Interview: Tom Daley

Is the pressure of Olympics expectations getting to the teen diver? Not a bit of it…

Tom Daley’s people are in a tizz. Yes, the Adidas shorts are here and the jacket and trainers, but no trunks. Everybody’s running round in a flap, worrying about the photoshoot, whispering urgently about sponsors. Everyone except Tom, that is.

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Britain’s 17-year-old diving champion seems preternaturally calm, chatting about the forthcoming world championships in Shanghai (Saturday British Eurosport; Sunday BBC2 and British Eurosport), his attempt to master four new ridiculously tough dives and his scraps with his two younger brothers.

His management hand him a pair of shorts and ask if he’d like to change in a side room. “No, I’m fine,” he says, “I’m used to being half naked.” He puts on a huge pair of boots and a hard hat so he can have his photograph taken on the roof of the posh London hotel, and stares at his feet. Huge, he says, always have been. “They’re like clown’s feet, because I’m quite small.” His voice is deep and confident, the accent more public school than Plymouth these days.

What makes his equanimity almost eerie is that it’s only a few weeks since his father Rob died. Tom and Rob Daley were a team; inseparable. Father and son travelled to events together, did interviews together, laughed together, argued together, did every- thing together. Five years ago, Rob was diagnosed with brain cancer and in May he passed away.

Tom has had to do so much of his growing up in public. The UK doesn’t tend to lionise its divers, but when they emerge as pre-teens, and win gold medals as 13-year-olds (at the European Championships in 2008), it’s a different matter. A year later he won gold at the World Championship, and in 2010, he won two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games for the individual 10m platform dive and synchronised 10m platform dive with teammate Max Brick.

For years now, he’s been one of the great hopes for 2012; possibly the face of 2012. And as we have celebrated his successes, we have also sympathised with the difficulties – his coach Andy Banks recently said that as a youngster Tom got so lonely and distressed away from home that he threatened to jump out of a window if he was left alone; at 14 his 26-year-old then synchro partner Blake Aldridge tore into him after they failed to win a medal at the Olympics in Beijing; his bullying at school has been well documented; and now he’s lost his father.

Yet in front of me is a seemingly mature and happy young man battling to be the best in the world. Now he’s set his sights on London 2012. He’s returning from Shanghai to help open the new Olympic Park Aquatics Centre with a ceremonial dive that will be televised live on BBC1 (Wednesday 7pm).

“Normally it takes about three years to perfect my dives and feel comfortable in a competition environment. Every competition now is leading into 2012 and gains you extra experience. There’s a lot of risk, because [these competitive dives] are the hardest in the world, but if you want to try to win the gold medals you’ve got to put the risk in.”

How important are the 2012 Games to him? “It will be the most important thing in my life. It’s the pinnacle of anyone’s sporting career to compete in the Olympic Games, and when it’s your home country it makes it that more special.”

Is there a lot of pressure being Britain’s golden boy? “Yeah, there’s lots of pressure in any competition, but you have to turn the adrenaline and the nerves into a good thing so you can use the whole crowd to spur you on.”

I tell him I’ve only ever managed a belly flop and have got a technical question for him. “You know when you dive?” I say.

He nods.

“And you get it wrong?”

He nods again.

“Does it hurt loads?”

He grins. And then some, he says. “Really hurts. Yeah, it really does. You get bruises instantly. You can split your skin. There’s so many things that can go wrong.” Does he scream in pain when he lands? “You swear underwater a lot. You see the bubbles coming out. You have to let all the anger out underwater – oh my God, that really hurt! – and come up and try to keep a composed face.”

He shows me a few mementos – the scar on the top of his head, the scar on his forehead, then lifts his sleeve to show a weird muscular stalactite. “Basically, I’ve torn my tricep. See that lump, that’s just scar tissue that will always stay… so yeah, it’s quite dangerous.” He has said that the impact on his body is “like having a car crash every time you dive”.

Do you have to be a masochist to dive? “You have to have something about you where…” He starts again. “You have to be as brave as possible, I guess, because if you start to get scared when you’re 10m high you don’t want to be a diver.” Yet a second later, he admits, there will always be an element of fear: “I still get scared every time I go up there.”

Tom’s mother Debbie is sitting silently as he talks. She’s very different from his father. Whereas Rob was never short of an opinion and often dominated interviews, she prefers to stay in the background. Does she get scared for Tom? “If I saw it I’d probably be frightened, but normally he comes home from training and tells me what happened. I wouldn’t actually like to see him getting hurt.”

Tom joins in: “When she first started watching she was like, ‘Oh God!’ But now she’s used to it.” He’s wearing a ring designed in the shape of the five interlocking Olympic circles, made for him by his local jeweller. It looks like an elegant knuckle-duster, and would have been a useful weapon against the kids who bullied him at school. He laughs. “Yeah, smack ’em with that, and they’d remember it for the rest of their life.”

Was he surprised by the bullying? “It happened a long time ago, just when I got back from Beijing.” He was 14. When he returned to school, boys would taunt him, ask him how much his legs were worth and threaten to break them. He left the school and went to the private Plymouth College, where he waltzed through his seven GCSEs (five A-stars and two As) and is now doing A-levels. He says he’s happy there in a supportive environment where there are a number of talented swimmers.

If the bullying happened now, would he react differently? It’s a subject that makes him uneasy. “One of the reasons I was forced to leave was because the media blew it out of proportion, which made it worse. People don’t do it now. We have banter, but they don’t take it too far.”

Anyway, he says, he knows how to look after himself. He represented Devon at judo in the under-27kg category when he was nine years old. Is there any sport he’s useless at? “Football, rugby… terrible. Can’t kick a ball in a straight line.” Who’d win in a fight – him or his 15-year-old rugby-playing brother William? “Me, me. Me, yeah, me definitely. William’s big…”

“Tall,” Debbie corrects her son. “He’s a tall rugby player.”

“…and wide,” Tom continues. “He’s got weight behind him, but I’m stronger than I look. People tell me I’m heavy-handed. Have you ever written with a pen and it snaps? Like yesterday, I was just writing, and it just snapped.”

Perhaps you’re just freakishly strong? “If I were to fight my brother I’d get the aggression coming along, like the competitive thing. But we don’t fight that often.” It’s at times like this that you remember Tom is still just a kid.

Today, he’s promoting a project (Get Set, Go Free) with Nestlé to encourage families to tackle a new sport together. “Skiing, tennis, canoeing, rock climbing, there are so many sports you can do, and that’s how I started diving, just being given the opportunity. I stumbled across it, thought I’d try it, loved it, carried on doing it. So I guess Get Set, Go Free is getting families to be active and have fun and try something they wouldn’t normally try and become good at it.”

How important has family been to him? “Very. They’re always there to support you.” It’s particularly poignant when he talks in the present tense. So little time has passed since your dad’s death, I say.

His management team instantly step in. “Yeah, we’d rather not talk about that…”

But Tom is already answering. “It’s been a tough couple of months, yes…”

His PR gives both of us a stern look. “I’m sorry, don’t put him in an awkward position. Please, he’s just turned 17, please appreciate the sensitivities of the subject.”

I don’t know what to do or say. Tom is looking at me apologetically, a little desperately. He seems to want to talk about his dad, his inspiration. I feel sorry for him. Eventually Tom’s mother intervenes. “It’s too raw,” she says. And again he looks at me apologetically.

So we change the subject and talk about longevity (because of wear and tear he says he’d be unlikely to make it to the 2024 Olympics, when he’d be 30) and A-levels and how he’d like to work in the media when he retires.

Tom says that in some ways his life is that of a typical 17-year-old. “I’ve still got to do school work, still got my mum who tells me off, still got my brothers who annoy me, everything, really. When you become a sports person you don’t stop doing all that. It’s not the glamorous life that everyone thinks.”

But he concedes that in other ways it’s not so normal. Not many lads follow up their homework every day with four hours in the gym and pool. Has he got a girlfriend?

“No, not at the moment. It’s hard to find time, really. I’m hardly ever home, always training. I don’t get to go to parties every weekend like most people do and get to meet other people. And because London 2012 is such a big thing, I have to make sure I prepare for that as well as you can.”

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He knows there’s a price to pay for his success. So what keeps him going day after day? “You do it because you love it and you do it because you want to become the best in the world. You don’t do it for any other reason.”