Diving: What Tom Daley's sidekick did next
Blake Aldridge has moved on from the Beijing fiasco of four years ago – now he jumps off cliffs
The name Blake Aldridge suggests more matinee idol than panto villain, but it was one that emerged from the Beijing Olympics cast in the role of the bad guy who stabbed the juvenile lead in the back. Not so much Big Brother as Wicked Uncle.
Or so it was portrayed after he and Tom Daley publicly fell out of synch in the diving competition, finishing eighth when it was hoped they would get a medal, with the 12 years older Aldridge accused of heaping the blame on his young partner and plaintively phoning his mum in the crowd during the 10-metre final. He was vilified, critics attacking him for "spewing out a stream of bile" and for "an act of betrayal" against Tiny Tom.
Aldridge has always insisted this wasn't the case, but now the Water Cube waves have abated they have gone their separate ways, Daley onwards to 2012 with a fresh partner in Pete Waterhouse and Aldridge into waters new in which, quite literally, he has landed on his feet after a few turbulent tumbles in his private life, where he is still ducking and diving.
He is in his first full season as a pro on the Red Bull world cliff-diving circuit, a perilous occupation which involves hurling himself from three times the height of his former 10m platform into lakes, rivers or the sea, always hitting the water feet first. "Otherwise," he says, "it can be like hitting concrete, you'd probably split your head open. It is the equivalent of jumping from a 10-storey building, hitting the water at up to 90kph."
He also hit rock bottom amid the formal split with Daley which came two years after Beijing. He was twice accused of shoplifting, once from a local B&Q, the same Southampton store where he used to work part-time, after putting 30 pence worth of copper fittings in his pocket and walking out forgetfully.
Then he was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting and causing actual bodily harm in Tesco, although the case was dismissed. There was also a nightclub fracas in which he proved he was the innocent – and injured – party.
"It wasn't the best period of my life," he says. "I was struggling and I was unlucky. I wondered then how I was going to get out of this dark hole. I wasn't in a good place. I needed to do something different."
He worked on a Caribbean cruise ship for five months in a diving show and was persuaded by a friend to enter the European Cliff Diving Championships, which he won. The following year he won again, and last year he was invited as a guest diver for two stops on the Red Bull tour. This year he has qualified as a full-time member of the 11-man circuit, which carries regular four-figure prize money.
His first event was plunging into the harbour at La Rochelle in France before a crowd of 70,000. The routine consists of multiple somersaults and twists marked on a 10-point system, as in orthodox diving. Diving from a 28m clifftop is frightening and mentally challenging. "You stand there thinking, 'Wow, should I be doing this? I shouldn't be here. Why am I here?' To do it you must be prepared to push the boundaries at all costs."
When we spoke he was preparing to hurtle off a Corsican cliff. He sustained an injury, tearing an adductor muscle when he hit the water unevenly on a wave.
"There's always a risk," he admits. "You have to be a lot mentally stronger and tougher to cope with the fear, the danger and excitement that comes with it. Because the impact is so hard you are always liable for an injury."
But it affords him a comfortable, all-expenses-paid living. "It's a great life, there are medals and trophies and for the first time in my life I've got money in my pocket."
The tour also embraces Naples, Norway, Dubai, the Azores, Ukraine, Oman and Australia, plus diving from an art gallery in Boston in the United States. It is coming to the UK for the first time on 7 September, to Pembrokeshire in Wales. And Aldridge will be diving at Serpent's Lair in Ireland on 4 August, his 30th birthday.
Wouldn't he prefer to be in the Olympics ? "Of course I would," he says. "But I feel I have been there, done that. Now I am doing something bigger and better. I no longer have to commit myself six days a week, training six to eight hours a day and seeing only the four walls inside a swimming pool.
"I am going to some of the most exotic and beautiful locations in the world. It is a fantastic life, extreme and dangerous, every ingredient that makes me mentally and physically the person I am, pushing me further than I've ever been."
His long-time sponsors, the Apogee Corporation, have stuck by him and he says he will be keeping an eye on the Olympic diving events, possibly as a TV analyst. "Of course I wish Tom well. I think he and Pete are both capable of getting individual and synchro medals.
"Pete and I are good mates. I was best man at his wedding. But he is now having to deal with what I had. But don't get me wrong, we all know what we are entering into. You may be a partnership but Tom is always going to be the one in the spotlight.
"I am not jealous of Tom," he insists. "There's no bitterness, no animosity, and certainly no envy. He has been fantastic for British diving. I wish him the best of luck. I know what this phenomenal kid is capable of."
While their partnership in Beijing appeared less than harmonious, Aldridge claims it was never that bad. "People wrote and said some nasty things and it really started to get to me. While I was out there I got quite a few tasty emails. I was made out to be an arsehole and a mummy's boy.
"The point is, neither Tom nor myself dived anywhere near as well as we could. I never said it was his fault that we didn't perform.
"Obviously there will be a lot of media pressure and expectations for Tom but I would say he is better equipped for it than anyone else in the British team. He has been under pressure since he was 13."
Aldridge still occasionally sends Daley, now 18, messages of congratulation, though he admits communication is pretty much one way. Not that it bothers him. "I had a tough time," he says, "but I got out of it. And I am proud of that."
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