For eight extraordinary years, Adam Peaty has been swimming’s Mr Invincible: unbeatable and impregnable, chasing records and leaving others gulping in his slipstream. Yet on a wild and discombobulating night in Birmingham he endured surely the biggest shock in Commonwealth Games history as he finished fourth in the men’s 100m breaststroke final.
This was swimming’s equivalent of Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson. Or the US soccer team defeating England in the 1950 World Cup. A moment when everything we thought we knew about a sport was picked up and spun discordantly off its axis.
It was mighty close, with England’s James Wilby taking gold in 59.25, ahead of Zac Stubblety-Cook (59.52) and his Australian teammate Sam Williamson (59.82). Peaty, meanwhile, came home in 59.86 – more than three seconds outside his world record.
True, Peaty had arrived at Birmingham looking dangerously undercooked following a fractured foot that left him in a boot and a mental hole. Yet after victories in his heat and semi-final here, no one expected this.
“It took a broken foot to get it away from me,” Peaty said. “But I chose to fight.” He did. And he went out valiantly on his shield.
Initially everything looked to be going to script as Peaty led by 20 metres and began his surge at 30. But this time there was no muscular separation from the pack. By halfway he still led, but only by 0.13sec, and his pursuers sensed blood.
Peaty, so long swimming’s ultimate Alpha male, kept pushing. But in the last 25m he had nothing left. First Wilby passed him. Then Stubblety-Cook.
And then, right on the line, Williamson. It meant that Peaty did not even have a medal.
“I felt really good to 50m,” Peaty said. “I just don’t know what went wrong. With 25 to go I had nothing in the tank. I felt good, but it’s two seconds slower than the Olympics. There’s something obviously gone majorly wrong in that cycle.”
Peaty talked of a “major reset”, before adding: “There’s obviously a lot going wrong in my training programme. But sometimes when you don’t race all season it bites you when it matters.”
This was his first 100m breaststroke defeat since 2014, during which time he has hoovered up three Olympic gold medals, eight world titles and nearly two dozen European and Commonwealth medals.
For good measure Peaty also holds all of the top 20 times in history – with no one else breaking 58sec and has also shattered 14 world records to boot. Yet none of that mattered on this crazy night in Birmingham.
“It was a very slow final for me,” he said. “I can’t even remember when I went that slow. Of course it’s a shock. Of course it’s disappointing but that’s where you have those moments to go faster next time.”
Wilby, meanwhile, rightfully revelled in his stunning upset. “I’m overwhelmed and amazed by the result,” he said. “He’s a phenomenal athlete and he’ll probably kick me in the arse later in the calendar. But I’m proud of that.”
Meanwhile there was more success for England in the S8 100m backstroke as Alice Tai took gold in 1:13.64, six months after having her right leg amputated below the knee due to a worsening of her clubfoot.
Tai, who was awarded an MBE in 2017, powered home four seconds quicker than New Zealand’s Tupou Neiufi, who took silver.
Earlier in the evening the South African Chad Le Clos broke the record for most Commonwealth Games medals – 18 – as he took silver in a thrilling men’s 200m butterfly.
The 30-year-old was leading until the final 20 metres when he was overtaken by Lewis Clareburt who came through to win in 1:55.60. England’s James Guy took bronze.
However Clos, who has won his 18 medals across three Commonwealth Games, wasn’t too disappointed. “We both knew what each other would do but fair play to Lewis,” he said. “It is always kill or be killed when I race.”