Leap year: 'Diver Boy' set to make a big splash in Beijing

2008 holds great things for the British 13-year-old Tom Daley, who has become the talk of the diving world. Nick Harris hears about Nintendo, chips and going to the Olympics

As somebody ranked as the world's 29th best diver, specialising in high-risk plunges from the 10-metre platform, Tom Daley, 13, has already established himself as a boy among men.

He is used to leaping into the unknown, regularly beating seasoned veterans. He has travelled the world, balked at being fed dog and cat, but still kept his nerve. He has split his head open when missing the pool and been turned black and blue from landing flat. And he has shown maturity beyond his years to maintain his focus as his father, Rob, has battled a malignant brain tumour to accompany his son on the road to success.

Yet even by Daley's own extraordinary standards, the Plymouth teenager crowned the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year last month but still known at his school simply as "Diver Boy" is looking ahead to a landmark year. The Beijing Olympics are in sight and the British Diving Championships, which start today in Manchester and run until Sunday, are the springboard.

The selection procedure for the Games makes the American presidential caucuses seem straightforward. To simplify: Daley needs to do well in his main events tomorrow's 10m synchronised event and Sunday's 10m individual to confirm his place at a World Cup meeting next month in Beijing, where Olympic slots are up for grabs. Doing well there would confirm places at the Games for Britain, if not Daley specifically. A final British selection event in June will confirm his place or not.

In fact Daley is almost certain to go to this year's Olympics, if only as a reserve to gain experience ahead of his target Games, in London in 2012, where mentors and experts alike expect a decent shot at a medal. He already stands a reasonable chance of going to China by right this year as a competitor. He and his synchro partner, Blake Aldridge, 25, will compete in next month's World Cup anyway because their main rivals in Manchester for that event Leon Taylor and Pete Waterfield, who won Olympic silver in 2004 pulled out on Wednesday after Taylor suffered a hernia injury.

That leaves Daley and Aldridge well placed to secure Britain an Olympic spot next month. In a meeting in Montreal last month they won gold with scores that are easily enough to qualify for the Games. With Daley and Aldridge in the ascendant they beat Taylor and Waterfield in Montreal there seems a decent chance Daley will dive synchro in China.

He needs to come first or second on Sunday, with Waterfield his main rival, to make the World Cup in his solo event. A top 30 finish there would bag an extra British slot for the Games (Waterfield has one already). June's selection meeting, where the coaches have some discretionary powers, could rubber-stamp Daley's travels as an Olympian in two disciplines.

Complicated? Not to Daley, one of whose dives is a version of "The Twister". Fabled as the most difficult dive with a tariff of 3.8, it involves two and a half backward twists with two and a half somersaults. Daley's version, minus one twist, rates 3.4. He is also working on a tougher "reverse three and a half", which begins with a forward-facing jump before spinning backwards three and a half times.

"I am not sure I find any of them particularly hard," he says. "They're all quite reasonable, really." This is not cockiness. He is as polite and sincere as Oliver Twist, and retains an awe of diving venues in particular. "Barcelona is my favourite. Outdoor. Great view. Good weather. Treading the board is like walking on hot sand."

He has yet to see Beijing's Olympic pool first hand. "But I've played Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games on the Nintendo Wii, and although there's not diving, when they get out the swimming pool you can see the diving pool in the background, and I think it looks great."

He will be 14 years and 79 days on the day the Games start in August, which would make him the youngest British male Olympian. The last time Daley did an interview with The Independent, almost three years ago, he was still very much a kid. A prodigiously gifted kid, for sure. He was aged 10, stood 4ft 6in tall, weighed 4st 10lb and had just claimed two medals at his first international meeting, in Aachen, Germany, against competitors who were mostly five years older.

"I was so nervous beforehand," he said at the time, his voice yet to break. "I was shaking, I had butterflies in my tummy."

A lot has happened since. Puberty, for a start. He is now 5ft 2in and growing, weighs 7st 9lb and has a physique honed by up to seven hours training per day, before and after school, on the trampoline, in the gym, in dry-mat sessions and in the pool. "He's like a small man," says his proud dad. "He looks like Cristiano Ronaldo with his top off."

Rob Daley has been especially impressed with Tom's attitude, not least to Rob's illness, diagnosed in 2006. Major surgery followed to remove most of the tumour and intense radiotherapy since has kept him well.

"I knew if I made a big deal of it, it might affect him," says Rob. "But Tom's been as focused as ever. He enjoys what he does. And, fortunately for us, he's doing well academically too."

Professionally, Daley excelled last year. In January, aged 12, he was given special dispensation to go to the Youth Olympics in Australia and won a synchro silver. He then won the national senior platform title and rose up the senior rankings.

A few years ago, homesickness plagued him at training camps. He has metamorphosed into a confident traveller. "I've got used to it, take it my stride," he says. He rubs shoulders with Olympic mentors such as Sir Steve Redgrave and Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and will soon be taken into Sir Clive Woodward's elite Olympian programme. Yet he retains a childish joy over such things as his BBC award ("Over the moon, what an honour"), while listening to him gleefully describe a previous training trip to China, in 2006, is a delight.

"We stayed at a hotel but ate at a nearby school. Chinese school dinners. One night they gave us dog! You could see its skull. I didn't touch that! And we were eating soup and halfway through they told us it was cat. It really was! And there was a bird with its claws still attached. I just ate rice and cabbage, then on the last day they gave us chips. Yahay! Chips. Except they were cold and covered in sugar. Yuk."

On that occasion he survived on Pot Noodles. Later this year, he wants to thrive on them.

11 up: Britain's youngest Olympian

Britain's youngest Olympian in fact still the world's youngest was the skater Cecilia Colledge, who was 11 years and three months at the 1932 Winter Games in Lake Placid. She was later a world champion and Olympic silver medallist. Now living in Massachusetts, she was 87 last November.

Margery Hinton from Lancashire remains Britain's youngest summer Olympian 13 years and one month when swimming at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam. Later a 200 metres breaststroke world record holder, she also swam at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, and died, aged 80, in 1996.

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