The buoy wonder who is bound to make a big splash in the Olympics

Tom Daley is diving's child prodigy who could become Britain's youngest-ever competitor at the Beijing Games. By Alan Hubbard

The diary of Tom Daley, aged 13 and three quarters, is a pretty hectic one for a young lad. Up at six, breakfast, off to school, lessons, homework, a quick bite, then down to the diving pool for the rest of the evening. Mondays and Fridays he even pops into the pool for a few practice plunges before school. He has also managed to fit into his tender years three visits to Australia for competitions, as well as China, Canada, America and just about everywhere in Europe.

Then there are the frequent forays from his home in Plymouth to train with the nationalsquad at Ponds Forge in Sheffield. And tonight he will be in Birmingham, where he has been shortlisted in the top three for the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year, alongside table tennis's Paul Drinkhall (also recently featured in this series) and cricketer James Harris, both four years his senior.

Daley is arguably the brightest prospect of any of Britain's Olympic wannabes, in every sense. Perky and articulate, without being precocious, he looks as if he might have been cast for Billy Elliot or Oliver Twist. Or at the very least join the church choir. He stands 5ft 1in dripping wet, is built like a bantamweight boxer, has a cheeky grin and dives like a dream.

"At such a young age, Tom has achieved what it takes others many years to do," says Leon Taylor, his 30-year-old mentor, who, with Peter Waterfield, won Olympic silver in the 10-metre synchro event in Athens.

"To progress to some of the most difficult dives in the world at 13 is incredible, mind-blowing.Tom is much, much better than I was at that age. He is very fortunate that he is coming to a programme [where] he can work with psychologists and physio-logists, who weren't around in my early days. Most important for Tom is his physio, because when you hit the water as hard as you do from a 10-metre board you can do a lot of damage. But you must remember he's still a child with a massive amount of his career in front of him, and there lies the challenge."

The trouble with boy wonders is that by the time many make it to manhood, they have sunk without trace. However, the consensus is this will not be the fate of tiny Tom, who, at 10, became the youngest under-18 national champion on the three-metre springboard and was fourth in the seniors in an entry which included Taylor himself.

Subsequently he has been national champion in one metre, three metre and platform since 2004 in his age groups and is the British highboard and springboard under-18 champion. This year he also became the youngest senior national champion on the 10-metre board.

He has also made a mark internationally, winning medals in Europe and gold and silver in prestigious Australian events, the latter in the Youth Olympics this year. With partner Callum Johnstone, who is 17, he has also won medals in synchro events.

As an eight-year-old, Tom's fascination with diving began when his electrician father took him to the local baths."I saw people diving and thought, 'That's for me'. I'd had a few swimming lessons but I found swimming a bit boring. There is far more excitement in diving and it's a greater challenge. It's also much more enjoyable than playing football."

Although an aquatic sport, diving is closely related to gymnastics. "I train for up to six hours a day, six days a week," Tom says, "and about 60 per cent of my time is actually spent out of the pool doing trampolining, gymnastics and all the speed and power work that athletes do to get quicker reactions. It is incredibly gruelling. My school [Eggbuckland in Plymouth] is very good about letting me have time off but they give me loads of work to go away with."

Tom is perfectly poised to make his big splash in London in 2012 but he does have two opportunities next year to qualify for Beijing, which would make him Britain's youngest-ever Olympian. He needs to be 14 to be eligible, and his birthday is in May.

"Obviously I would love to go to Beijing, especially to compete against the Chinese, who are terrific, but London is really my goal. It's kind of exciting to think that I am of the standard I am, and what I might achieve when I am older.

"I can remember watching Leon and Pete get their medals on TV while I was on holiday at my family's caravan. Everyone else was out having fun but I felt I needed to watch this.

"It was really inspirational. I find that diving is one of those sports that is as exciting to watch as it is to do. Anything can happen, especially doing those somersaults. I find it fun but scary at the same time, exhilarating yes, that's the word. You get that butterfly feeling in the tummy when you stand on the board, especially when you are trying new dives."

He first ventured on to a10-metre board when he was eight and his coach, Andy Banks, recalls: "When I first saw Tom by a diving board he was standing there crying for about 15 minutes because he didn't want to do the dive, and I thought to myself, 'This lad's not going to make a diver'. But he got over his nerves and proved me wrong.

"You don't get involved with talent like this very often," adds Banks. "His awareness of what he has to do when he is in the air is remarkable."

Daley says that it was the fear of the difficulty of the dive that made him cry. "It was a reverse dive. I had to jump off forwards and rotate backwards. I just couldn't hack it. It was also the thought of hitting my head on the board. But once you have done it once, it's fine. Mind you, I have hit my head quite a few times since."

He is aware that being too tall is not good for a diver, and admits a slight worry. "My mum and dad aren't very tall but my uncles are, so I don't know how big I'm going to get."

Says Banks: "At the moment he is the right shape and the right size for a diver but he's growing at a steady rate. He's still got to go through the whole growing and adolescent thing. It's a little different for boys than girls because it happens when they are a bit older. But usually there's a performance dip once they start having to relearn how to make their bodies work around a new centre of gravity."

Daley does have big hands for a boy of his age which, says his coach, are an asset in forging his way into the water. He is certainly not afraid to take on the big boys and says he feels more comfortable at senior level than with the juniors.

"There's more pressure because the seniors are all older than me, but I go out there to have fun and enjoy it. They are supposed to beat me, but if I beat them it's a great feeling. We get on well. I guess they all look on me as a little brother." As well as a huge talent.

Meaasge from an icon: 'For him to have become British champion at 13 is incredible'

It takes less than 10 seconds to become an Olympic medallist you are judged on five dives each lasting one-and-a-half seconds, so the four years of training that precede an Olympic Games are so important because you have to get everything right on the day.

Diving is a sport that finds you. It has an element of excitement to it, and Tom's discovery of the sport by watching divers on the boards as he was in a swimming session is a typical way to be drawn to the sport. Tom has now progressed into a very talented diver with a great career ahead of him.

He works well with Andy Banks in Plymouth and has shown a great ability to compete against the best in the world, and he can learn and complete difficult dives very well. To have become British national champion at the age of 13 is incredible.

Diving is a sport that takes its toll on the body, and I would advise Tom to be careful with injury prevention and to build up his strength through Pilates, yoga and gymnastics routines. This makes up half a diver's time in training and is so important I know first-hand, having undergone four shoulder operations throughout my career.

Injury prevention has moved on substantially in the last decade, not least because of the facilities and support services available to athletes through National Lottery funding invested in the sport, and Tom isvery fortunate that he will benefit throughout his career while he is competing at such a high level. The National Lottery helped to transform my career and was an important element in the silver medal that I managed to earn in Athens.

Looking to Beijing, I am aiming to compete in what will probably be my last Olympics as Tom looks to take part in his first. There is a lot of competition to get to Beijing so Tom needs to keep training hard, taking all the advice on board he can and maintaining his strength and mental toughness in competitions to qualify for the Games.

I have every confidence that if he continues on this path and doesn't grow too much over the coming years, one day Tom will be Olympic champion, and the London Games in 2012 would be the perfect opportunity for him to do so.

Leon Taylor won the Olympic 10m synchro diving silver medal with Peter Waterfield at Athens 2004

The National Lottery

Tom Daley receives National Lottery funding awarded by UK Sport that covers training, competition requirements and support services.

Daley trains at Central Park Pool in Plymouth, which has also received National Lottery funding.

British diving benefits from National Lottery funding invested in the sport for community, grass-roots and elite schemes and facilities.

The class of 2006: Sally Conway, judo

I've had a good year that has seen steady progress and resulted in competing in senior A-grade competitions for the first time, with strong results which have given me confidence going into an Olympic year.

I became the British senior champion last weekend, and that moved me into Europe's top 10. My aim is to progress into the top five, which will qualify me for Beijing.

I also competed at the senior European and World Championships this year for the first time, which was a great experience, and at the Under-23 Europeans I picked up a bronze. I'll have a short break at Christmas before concentrating on the Paris A competition in February, where I hope to improve my ranking.

I'd love to compete in Beijing we have a strong system in place at the Edinburgh club, with five of us competing at the Worlds. There is potential for us all to go to Beijing.

I've been fortunate to benefit from Lottery funding, which has enabled me to train full-time. It also enables me to travel and compete at top-class events.

Beijing will be such an exciting time and I have every intention of being there to compete for Great Britain.

Timeline

January 2007: Sally wins the British Open title, beating teammate Samantha Lowe in the final.

April: Sally makes senior debut at the European Championships in Belgrade, losing to Hungary's Anett Meszaros.

September: Sally competes in her first senior World Championships in Brazil, winning in the first round before losing to home competitor Marya Aguiar.

November: Sally wins a bronze at the European Under-23 Championships in Salzburg.

December: Sally becomes the 70kg British champion, winning the closed championships in Poole which moves her into Europe's top 10.

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