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Diving: Waterfield wallows in shadow of tiny Tom

Teen sensation grabs all the attention but a true partnership will be needed to win synchronised Olympic gold

A question of sport: Who is Britain's No 1 diver? Tom Daley, surely? Actually no. It's Pete Waterfield, a sprightly veteran of the high board who recently bettered the wunderkind almost half his age in the national championships for the second time.

"To be honest, I've always expected to beat him," Waterfield says. "When I was out with my injury [he needed shoulder surgery in 2008], everyone seemed to write me off, and it was during this time that Tom really came through. I had a point to prove to myself more than anything, I wanted to show that I am still the best in Britain."

Waterfield, who is unemployed after losing his part-time job as a schools' athletes mentor, is unfazed by Tom's popularity. "He's like a little pop star. He's so good and such a nice lad, it's quite right he gets all this attention. It doesn't worry me at all because it not only helps him, it helps our sport. Sometimes I think it would be nice to get a bit of it myself but I don't really expect it so I'm not going to sit here and complain."

Waterfield, 30, has qualified individually for the last three Olympics and in London, all being well, he will be in the curious situation of diving against Daley but also alongside him, having been called up as his new partner in the synchro event. The pairing has quickly paid off with a bronze medal during their first international together on Friday in the World Series in Bejiing.

Daley has had a couple of other partners, including Blake Aldridge with whom he had an infamous public dispute in Beijing. "I don't really know the ins and outs of their relationship but what matters to me is that we get on brilliantly as partners as well as friends. He says he can learn a lot from me because of my experience but actually I can learn a lot from him. I don't feel at all like a big brother, more of a mate."

Waterfield stands just 5ft 5in and the growing 16-year-old Daley is a head taller but they have shown they are truly in synch with their daring twists and turns from the high board.

"We can both hit our dives pretty consistently and that's what the judges are looking for. It also helps that I have been around so long that the judges know who I am and what I can do. Sometimes they judge a bit by name as well as performance, and if you've got a good name and are a champion you might get that extra half a mark. It shouldn't work like that but it does."

Waterfield's previous partner was the now retired Leon Taylor, with whom he won silver in the men's 10m platform at the 2004 Athens Olympics – Britain's first Olympic diving medal since Brian Phelps in 1960. His best solo showing was winning the 10m gold in the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games. He also won silver in the 2006 Games in Melbourne. An Eastender who was born in Walthamstow, around the corner from Olympicsville, his father introduced him to a number of sports – football, karate, judo and a bit of kick-boxing – as a nine-year-old, "to keep me off the streets".

"Then I decided to go fishing with my mates but I couldn't swim so I thought I'd better do so in case I fell in, and went down to the local baths. While I was having swimming lessons I was watching the divers at the other end and I thought: 'That looks more exciting than swimming up and down.' So I had a go at it and my coach Lindsey Fraser spotted my talent and took it from there."

He and Daley, who were competing in Russia last week, have two chances of qualifying for the Olympics: at the World Championships later this year, and at a test event to be held at the new Olympic pool. "What this year is about for me and Tom is to get some experience together on the international scene. If we pick medals up on the way that will be a bonus, but our sights are firmly fixed on that platform in 2012."

They have to work their training times together to fit in with Daley's school work in Plymouth, sometimes meeting up in Southampton, where Waterfield now lives with wife Tanya, a former acro-gymnast, and two young sons, and at other times in Leeds.

When Waterfield beat Daley in the British Championships this year, they won the synchro title despite having trained together only twice, performing a dive considered to be the most difficult in the world, the four and a half somersaults called the "The Big Front". "We've never needed to do it before but now we feel we have to, to get that extra edge."

So it's synch or swim in London. "I'd like it if we win an Olympic medal together. People will give me a pat on the back but it would be stupid to think I am going to get the fuss he will. I know I'll be seen as the other diver. But as long as I've got a medal around my neck and can feed my family, I'll be happy."

Message from an icon: Tom Daley

Since the Commonwealth Games in Delhi last year there has been a triangle that consists of myself, Pete and Max Brick.

Pete and I seemed to gel in practice and that's how our pairing came about. We now have a list of dives which have a very high degree of difficulty.

I think we stand out because of the experience that we share between us – in our team there is an Olympic silver medallist, world champion, European champion, Commonwealth champion and British champion, so we combine to make a good team.

I have huge admiration for Pete and it's great that he has already got an Olympic silver medal.

He's had first-hand experience of being on the podium and that's invaluable to me.

He has said himself that we make a good team because he brings the experience and I bring the enthusiasm.

There is a difference in height and age, and although he's smaller and therefore spins faster through the air than I do, the speed difference is relatively small so it's pretty hard to see in real time!

Obviously we both aspire to a place on the podium at London 2012, as individuals and as a pair. When we need to work as a team, we work well and when we compete individually we act like rivals.

Obviously then it's very competitive but there are definitely no hard feelings out of the pool. We get on really well.

People ask if we are able to spend much time together because of my school work but we try and see each other to train synchro at least once every two weeks and, if we can, once each week. Normally I go up to Southampton, where he lives, on the weekends.

What I particularly like about Pete is the fact that he is so experienced. The amount of diving knowledge he has is incredible and I can learn so much from him.

Tom Daley is the world 10m diving champion. He has been diving since the age of seven and competing internationally from nine. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics he was Britain's youngest competitor aged 14 and the youngest of any nationality to compete in a final. He won two gold medals at last year's Commonwealth Games, the 10m synchro with Max Brick and the 10m individual platform

British Olympic Association

The BOA are the national Olympic committee for Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare the "Best of British" athletes for summer, winter and youth Olympics, and deliver support services to Britain's Olympic athletes and their national governing bodies to enhance Olympic success. Go to olympics.org.uk