has started to break down barriers and is set to become the first Black female swimmer to represent Team GB at the Olympics but FINA's announcement that swimming caps designed for natural Black hair won't be allowed in Tokyo shows that there is still a long way to go.
"For me, the British team is predominantly white so how do we tap into the communities to get these people swimming because if you tap in to any community, you're going to access more talent so how fast could we be and how much investment can we put into these communities and get people swimming?" Peaty asks.
"I think it's very important that we give people the opportunity not in a sense that we're trying to get the next generation of Olympians through, but as a safety aspect as well because a lot of people can't swim and unfortunately, it's a sad state of affairs where people still drown in 2021 while going into a lake or accidentally falling into a river. That shouldn't happen and that's something I want to address especially when I get older or hopefully next year, when I set up a foundation to help develop the sport that's been predominantly white.
"Having Eiri helps me understand that because I'm very privileged that I don't understand most of the issues that go on in the world. I'm so focused and tunnel-visioned that you don't see or hear about all the other things that go on which is absolutely disgusting because it's the way it's always been and it has to change to make sure everyone's voice is heard."
It has not always been an easy road for Peaty especially after he missed out on gold to Cameron van der Burgh at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the 50m breaststroke. The second-placed finish brought an end to Peaty's four-year winning run and led the swimmer to drinking and partying during that period but he admits the experience helped him improve in the long run.
"It was a massive learning curve so as a normal person, it was pretty tough to have that experience," he explains. "The resilience side of things, it just teaches you that you can always rebound no matter what and get up and keep fighting and I think that's the most important thing that sport teaches."
The setback allowed Peaty to be more open about mental health and several sportspeople have recently discussed the importance of speaking out. Tennis star Naomi Osaka has been in the spotlight recently on the topic after revealing she planned to avoid news conferences at the French Open because she experienced anxiety before speaking to the media.
The backlash from the authorities led to the 23-year-old withdrawing from the tournament and Wimbledon to take some time for herself and Peaty sympathises with the pressures. "What people need to remember is that athletes are still human and we still do everyday things and still have normal lives," he says.
"People enjoy the lows because they want to see you rebound and get onto the highs and I think if the media can capture that then that's a great thing. But if it's at the cost of your own mental health where you don't want to play anymore and don't want to take part then that's when the line is drawn. Every athlete has the right to withdraw or not take part in that today but it becomes very complicated when it's individual contracts and you have to do this and that when you sign up for a championship."
Peaty has been in the public eye since the age of 19 and believes maturity has helped him to become more comfortable dealing with the media: "From a young age, yes it has been hard sometimes when it's shoved in your face but I honestly enjoy that because it's almost the rawness of the sport, that's what people enjoy.
"For me, I just approach the media like me, I'm very honest and chilled and I just ramble really and it's great to be me in the media so unfortunately a lot of people don't have that opportunity."
Peaty is determined to use this relaxed approach to put on a "great show" in Tokyo. If he achieves that, the British star should finally earn the plaudits he deserves while his name could be the first on everyone's lips when the nation looks back at the 2021 summer of sport.