The young boy facing the camera spoke with a smile, but everyone could see the steeliness in his eyes.
“I want to get to the Olympics and win a gold medal,” Tom Daley told the BBC in 2005. He was holding a picture he’d made – a drawing of himself doing a handstand on the 10m diving platform at the London Games, then still seven years away.
“If I wasn’t to win, it would drive me on to be at the next Olympics and get that medal then.”
Daley was just 11 when he stated that mission.
Sixteen years later and his dream was finally achieved. He and Matty Lee secured a historic synchronised 10m platform Olympic title at Tokyo 2020.
During the medal ceremony tears poured from his eyes at the enormity of it all.
And what a road it has been. This is the story of Tom Daley’s path to gold medal glory.
This achievement and others – including becoming world champion at 15 and twice winning Olympic bronze – owe much to a remarkable resolve that’s also helped him overcome struggles away from the pool.
Growing up, he was bullied at school. In 2011, his father died at the age of 40. He feared the consequences of revealing his sexuality before coming out in 2013.
Daley is Britain’s most decorated diver, but he possesses a level of fame that far transcends his discipline. He has become one of sport’s highest-profile gay athletes, a role model for others in the LGBTQ+ community. He has suffered several media run-ins during the course of a life lived under the spotlight.
Now aged 27 and a father himself, he says he finds it “crazy” to see how “focused and obsessed” he was as a child.
“If my son was talking like that at the same age, I’d be like ‘wow, calm down, take your time, enjoy it,'” he told BBC Sport. “But clearly there was just something in me that wanted it so much.”
Tokyo – his fourth Olympics – arguably represented his last realistic chance to claim it. While that same dream drove him today, parenthood and his partner helped give him a new perspective, on both triumph and trauma.
“I thought I was going to win an Olympic gold medal in Rio, and that turned out the complete opposite by a long shot,” recalls the diver. “It felt like the end of the world.
“Now my world and structure is my family and it was my husband who said to me that my story wasn’t finished.
“Although we didn’t know it at the time, my son (Robbie) needed to see me win an Olympic gold and the fact that I can say that my son watched me become Olympic champion – albeit on TV as they couldn’t be here – is such a great feeling.”
Daley has always lived and breathed for the Olympics. He vividly recalls the efforts he went to, as an 11-year-old, to watch the men’s synchronised 10m platform final during Athens 2004, when Leon Taylor and Pete Waterfield won silver for Britain.
“We were on holiday in our caravan and everyone was going to the kids’ clubs but I was determined to stay in and watch the diving so I was leaning out of the window with the aerial to try to get a better signal,” he recalls while laughing.
Four years later, Daley was already gaining more attention than his “idols” ever had. He had qualified for Beijing 2008, aged 13, and cameras were trained on his every move.
He didn’t challenge for medals in China, but the crowd loved watching the young teenager – cheering on ‘baby Daley’ throughout the event. A star was born. But back home, it wasn’t all easy.
“Some people at my school were so happy for me, but others started being really horrible and I was bullied,” he says.
“For a long time, I just kept quiet about it, but I bottled up so much that eventually I just couldn’t train and it drained me so much mentally until I had nothing left.
“It got to a point where I was always embarrassed to talk about diving and I couldn’t take a compliment, because whenever someone said something nice, I had this fear I was going to be mocked.”
It left Daley wanting to be home schooled. Instead he was offered the chance to join Plymouth College towards the end of his first year of GCSEs, a month before the 2009 World Championships.
In Rome, the revitalised 15-year-old graduated from medal contender to fully grown champion.
While his landmark performance in the 10m platform was striking, what happened in the hour after was perhaps even more memorable. Daley rolls his eyes, but also smiles, when recalling the now infamous press conference.
“I remember seeing my dad sneak in with a BBC journalist and he had this beaming smile,” he recalls.
“He put his hand up and said: ‘I’m Rob, Tom’s dad, and I want a cuddle.’ I remember thinking: ‘Oh my god…'”
In the footage, Daley can be heard muttering “dad, this is so embarrassing” as he gingerly makes his way around the media scrum to his father – and another hoard of cameras.
“I remember him saying: ‘Tom I took you to all of your training sessions, taught you to ride a bike, I changed your nappies when you were a kid.’ He said it was the proudest moment of his life to see his son become world champion.
“When I look back, it was a very special moment as we’d achieved it together, and now as a father myself, I completely understand why he was so emotional.”
What few knew then was that Rob had been diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2006 and he appreciated not only how special these moments were, but also how precious time with his son was.
Months after Daley’s success, the family learned that despite having surgery to remove 80% of the tumour three years earlier, Rob was no longer in remission.
On Friday 27 May 2011, exactly 14 months before the London 2012 Olympics began, Rob died peacefully with his family by his side.
“In a way, if he hadn’t had that brain tumour, we perhaps wouldn’t have been as close. We developed this great connection,” says Daley.
“The heartbreaking thing is that the last few days, all he was asking me about were: ‘Have we got tickets for London 2012 yet? Did we win the ballots, are we able to get in?’
“He was so excited about being able to see me compete and it’s surreal to think of all the things he’s missed.”
Grief impacts people in different ways and looking back now, more than a decade on, Daley believes he “didn’t handle it in the healthiest of ways” at the time.
“My dad died on a Friday and I was at training on the Saturday morning, and then the funeral was on a Wednesday. I left the wake halfway through to travel and go compete at the national championships,” he says with a shake of the head.
“Now looking back on it as an older athlete, there are more important things to life than diving, but then I knew the London Olympics was this big thing that my dad and I had always dreamed of, and there was all the motivation in the world to go be on the podium in 2012.”
After the loss of his father, Daley took on new responsibility as the “man of the house” and helped his mum, Debbie, by driving his younger brothers to school and their rugby training.
Heading into his home Games, there were constant media questions about his state of mind. Comments made by British Diving’s performance director added further pressure.
Alexei Evangulov demanded he lose weight and also publicly criticised the diver by suggesting he might become ‘Britain’s Anna Kournikova’ – referencing the Russian former tennis player turned model whose sporting career was said to have been damaged by media distraction.
Despite “so much pressure”, Daley delivered a brilliant bronze, which effectively saved his sport by securing the squad funding for the four years leading into Rio 2016.
“Looking back I sometimes wonder: ‘Was that my time? Could it have been gold?’ But there are so few people who get to become an Olympian, let alone an Olympic medallist, and to have won a bronze in front of a home crowd, I have to be proud,” he says.
Daley paid tribute to his father in his post-event interviews, but only finally allowed himself to fully grieve in the months following.
“It all hit me after the Olympics. There was this massive crash,” he says.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life any more, as London 2012 was all I’d had in my book – and for a few months I actually quit diving.”
At this time, Daley was seeing a therapist in an attempt to overcome the “terror” he was experiencing when performing his ‘twister’ dive. A real fear had developed since camera flashes forced him to request a re-dive while performing the routine in the Olympic final.
He was also plagued by a persistent triceps injury tear, frustrated by ‘fake news’ stories in the press about his purchasing habits and was aware that certain people were keen to ‘out’ him at a time when he was still processing thoughts about his sexuality.
Aged 19, Daley returned to compete at the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona, re-tore his triceps, finished sixth and then took a trip to Los Angeles. It changed his life.
“The difficult thing I found growing up was that there are so many conflicting thoughts and feelings, and I had to live all of that out in the public eye,” he says.
“Figuring out your sexuality is quite difficult in any way, let alone doing it under constant scrutiny and people asking constant questions and trying to figure out things.”
Daley met his now husband, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and producer Dustin Lance Black, while in the United States. A “huge weight” was soon lifted off his shoulders.
“Meeting Lance and then coming out in 2013 changed everything,” he says. “It allowed me to stop worrying, stop being scared and to just be me.”
Following a move to London, and with Jane Figueiredo as his new coach, the medals began to flow once more. A third career Commonwealth gold at Glasgow 2014 was followed by a team title as well as individual bronze at the 2015 Worlds.
In 2016, Daley entered what he felt would be his “peak Olympics” in Rio as one of the gold medal favourites. He warmed up for his individual event with an impressive bronze alongside new synchronised 10m partner Dan Goodfellow.
Before he competed again, team-mates Jack Laugher and Chris Mears made history by becoming Britain’s first-ever Olympic diving champions – with Laugher also adding an individual 3m silver.
“When Jack and Chris won Olympic gold medal, I was like ‘OMG that is my biggest dream’ so I didn’t get my escape strategy right and I had no mental break from everything that was going on,” Daley says.
“After Jack won the silver, I was like, right this is my time now!”
Despite setting a new Olympic record total of 571.85 in the preliminaries, later that day the diving world was left stunned as Daley failed to reach a major final for the first time in his career. Five years on, he’s still unable to explain exactly what happened.
“My nervous system, erm, my mind and body connect wasn’t, erm, there,” Daley says, uncharacteristically flustered as he watches back footage from the event for the first time.
“I’ve kind of blanked this out and there’s still no sense in it. Sometimes I think maybe I should have stayed in the ice bath longer, or had a recovery drink at a different time, but sometimes you just have to say it was a bad day.”
In the post-event interviews, he tearfully vowed to return for the Tokyo Games. But redemption of a sort would come far sooner – 12 months later, he delivered arguably the greatest performance of his career so far to secure a first individual world title since 2009.
The following year, at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, he used the platform victory gave him to speak out on issues beyond sport.
Inspired by his husband’s activism around LGBTQ+ issues and campaigns, he called on Commonwealth countries to decriminalise homosexuality, stating that it was illegal for athletes competing in 37 of the 53 nations at the Games (70%) to be in a relationship with someone of the same sex.
“We have to talk about these things and shine a light on them in order to get change,” he says now.
Daley struggled with pneumonia, concussion and a stress fracture that year. He contemplated his future in diving, but the arrival of son Robbie revitalised him.
“Back in 2016, it felt like the end of the world,” he says. “Now I wish I could go back and tell myself: ‘You’re going to get married, have a beautiful son and things are going to get much better.'”
However, now 27, the daily impact of throwing his body from 10m and hitting the water at 35mph has undeniably taken its toll. Having once been the ‘baby’ of the team, Daley now describes himself as the “grandad”.
The five-time European champion has taken up mindfulness, yoga and gyrotonics in a bid to prolong his career, which has been extended by at least 12 months by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I knew going into Rio that if I’d won the Olympic gold medal it would have been my last dive,” states Daley, who will compete individually as well as alongside new synchronised partner Matty Lee in Tokyo.
Now though he is “almost relieved” to have had five extra “bonus” years in the sport and arrived in Japan “mentally stronger” than at any point in his life.
So, to Tokyo. Daley had long spoken about preferring to face dominant Chinese rivals in outdoor venues where the sun, wind, fluctuating crowd noises add variables to competition.
The indoor spectator-less Tokyo Olympic Aquatics Centre was seen as the perfect setting for the East Asian athletes to dominate with their style which he has previously described as “almost robotic.”
As expected, the defending Olympic and current world champions Chen Aisen and Cao Yuan began the synchronised 10m final strongly and looked to be going clear of their rivals at the halfway stage.
Daley curled his lip as the scoreboard revealed the situation. They had been good, but not good enough for gold. He and Lee shared a brief look and nodded. They knew they had more to give.
A brilliant dive followed in the fourth round and the British pair edged to within a point of their rivals with their penultimate routine.
Daley and Lee produced their greatest dive – 101.01 – in the final round.
2004 Olympic silver medallists Leon Taylor, who mentored Daley earlier in his career, erupted with excitement on commentary, calling the gold for Britain – before pausing and realising that while a high three-digit score was improbable, it wasn’t impossible from the Chinese.
Daley was nervous. The traditionally measured, calm and ‘in control’ diver had disappeared and, in his place, stood a man with little composure who was fidgeting.
He was anxious, jumping like a worried child. He’d been here before, waiting for judges to decide his fate – but this time was different. It was likely to be his last chance for gold.
Moments later as the Chinese total was revealed, Daley leapt on to partner Lee and the tears began to flow. Not just from Daley though, but most of his team-mates, coaches and the Team GB support staff were all wiping their eyes.
“I’ve been diving for 20 years now and I honestly still can’t believe what’s happened,” he told me moments after receiving the medal he has craved since childhood.
This was a victory for two British divers and a first-ever Olympic title for the nation in the synchronised 10m event.
But it was also much more.
It was also the completion of a journey he began with his late father over two decades ago. It was also a statement about the importance of inclusion and overcoming adversity.
“When I was a little boy, I felt like an outsider and different,” began Daley. “I felt I was never going to be anything because who I was wasn’t what society wanted me to be.
“I hope that seeing LGBT people performing at the Olympic Games gives young kids belief and means they won’t feel so frightened, scared and alone.
“Whoever you are, no matter where you come from, you can become an Olympic champion – because I did it.”
A version of this feature was first published on 19 July.
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