Diving: From DIY to dynamic duo, Aldridge refuses to bask in reflected glory

His rise to the top has been agonising at times but the unsung partner of Britain's wunderkind remains buoyant. By Alan Hubbard
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The Independent Online

In the annals of great double acts there has always been one partner who gets either the laughs or the limelight, from Morecambe and Wise to Little and Large. The latest duo tostar on the sporting stage also tread the boards, although their well-rehearsed routine requires that they plunge off them in perfect harmony.

In the world of synchronised diving, Blake Aldridge, 25, is the lesser-known partner of the 13-year-old schoolboy phenomenon Tom Daley, a pairing physically more Little and Large than Morecambe and Wise, although Aldridge seems cast in the role of little Ern, with Daley inevitably destined to steal the show and grab the headlines.

Daley has already qualified for Beijing in the individual event and will become Britain's youngest Olympian for almost half a century. Aldridge's hopes of joining him on the 10-metre board for the synchro rest on whether they can beat Tom's mentor, Leon Taylor, and his own best friend, Pete Waterfield, in a British trials dive-off in June.

Taylor and Waterfield took silver at Athens in 2004, but with the 30-year-old Taylor recovering from a hamstring injury the odds favour the younger pair, who amassed a British-record 446 points for their third-placed finish in the recent World Cup in Beijing.

Before he and Tiny Tom were brought together by their respective coaches in a sort of diving dating game just five months ago, the Croydon-born Aldridge had already enjoyed a decent career, though one spattered with a series of injuries, including a fractured skull and a gruesome mishap which almost cost him his eyesight.

"I literally went blind for a few minutes after losing control of my spin and hitting the water the wrong way," he recalls. "I was in shock. I thought, 'Oh my God, I've really done it this time'. Everything was pitch black.

"Eventually I found my way to the side and Pete Waterfield dived off the board and held a towel full of ice to my face, saying, 'Blakey, are you all right?' I went, 'Yeah, but I just can't see anything'. He told me later that the towel had two rings of blood where my eyes were bleeding.

"My face was all mashed up and my eyelids were so badly swollen that the lashes were actually facing inwards and into my eyes. I had two torn retinas which needed laser treatment. I was very lucky that my eyesight came back, but I admit when it happened I made my trunks a bit brown."

His early career was forged as a toddler on visits to the small pool of the Linden Lodge School in Wimbledon for youngsters with visual impairment and severe learning difficulties. His grandfather was a manager there and his mother, Debbie, still works at the school. Aldridge and Daley opened a new facility there earlier this month, and Aldridge often gives the child-ren swimm-ing lessons.

"As a kid myself, I had always had this urge to jump in the water," said Aldridge. "I would run along the poolside and dive in headfirst. My parents saw an advert in the paper for diving instruction and thought it would be a good idea. I was five years old then and I've been doing it ever since.

"There were many times when I wanted to give up diving and do something else – my dad ran a football team and I was a pretty good midfielder – but with my parents' guidance I stuck with diving. They convinced me I was good at it and would be better off doing that than five or six other sports."

A former individual highboard junior champion, he switched to synchro in the mid-Nineties. "I've had many partners over the years, but with Thomas it's different. I have no worry when I stand up on the board about what he is going to do. Perhaps that's because he is as good as he is.

"We were pretty much in tune from the word go, winning our first competition together in Canada and beating the world bronze medallists." In the five months they have been together, they have medalled in three more competitions, in all winning two golds, a silver and a bronze. Today they hope for another medal at the European Championships in Eindhoven. "He may be half my age but Tom has got that edge, that little extra something that makes for a really special talent."

So does he mind being the unsung partner? "Notreally. When you look at those medals in your trophy cabinet it puts everything into perspective. I understand that Tom is the young kid on the blocks, though obviously because of our age gap we are two different people. It's fair he gets the limelight – he is the one making history.

"But I'd be lying if I said it was all hunky-dory. Away from the pool his interests are not my interests, and we lead separate lives. Sometimes the attention Tom gets can be a little hard to deal with, and it's nice for peopleto remember that we do it together. It's sometimes difficult, because I have needs as anadult that he doesn't as a kid. Occasionally I like to be on my own and hang around with people on the team who are older.

"Don't get me wrong, he's fun to be with and he helps keep me young. He wants a mate and I am a mate to him as much as I can be, but I can't be a 13-year-old. But at the end of the day we are great partners, a team. I can talk to him like an uncle or an elder brother."

Daley says: "When we first got together we just clicked. Once you find a diver who dives the same way as you do, you don't have to think about things too much. You just stand on the edge of the board, say, 'Ready?' and go. He's been diving for a long time and has lots of experience, so having him there helps me a lot."

While Daley attends classes at his Plymouth school, Aldridge B&Qs it, working in the DIY store near his Southampton home, where he does everything from stacking shelves to customer relations. Under the company's scheme to help prospective Olympians, he is paid a full-time wage for a part-time job.

"If we go into Beijing with the same mindset as we did at the World Cup final there is no reason why we shouldn't be pushing for a medal," says Aldridge. "The plan is certainly to go for London 2012 too. Obviously we hope for a gold in Beijing, but if it doesn't happen, the next four years will be a time that Tom and I really blossom as a pair."

Aldridge and Daley, aka Blakey and the Boy Wonder. A class act heading for top of the bill.

Message from an icon: Pete Waterfield

I know Blake has aspirations for Beijing but he's got to beat me and Leon [Taylor] to get there. So obviously I am saying that he has a better chance of an Olympic medal in 2012 with Tom [Daley], because Leon will definitely quit after Beijing and I'm not sure if there is anyone out there I can partner with.

Blake is one of my best friends – he was best man at my wedding – and he is a great bloke. Out of the pool we spend a lot of time together. We train at Southampton almost every day and obviously we rib each other a bit. But it's all good fun.

When you are diving against each other it is totally different. We are sort of enemies, though not in a nasty way. There's no animosity and I don't think anything could come between our friendship, even if he and Tom get to Beijing instead of us.

To get on that medal podium, he has got to work hard. He is extremely dedicated; in this sport you have to be. People ask how I think he copes with being in the shadow of Tom, but the point is, everyone is in Tom's shadow. It's pretty tough for all of us because he gets all the limelight. But at least Blake is standing next to him so he gets some of the credit too.

But no one begrudges Tom the publicity as he is such a talented kid. This is a toughsport for injuries, as Blakey knows, and I've found it hard to stay injury-free. Leon is recovering from a hernia injury, and the qualifier in June will decide whether he and I or Blake and Tom are in the synchro.

I'll be competing in Beijing, like Tom, in the individual events but it's probably easier to win a synchro medal because there are fewer teams competing. Much as I like Blake, I hope it is Leon and I who are up there on the podium and not him and Tom – this time anyway.

Pete Waterfield, 27, won the silver medal with Leon Taylor in the men's synchronised 10-metre platform at Athens in 2004 – Britain's first Olympic diving medal since Brian Phelps in 1960.

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