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From 14-year-old Olympian to sporting icon - the story of Tom Daley's incredible rise

The British diver chats to The42 about his decorated career.

Tom Daley had a momentous 2016 in which he won a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics.
Tom Daley had a momentous 2016 in which he won a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics.
Image: David Jensen

SINCE THE AGE of seven, Tom Daley has devoted his life to the sport of diving. And suffice to say, he is a genuine prodigy.

His father, Rob, had encouraged him to take up the sport from a young age, and from there he has seldom looked back, breaking records and winning competitions at various levels ever since.

One day, in September 2002, when casually taking diving lessons, Daley was spotted by a prominent coach in the sport. Before he knew it, he was involved in competitive action. Within a year, he had won a silver medal at the National Novice Championships.

In 2007, the year he entered his teens, Daley finished runner-up in the British Championships in the Men’s Platform behind Olympic silver medalist Peter Waterfield. That same year, he achieved the World Championship qualification standard, but was deemed too young to compete.

The intense training and dedication needed to reach this level would have left little time for normal childhood and teenage activities, but Daley has no regrets about missing out in this regard.

“You have to sacrifice a lot to be the best that you can be,” he tells The42. “I had to sacrifice going to see my friends after school. The parties. Going and staying out late. Not being able to eat certain things.

All those things you have to sacrifice, but when you end up going to an Olympic Games, you get to travel round the world, competing and doing what you love, it makes a massive difference. It makes you feel like everything was worth it.”

Aged just 14 years and 81 days, Daley became the second youngest male ever to represent Britain at the Olympics — Ken Lester, who was a cox to a rowing pair at the 1960 Olympic Games, was slightly younger.

Daley grew up idolising Canadian diver Alexandre Despatie, another prodigy who earned gold at the 1998 Commonwealth Games aged 13. Moreover, at the same age, Daley had already become the youngest gold medallist at the European Championships.

It wasn’t by any means an easy path to success for the precocious talent, however. Daley’s rise inevitably generated considerable publicity. US station NBC sent a crew down to his native Plymouth to film Daley at the local diving club prior to the 2008 Beijing Games. Unimpressed newspaper columnists suggested he was too young to compete. He was even bullied continuously by classmates, prompting his father to temporarily withdraw him from school.

Yet Daley didn’t let these distractions overwhelm him. For someone so young, his performance in Beijing was remarkably assured, as the starlet finished eighth in the Olympic synchronised 10m platform and seventh in the individual 10m platform competition, notwithstanding a much-publicised dispute with his partner in the former event.

In 2008 (at the Olympics), I was 14,” he says. “I was a kid. I didn’t really know what was going on. I just thought it was another competition.”

Of course, following such an impressive first performance for someone so inexperienced, expectations were much higher ahead of the 2012 Games. Considered one of Britian’s best medal prospects, Daley was among a select group of athletes tracked by the BBC series Olympic Dreams prior to the London Games.

Olympics - Tom Daley - Filer Tom Daley was competing at the Olympics by the age of 14. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Despite the increasing pressure, Daley continued to astound, becoming the youngest-ever FINA World Champion in the individual event at the age of 15 in 2009. That same year, he was ranked number one in the FINA World Diving Rankings for the 10m platform for the first time.

At the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Daley’s relentless success continued, as he took home gold medals in the 10m Individual Platform competition and the 10m synchro diving (along with fellow Team FB star Max Brick).

Yet tragedy stuck the following year. Having first been diagnosed with cancer in 2006, his father Robert had been in remission until it was discovered that the tumour had re-emerged during a routine health-check in 2010.

Robert had been his son’s biggest supporter, giving up his electrician’s business so he could follow him around the world as the teenage prodigy thrived at various high-profile events. Within a minute of the success at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, Daley was on the phone to his tearful father, who was undergoing chemotherapy at the time and therefore for once couldn’t attend the event in person.

Daley Senior had hoped to live to see his son compete at the 2012 Olympics, but tragically passed away 14 months prior to the event at the age of 40.

You are my biggest source of motivation dad! I will make you proud!” a 17-year-old Daley tweeted at the time.

The youngster, who has been nominated for the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award five times and the main accolade twice, winning the former three times, managed the lofty expectations incredibly well at the London Olympics.

Despite some controversial moments, and occasions where it looked like he would go home disappointed, Daley ultimately dealt with the pressure in an accomplished manner and emerged with a bronze medal.

Going into 2012, it was obviously a lot of pressure,” he says. “It was a home Olympic Games. I was 18. I’d done lots of competitions already. And I went into it really wanting to win a medal and to win a medal in front of a home crowd was really one of the most amazing experiences ever.”

Yet the boy who seemingly had it all began to suffer the kind of inner turmoil that more than a few athletes will be familiar with, particularly in the aftermath of experiencing the extraordinary highs that success at the Olympics tends to produce.

Daley ultimately suffered from obsessive-compulsive thoughts and underwent various treatments, including post-traumatic stress therapy.

By 2013, he was even considering quitting the sport he loved so much. His late father’s absence during this distressing period was deeply felt.

He always knew what to say to make me feel better,” he said in an interview with The Daily Mail last year. “If I was doing well or not doing well he was just there to be supportive.

“Sometimes after training sessions he would just drive and we would get ice cream. Without even speaking he would know what was up and he would just make it all better, he just knew how to make me happy.”

Rio Olympic Games 2016 - Day Three Tom Daley's partner Dustin Lance Black shows his support in the stands at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre on the third day of the Rio Olympic Games. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

He credits his partner Dustin Lance Black, the director and Oscar-winning screenwriter of the film Milk, with helping to turn his life around. Without him, Daley says, it is unlikely he would have competed at Rio.

Black, to whom Daley is now engaged, encouraged him to come out, and in 2014, the star opened up about his sexuality via a YouTube video, consequently receiving much praise for doing so.

Another Olympics followed, with Daley travelling to Rio in what he described at the time as peak physical condition. And subsequently, he emulated his London achievement of winning bronze, though this time it was in 10m (synchro), with the Team GB athlete finishing a disappointing 18th in the individual event.

“The Olympics were full of highs and lows for me,” he recalls. “Coming away with the bronze in the synchro event with Dan Goodfellow was one of the best things ever.

Going into the individual event, I felt like I was in the best space physically and mentally. I won the Prelim Olympic record and was really happy with it, and then I was obviously devastated the next day when I didn’t quite make it through to the final.

“We’ve gone back and forth and debriefed it and analysed and now it’s about focusing on the things we’ve learnt going forward from here to try, for the next three-and-a-half years leading into 2020, to be the best we can be.”

End of 2016 Rio Olympics Package Great Britain's Tom Daley (right) reacts after being eliminated the Men's 10m Platform Semifinal at Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre on the fifteenth day of the Rio Olympic Games. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

And what is his prevailing theory on where it went wrong in Rio? With diving an especially mental sport with little margin for error or loss of concentration over a brief time period, Daley suggests he simply had an off day.

There was nothing there particularly that stood out that was the reason for it (going wrong in the individual event). We’d done everything that we possibly could have to be in the right place, but sometimes, it just happens on the day.

“There could be a build-up of things. Even the littlest of things like trying to do five events instead of just doing two and trying to stretch my body. So when I end up going back to two events, it seems easy.”

Rio Olympic Games 2016 - Day Three Great Britain's Tom Daley (right) and Daniel Goodfellow (left) celebrate with their bronze medals after the Men's Synchronised 10m Platform Final at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre on the third day of the Rio Olympic Games. Source: Mike Egerton

Daley also found the atmosphere in Brazil to be a stark contrast with four years previously.

“Going from London 2012, which was quite strict and regimented timing-wise, everything was very punctual… Rio was a completely different experience. It was fun, but it was a lot more casual kind of competition because of the way that the Brazilians were so friendly and wanted to talk all the time. It was a little bit more relaxed.

Every time I go to another Olympics, I feel like I’ve got that much more experience under my belt. So 2016 felt like an amazing time for me. I was at the peak physicality that I needed to be.”

Despite continuing his pursuit for an elusive Olympic gold, which would no doubt be the crowning achievement of an extraordinary career, Daley remains a much-loved figure. As Keith Duggan of The Irish Times put it when reporting from Rio last summer: “Daley’s popularity transcends his sport and his country: with the exception of Usain Bolt, no foreign athletes received such an excited reception as the Englishman.”

His youthful good looks undoubtedly help matters, but the open manner in which Daley has discussed his past problems obviously endears him to the public as well, while it is also not hard to see why this easy-going, amiable character is so well liked after spending half an hour in his company.

A smiling Daley arrives into The42’s office fresh from a book signing in Dundrum, leaving a number of excitable admirers in his wake. His fanbase on that particular day at the shopping centre, he says, mainly composed of three demographics: teenage girls, gay men and perhaps most surprisingly, old ladies.

Yet despite a somewhat hectic schedule, the 22-year-old seems upbeat and at ease in his surroundings, a million miles away from the troubled individual of four years previously.

Furthermore, in light of those post-London 2012 problems, Daley has taken a different approach to dealing with the Rio Olympics’ aftermath .

After the Olympics this time around, I had a month off training completely. I had three days where I ate what I wanted, didn’t do any exercise and felt so disgusting that I came right back into exercises and started doing spin classes or yoga classes and all these kind of different things.

“This year, I’m definitely taking it a lot easier than I have for some of the other years. Not necessarily ‘easy,’ it’s just doing different things. I didn’t really give myself a chance to do that after 2008 or after 2012.

“I’ve gradually been building up my training hours rather than having a month off and coming back to full-time. I had a month off, then I had a month of just dry land, then a month of doing just one session a day, and then this month will be the first month that I’m back to doing my full training regime of six hours a day, six days a week.”

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And not only is he taking extra care to look after himself, he is also aiming to watch out for others with the release of his new book Tom’s Daily Plan.

“The whole idea behind Tom’s Daily Plan started last year when I began doing workout videos on YouTube and tips about lemon water, life hacks, how to sleep and anxiety,” he adds.

“The 80 recipes that are in there are for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and even some sweet treats, because I do have got a sweet tooth.

At the back (of the book), you’ve got some workouts. They don’t need any equipment and are for all fitness types really. And also, there’s all the mindfulness tips in there too.

“The advice that I’d give to someone who hasn’t got the healthiest habits and exercise routine is the fact that it’s a lot easier than you think and it’s not as horrible as you think (to change).

The one word that I don’t really like is ‘diet,’ because when people say ‘diet,’ they automatically connect that with ‘I’m going to cheat or I’m going to fail’. Being able to change your lifestyle and to start making healthier choices — having a balance of the right things and making sure you eat in the right portions can make a massive difference.”

Tom’s Daily Plan is published by Harper Collins. More info here.

Look out for our upcoming video interview with Tom Daley, where he chats about nutrition and Irish Olympian Oliver Dingley. It will be published on the site tomorrow evening.

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Paul Fennessy

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