Jonnie Peacock has a new look for 2021. His blond hair is no longer in a nice schoolboy short back and sides, but tied in an unruly topknot. He has a wiry beard to go with it too. He looks less like he’s about to challenge for a third consecutive sprint title at the Paralympics, than lead a horde of Vikings on a spot of light pillaging.
“To be fair most of it is to do with lockdown,” Peacock says. “I wasn’t planning on growing the hair again and I don’t think my girlfriend ever wanted me to do so … it’s just laziness. I’ve got to keep it while it’s here.”
Any sense of the laid-back in Peacock’s looks might just be reflective of other changes too. The 28-year-old, who took time out from sport after the Rio Games, says that the step away has given him a sense of perspective, that he has learned “just to do the things that make you happy”. It’s an instinct that has only been reinforced by the pandemic.
“Don’t get me wrong, the competitor inside me is coming for those bonuses, I want more gold medals,” he says. “But ever since I stepped off the track in 2017, life for me has been about enjoyment. I’m very happy and content and I’ve realised that … I think Covid has forced everyone to take a different view on their life, to have a different outlook. For me that outlook is that I’m very happy at home and that’s what is important.
“I don’t need to go and win another gold medal for my happiness. I would like to, it would probably help – it would probably help the bank more than anything else to be honest – but yeah I’m just happy competing , training full time for a living now and getting enough to live off. I’ll do whatever makes me happy, but that’s probably less work.”
Peacock adds that this message is probably not one his agents would want to hear. That’s a little reminder that his break from competition allowed him to become a poster boy for more than Parasport. He was the first disabled contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, eliminated in week nine of 2017’s series after a dance-off against Debbie McGee. His parting message to Craig Revel Horwood and co was a pointed thanks for the criticism he had received, for “judging me as an equal”.
There was also a starring turn in a big Netflix documentary on the Paralympics, Rising Phoenix. This week he has been back on the small screen as a presenter, but with a similar message. Channel 4’s Jonnie’s Blade Camp followed Peacock’s attempts to instil confidence and sporting technique in five young amputees. He says the “stigma” around disabled people in sport has fallen back in recent years, with equality (or at least the pursuit of it) now possible in terms of sporting ambition too.
“I have kids come up to me and ask how they can get involved in Parasport and nine out of 10 times they should join an able-bodied club,” he says. “Go and find some place that you fit well and you might even find that you fit in somewhere at the top.”
In the day job, that of the blue-riband T64 100m runner, Peacock acknowledges change too and not just in his approach to his sport. “The thing that you have at the Paralympics is that it’s a young sport in its evolution,” he says. “It’s still growing exponentially and because of that the sporting achievements grow quite quickly. To win a gold medal in my class in 2012 you could run 11.00sec. In Tokyo, I would say it’s likely to be 10.6, maybe quicker. That improvement is huge.”
Peacock, who blitzed the field in both 2012 and 2016, says he has competition for his 100m title in Tokyo. Reclassified from T44 to T64, the field will be comprised solely of single below-the-knee amputees and is currently led by the German Felix Streng, who has run 10.72 this year. Two US athletes, Jarryd Wallace and Jonathan Gore, have also gone faster than Peacock, with the Brit yet to crack 11.00 in 2021.
“Personally right now I think it’s his race to lose,” Peacock says of Strang. “He’s run so fast, so many times, he’s laid consistent markers down. He’s run much quicker than I have this year. The thing that he has to remember and, I guess, I remember is that I always run my best times at the Games. I know that I will run my best race of the year on that final day.”
Peacock credits his coach Dan Pfaff for his ability to peak at the right time. “I’ve got one of the best coaches in the world and I’ve got full confidence that he’s going to make sure I turn up on that day in form,” Peacock says. “I know I’m going to be digging deep to make sure I run with everything I’ve got. I guess the question is whether someone in that race runs better than me. There’s nothing I can do about that, apart from make sure I put a damn heck of heat on their shoulders.”
And that is the relaxed, dispassionate, step-back-and-smell-the-flowers Jonnie Peacock talking.