Tom Daley: 'In June I'll sit my GCSEs...at a competition in China'

As part of a series of interviews with the year's leading lights, Tom Daley tells Nick Harris about school bullies, his embarrassing father, and the dive that made him Britain's youngest world champion in an Olympic sport
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The Independent Online

Like many teenagers, Tom Daley cites The X Factor as his favourite TV show. Every weekend he followed Jedward, Olly, Stacey and Co, and fully expected this year's winner, Joe McElderry, to bag the Christmas No 1.

Daley hadn't even heard of Rage Against The Machine until a fortnight ago, and of "Killing in the Name" he says: "I don't like it at all, Joe's song is just so much better."

But you won't find Daley, 15, raging against Rage. Far from it.

"I can see where the public [who supported Rage Against The Machine] are coming from on this, and the public decide these things by effectively voting with what they buy," he says. "Whoever got the Christmas No 1 deserved it because they sold more copies or downloads."

Mature, measured, supremely diplomatic, Daley is not your typical teenager – and a world-beating 2009 has cemented his status as a Plymouth prodigy who keeps on delivering.

In 2004, age 10, he was Britain's Under-18 diving champion. In 2005, he won medals at his first Under-18 international meeting, in Germany. In 2006, he met the qualification standard for the Commonwealth Games but couldn't compete – too young.

In 2007, age 12, he gained special dispensation to attend the Youth Olympics in Sydney, then became English senior champion. He was the BBC's 2007 Young Sports Personality of the Year.

In 2008, he won two British 10-metre platform titles, solo then synchro (with Blake Aldridge), became the 10m European senior champion, went to the Olympics, age 14, and was runner-up in the Young Sports Personality award.

So to summer 2009, and Daley, at 15, was old enough to compete in his first world championships. On a hot July evening in Rome, he stepped to the edge of the platform for his final dive – a reverse three-and-a-half somersault – knowing something close to perfection would be good enough to guarantee bronze. He nailed it.

His entry into the water was, to use diving parlance, "a rip". As Daley explains: "You go clean through, with a noise like a quick rip of paper."

There were just two divers left who could overtake him, the two best in the world, Australia's Matthew Mitcham, the reigning Olympic 10m champion, and China's Qiu Bo, the pre-event shoo-in for the Rome title.

Daley takes up the story: "I'd done my dive and was guaranteed bronze and I was just delighted, thinking, 'Thank God I've got a medal'. It was just 'Yes! This is what I've always wanted, a medal at world level'. That was what was in my head. Job done.

"Then I started to walk over to the mix zone [for post-dive interviews] with Gem [Gemma Field, British Swimming's media officer] and we heard Matt hit the water, and then there was an 'oooo' from the crowd, but not in a good way. He'd splashed.

"So I looked around to see what score he'd got. He was behind me on points. That meant I was guaranteed silver. Awesome. Couldn't quite believe it. Then because of what had happened to Matt we stood there to watch Qiu Bo's final dive. Gem said to me, 'You never know, Tom'.

"And I said to her, 'It's not going to happen. He's not going to mess it up. It's not going to happen, it's not going to happen, it's... oh my God...' And he'd hit the water, you know, hit the water, and I was just, 'No Waaaay'.

"Then we waited for the judges to see what they'd do because he could still have beaten me but the scores came up and that was it. I won gold. I just didn't know what to do, whether to be sick, because I immediately felt like throwing up, or to laugh, or cry or what. It was just unbelievable."

So Daley became, at 15 years and 61 days, Britain's youngest ever world champion in any major international sport, and the youngest British world champion in any Olympic sport. Already used to being mobbed when competing in diving-mad nations like China, he was headline news in Italy. One TV station ran an hour of coverage focused almost solely on him, with the banner along the bottom of the screen reading "Il baby tuffatore prodigio", or "The miracle diver baby".

Famously – infamously for Tom – the scenes in the press conference afterwards will be remembered because his father Rob, 39, wandered past security to the back of the room, and in front of rolling cameras, asked: "Tom, can you give me a cuddle?"

Tom, who winced as he granted the request, says: "That was extremely embarrassing, it really was, you could tell from my reaction. But you know what? My dad said to me afterwards that if I were in his shoes, with a 15-year-son who'd just become world champion, I'd probably feel like giving my son a hug too. He said I'll understand that when I have my own kids."

In mitigation, Rob Daley has extra reasons to treasure his son's achievements. He had a brain tumour removed in 2006, and while in the clear for now, is wary that remissions don't always last.

For Daley Snr, family is everything. He gave up work because of illness and to chaperone Tom, and the well-being of Tom and his younger brothers, Will and Ben, is central to his life.

It was also on that basis that Rob Daley insisted that Tom move schools earlier this year after being bullied at Eggbuckland Community College in Plymouth.

Tom has no desire now to rehash the details but as he explained in April, he faced threats that his legs would be broken, and told The Independent then, "It's escalated to levels I can't stand... people chucking stuff at me, emptying my pencil case on the floor for the hell of it... it makes me not want to go to school any more."

That's all behind him now. He says life at his new school, Plymouth College, "is going really well, they're so supportive". His sport dictates aspects of his education, and the school is flexible in helping with his GCSE schedule.

Daley took early GCSEs in maths and English this month, for example, because the original examination dates, next June, clash with a World Cup event in China.

"So I'll be taking three more GCSEs in January, a couple in April, and a couple when I'm actually in China in June, in an embassy, I think," he says.

His 2009 was topped off by winning the Young Sports Personality of the Year award, again. "An amazing night," he says. "I saw Jenson Button, Fabio Capello. Ryan Giggs was sat a couple of rows away. Cool."

As for 2010, Daley, now the world No 1, is looking forward to his first public performances of his new armoury of dives, including the high-tariff "Twister", the toughest dive in the world.

"Back two-and-a-half somersaults with two-and-a-half twists," he explains of a move that he hopes will help him to retain his national title, and earn World Cup success and Commonwealth Games glory in the coming year.

Just like most 15-year-olds, then. Not.

Daley diary: Twists and turns of 15-year-old's momentous year

*March

Daley's father, Rob, reveals to The Independent that Tom will "never dive again" in the 10m platform synchro event with his 2008 Olympic partner, Blake Aldridge, with Daley Snr saying Aldridge is "not a good influence on Tom". Aldridge was criticised for using a mobile phone during competition in Beijing, and fuelled Rob Daley's ire when involved in a nightclub fracas.

*April

Daley starts work with a new 10m synchro partner, Max Brick. It also emerges that Tom has been the subject of bullying at school, and Rob Daley says he is considering moving Tom elsewhere.

*May

Daley and Brick win a silver medal in the 10m synchro in their first international tournament, in Fort Lauderdale, US, where Daley also wins the individual event, setting a personal best score of 554.90, including a set of perfect 10s for one dive.

*June

Daley starts at a new school, Plymouth College, where his curriculum is built around his sport.

*July

Daley, expected to be one of the stars of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, takes part in a "Three Years to the Games" ceremony in the capital. Then he travels to the aquatics world championships in Rome as a podium hopeful – if not favourite – among a world-class field, all older than him. He dives superbly, holding his nerve to score high marks and take pole position. The event favourites cannot replicate his calm, leaving Tom to take the gold medal.

*December

Wins the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award for the second time, the first person to pick up the accolade twice. His first win was in 2007,at the age of 13, and he was also a runner-up in his debut Olympics year, 2008, when pipped by the Paralympic swimmer Ellie Simmonds.

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