x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The diving force

Feature At 15 years old, the British diver Tom Daley is already a world champion and is the face of the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Courtesy Professional Sports Group
Courtesy Professional Sports Group

At 15 years old, the British diver Tom Daley is already a world champion and is the face of the 2012 London Olympic Games. Helena Frith Powell met the young star when he visited Abu Dhabi for the Laureus World Sports Awards. Tom Daley is a diving sensation. At the age of 13 he was European champion. At 15, he became world champion, beating men more than twice his size and close to twice his age. But he is having terrible trouble getting into his own press conference at the Emirates Palace hotel. "No sir," the security guard is telling him firmly. "No accreditation, no entry." Tom and his father Robert, who travels with him as much as their finances allow, have a brief discussion as to where the accreditation might be. They agree that by the time they have found their way to their room at the opposite end of the hotel and back, the press conference will be over.

Happily, people like Daley have managers, and his manager is quickly on the case. A bigwig comes to the rescue and we are ushered into the press room. Tom laughs off the slight setback and gets to work, charming the local media. It is easy to see why he has been chosen as the face of the 2012 London Olympics. Not only is he a good-looking and extremely likeable lad, he has a maturity and professionalism that most 30 year olds lack. In fact, for someone who spends most of his time hurtling through the air, he seems extremely grounded.

Does he ever allow himself to relax? He laughs. "I have three separate worlds: diving, social and media. When I walk through the door of my home I am just a kid again, I fight with my brothers and mess around. But when I am in the media or when I am training, I can't mess around." Daley feels he is himself in all three worlds and says he doesn't feel any more or less comfortable in any realm, although diving remains his priority and passion. "It is just part of my life, I love it. I would miss it terribly if I didn't do it. I get such a sense of freedom when I jump from the board, almost like a roller-coaster feeling."

He says that he does not have time for a girlfriend at the moment, and if he did, she would have to understand that diving takes first place. "Maybe I could find a female athlete, that would be the most sensible thing," he says, smiling. "Or if there was such a thing as mixed synchro [synchronised diving] that would be ideal." Daley, from Plymouth on the south coast of England, has a schedule that would make most investment bankers wince. He was in Abu Dhabi earlier this month for the Laureus Sports Awards, where he was nominated in the Breakthrough of the Year category, losing to Jenson Button.

Following that, he was off to China, Canada, India and Mexico, with only a week or so at home in between each trip. On top of all this, he is taking his GCSE exams this year, while on the road. "I will have to take some of them in China while I am there, which will be kind of hectic." His schooling means that he can only train for four hours a day, putting him at a disadvantage compared with his competitors who do up to eight hours each day. But Daley is determined to continue his education beyond the compulsory age of 16 and take four A Levels before he leaves school.

One of the things he has promised his teacher he will do while in Abu Dhabi is to take pictures of the sunset. "Our special project in photography GCSE is the sun, so that's worked out well," he says. "There is never a spare moment. But I will stop in January 2012 so I can focus on the Olympics full-time." The London Olympics in 2012 is something Daley mentions a lot. When he was eight years old, before London had even been chosen as the venue for the Games, he drew a picture of himself as a medal winner and wrote London 2012 on it.

"Every competition is a stepping stone towards London 2012," he says. "Gold is the dream, of course. You never get the chance to represent your country, in your country, at the Olympics more than once in a lifetime. But so much can go wrong; you could slip, you could misjudge the visual cues." It is a little-known fact that divers keep their eyes open all the way through a dive, whereas instinct when jumping from a 10-metre height might be to close them. "You have to see when to turn, when to prepare to hit the water and so on," he explains. "But if you miss it by a millisecond it can go very wrong."

Despite this, he says that nerves don't usually affect him in a bad way. "I get good nerves that give me adrenalin and make me jump higher, rather than bad nerves. You just can't let yourself think 'What if this or that happens?'" Daley has had his share of mishaps; hitting his head on the board badly twice and landing on his side several times, which resulted in a bruise down the whole length of his body within minutes.

Doesn't that put him off? "Well, yes, it does actually," he laughs. "But you've just got to get up there again, especially if you want to be the best." Daley says he has always harboured an ambition to be "the best in the world at something", although he has no idea where this drive comes from. There are no other sportsmen or sportswomen in his family. His father is an electrician and his mother works at a local nursery.

Daley thought he would be a swimmer, but as soon as he discovered the diving board at the age of seven, he knew it was for him. He was talent-spotted by a local diving club and by the age of 10 was the under-18 British diving champion. Does he feel he missed out on a childhood? "I suppose one thing I really miss out on is going out after school with my friends," he says. "But it's not the biggest problem because I can see them at weekends. You have to have your eyes on the prize constantly; if you miss five minutes of training every day by the end of the month that can add up to a whole session and that could have an impact on your performance."

I ask him how easy it is to stay motivated when he is already the best in the world at such a young age. Obviously the Olympics is a big driving factor, but, he explains, there is also the desire to "stay one step ahead of everyone else. You have to make sure you don't slack off and still work as hard as possible. Pretend you're number four in the world and still fighting to get to number one." Even if he doesn't win gold in 2012, when he will be 18, he will still have at least two more Olympics before he retires (a diver usually peaks at 22) and goes into a career of "maybe TV presenting".

He loves the atmosphere of the Olympics and, although he performed well below his best at the Beijing Olympics, he is glad he had the experience of those Games in preparation for London. "It showed me the amazing scale it is on," he says. "You can't imagine the feeling and the atmosphere." Daley is always the youngest competitor around and during the competitions his father is not allowed to stay with him.

Does he ever feel lonely or out of place? "It's kind of weird," he says. "But I have always been around those who are older than me. There are a couple of girl divers who are 21 and they act like they're 12 years old." He laughs. "There will always be someone who acts younger than me."