Tom Daley returns to our screens this week a very happy and contented young man. Physically he’s the same – he’s still the superbly toned athlete he was this time last year – but in his heart and in his head he has a new-found serenity and security.
No one should underestimate just how courageous the decision to “out” himself was. No British sportsman of his age and profile has felt confident enough to do the same. He knew it was a risk, but it says much about the charm and dignity of his announcement – a YouTube video he filmed and posted himself – and the good sense of the public that any feared backlash has failed to materialise. On the contrary, his stock seems higher than ever.
I have made two documentaries with Tom, spending many months in his company both at home and abroad, observing him in training, in competition and with his family. I count them all as good friends. For someone who is, remember, still only 19, he is amazingly grounded, polite and talented.
Mum Debbie and his two brothers William, 16, and Ben, 12, have met and approve of Tom’s new partner. He has also introduced him to a few close friends, including myself. While the pair have been seen together in public, Tom wants to protect the privacy of his partner and allow their relationship to develop away from prying camera lenses – but newspaper pictures of them in America has shown this won’t be easy.
For Tom, announcing that he had fallen in love with a man was hugely important. He feels a huge weight has been lifted off his shoulders. “I just wanted to be honest. Yes, I have had girlfriends – I had a girlfriend last year. But when I saw him it was love at first sight.”
The fact he chose YouTube to make the announcement says a great deal about him. He wanted his fans to hear his words spoken in his voice, without the potential taint of outside interference or interpretation.
Perhaps the most striking revelation from Tom was on The Jonathan Ross Show, when he admitted it was the first time he had felt love and been loved back. “I’ve known rejection,” he admits.
Yet wherever I have travelled with Tom he’s been the object of adoration, with hundreds of infatuated (mainly female) young fans. He has 2.6 million followers on Twitter and his phone constantly buzzes. But the clue lies in the words infatuation and adoration. While his legion of fans are hugely important to Tom, and he genuinely loves and acknowledges them, they can never be an intimate part of his life.
After his announcement he tweeted: “Still Tom. Still diving. Going for Gold 2016. What I am or who I date shouldn’t matter.” Those close to Tom know how his training routine totally dominates his life. Since he was 15, I’ve filmed him get up, go to school, come home, gobble tea while doing homework, then go to the pool for four hours in the evening. He’s travelled around the world to competitions since he was nine years old. He’d take his homework on the plane, photograph it and email it to his tutors who would then mark it and send it back. At the same time his dad, Rob, was suffering from cancer. He passed away in 2011, at the age of 40. “Dad, I love you so much,” Tom posted on his Twitter account. “If I can be half the dad that my dad was to me that would be my best achievement!”
People often wonder why Tom shares his private moments with his fans. It’s because he is a thoroughly modern young man with a traditional sense of decency. He wants to be honest and true to himself and that was reinforced by Rob, who always told him to do the best he could in any given moment.
The Olympics accelerated a change in his home life. In February, he moved into a four-bedroom house in Plymouth, half a mile away from his mum and two brothers. One of the first things he did was buy two kittens, Luna and Spiro. “I’d always wanted a pet. Dad had never been keen but I saw these Bengal kittens and they were so cute, I drove all the way to Kent to buy them.”
Tom has no illusions about the amount of patience he and his partner will both need to juggle his busy schedule. “2014 is going to be another busy year for me, and I’m excited about that. Last season I was plagued with injury and I did struggle with motivation, as a lot of Olympic athletes do, following an Olympics. Next year is packed with competitions. It’s a long season, but with Rio less than three years away, competing against the best divers in the world for six months of the year will be great preparation for me.”
So, for now, he’s back on our TVs in Splash!, having just returned from Houston in America, where he’s been training. He makes no secret that after diving he’d like to be a TV presenter – he loves the immediacy and the sheer joy of communicating.
“I still can’t quite believe that diving is featuring on primetime Saturday night TV. If someone had said that to me five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed them. I really respect the celebrities that give it a go. Some of the dives they perform take years to perfect, so to attempt those in front of a live audience and millions of viewers at home is amazing.”
Back in Plymouth, though he’s moved out of the house he grew up in, his kittens have moved back in with Debbie. “Tom is away so much that he asked me to take them. I love it – it’s like having babies again!” she laughs.