Tom Daley: 'I was nervous, but when you get to the Olympics it's a different ball game'

In the latest of a series of interviews with the men and women who helped make Beijing 2008 Britain's best Olympics, Nick Harris talks to the teenage diving prodigy who learnt from the team's hunger for success

"Bit pricey," says Tom Daley's dad, Rob, looking at the menu outside their hotel restaurant. Tom and his parents, Rob and Debbie, are in Liverpool for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award show that evening and Sunday lunch is on The Independent. "And actually, it's not really our kind of thing," Rob adds. "Shall I ask the concierge if there's somewhere nearby that does food?"

In a pub a few hundred yards away, the Daleys each order a £3.50 jacket spud. Debbie has tuna mayo. Rob and Tom have beans and cheese. When the food arrives, Rob eyes his own plate and then Tom's, and swaps them. One has about three beans more and an extra gram of cheese. "Less fat on yours, now,"� he grins. Tom rolls his eyes. Parents, eh?

The 14-year-old then starts chatting about how the family stayed in their hotel room last night, at his request, to watch the X Factor final. "He was jumping and down all over the bed,"� says Debbie.

"I was pleased Alexandra won,"� says Tom. He then reveals that he "really fancies"� Cheryl Cole. "You can print that if it will help me meet her,"�he adds. He also says he wants to be a Blue Peter presenter "when I grow up".

He would also love to appear on the daft BBC game show Hole in the Wall, in which contestants dress in skin-tight silver catsuits and try to slide through a wall or else be pushed into a pool.

And while we're at it, if there is any chance that he could please go behind the scenes on Britain's Got Talent and perhaps even meet Ant 'n' Dec...

For a few minutes Tom Daley sounds a bit like an ordinary teenage boy.

He isn't, of course. Daley will most likely have had a long and glittering diving career before he gets anywhere near grown-up enough to tackle double-sided sticky tape and cat-food birthday cakes on kids' TV.

He has no mean list of achievements already. A year ago, he had just been crowned the Young Sports Personality of the Year on the back of a stunning 2007 when he established himself "at 13" as a challenger to the world's best adult divers.

This year he has continued to thrive, although if you listen to some of the critics and shock-horror mongers who only paid attention for the single hour when things went a bit pear-shaped, you could be forgiven for thinking 2008 was one long hurtle downhill.

For those who missed it, Tom and his partner in the Olympic 10-metre platform synchro, Blake Aldridge, finished eighth of eight in the Olympic final after Aldridge, 26, had decided that the middle of the final was a good time to speak to his mum on his mobile phone.

Afterwards he told the press that Daley had been too nervous to dive well. "You both have to be on the top of your game,"� he said. "I wasn't on top of my game but Tom was nowhere near the top of his."�

Anyone who was at the Water Cube that day – and that includes this Independent writer – will tell you that neither Daley nor Aldridge shone, but neither was one much worse than the other. If anything, Aldridge's entries, were, to use a technical term, a bit too splashy. And as the more senior of the pair by far, he should, quite frankly, have found a more appropriate time to speak to his mother and unless he had anything positive to say to the media should have kept his mouth shut.

Not that you would hear Daley say anything of the sort. "I knew he was on the phone but I didn't really think anything of it,"� he says.

The pair have not trained together since but have essentially been reconciled. They still plan to dive together at next summer's World Championships in Rome.

The furore in the media back home largely passed Daley by. He reads very little about himself ("It's just too weird") and Rob and Debbie did their utmost to stop him seeing lurid headlines. The synchro was on 11 August – the same day Rebecca Adlington won her first gold medal – and Tom still had the solo 10m to focus on at the end of the Games.

"I just wasn't aware at the time of what was happening, about all the fuss,"� Daley says. "When I got home [and saw some cuttings] I was more annoyed that so much attention had been on this argument between Blake and me, when Rebecca Adlington had won her first gold medal and deserved more attention. That's just silly."�

So did he feel more nervous than usual that day? "I was nervous, like I am for any competition. But when you actually get to the Olympic Games it's a completely different ball game. Although you're competing against the same people, it just feels completely different. Everyone's more uptight and intense. It's not like a normal competition where you can enjoy it.

"So that was what it was like in the synchro. But I learnt from that and by the time it got to the individual event I just thought, 'It's time to go out and enjoy myself and have fun'."�

It really wasn't such a terrible year, then? "Err, no," says Daley. "In January I won the senior British championships. In February I went to the World Cup and qualified for the Olympics and got a bronze medal, so that was pretty good. Then in March, I won the senior European Championships."�

Debbie chips in: "At 13."�

Daley continues: "Everyone forgets about the senior Europeans. What else? I was the World Series individual champion [after a circuit of international meetings]. Then I went to the Olympics, made two finals, and came seventh in the individual. After that, I came back, and at the junior world championships I won two silvers, in the 10m platform and 3m springboard."�

In many years, he might reasonably have expected to be on the main Sports Personality of the Year short-list. Instead, that was chock full of gold medallists and Daley was again on the shortlist for the Young Sports Personality of the Year. He ended up second, behind the double gold medal-winning Paralympic swimmer, Ellie Simmonds, 13, and ahead of Laura Robson, who won junior Wimbledon.

At lunch, eight hours before the award was made, Daley nominated Simmonds as his preferred winner. "She's won two gold medals and that's better than anything I've done,"� he said with real admiration. "I'd swap everything I've done for two Olympic gold medals. The only reason Ellie was not better known before is because Paralympic sports don't get enough recognition. She's worked as hard as anyone and achieved her dream not once but twice."�

Young Tom proves to be quite the seer. Hours before the voting even opened for the grown-up Sports Personality of the Year award, he said that he wanted Chris Hoy to win, and believed he would.

"I really look up to Chris – he's an inspiration to everyone,"� he says. "In Beijing I went on the BBC sofa one day with Gabby Logan and Chris was there with his three gold medals. It was great seeing all these people coming back with medals round their necks. It really does inspire you."�

So, too, did rubbing shoulders with stars of other sports. "I met [Rafael] Nadal, and Jamie and Andy Murray came and sat with us at breakfast one day."�

Food is a recurring theme. Early in 2008, Daley told The Independent about a previous trip to China when he had dined in a local school on what he was certain was dog, cat and bird's claw. "Yuk,"� was his conclusion. The Games catering thus proved a revelation.

"It was completely different in Olympic village,"� he says, still pleasantly surprised five months after the event. "The food hall was the size of four or five football pitches and you got all the food, from all the different countries, anything you wanted, free food, 24 hours a day. As much as you wanted, anything you wanted, drinks all over the village. You were really well looked after."�

This is the simple effervescence of a boy who remains firmly grounded despite all the attention heaped upon him. He insists that "I still don't feel famous" even though he is asked for some 20 autographs on the short walk from hotel to pub and back, and is then mobbed by the paparazzi.

The only hint that he might mind the intrusions in his life these days comes in a discussion about the 2012 London Games. It will be his second Games, and he will be 18 by then, so does he expect less of a media scrum? "That's not going to happen, is it?" he says, slightly resigned. "There's going to be lots of pressure."�

Yet moments later, he is as upbeat as ever, full of praise for the winner of the 10m platform gold in Beijing, Matthew Mitcham, a 20-year-old Australian who broke the mould not only by becoming the only openly gay male medal winner in China but by stopping a clean sweep by the Chinese of all eight diving golds.

"I was so pleased for Matthew,"� says Daley. "He's a good laugh, an awesome person, and I was happy that the Chinese didn't win all the golds. Every member of their team had at least one gold anyway."�

Rob Daley's view on Mitcham's win, sealed with an extraordinary final dive that earned four perfect 10s and an Olympic single-dive record score of 112.10, was: "As soon as I saw that, my first thought was that that could be Tom in 2012. If China can be beaten on their own soil, anything can happen."�

Barring injury, and assuming he maintains his place among diving's elite, Daley wants to compete in the London Games in the 10m solo and synchro events, and in the 3m springboard solo and synchro events. The latter are not practical options yet at senior level because he is simply not big enough to move the springboard sufficiently for lift-off.

He is, after all, still only 14, and it is easy to believe him when he says: "The Olympics was a great experience and I enjoyed it. All of it."�

Tom Daley: By numbers

7

The age Daley started diving, in 2001.

4

Daley reached a career best ranking of fourth in the post-Beijing Olympics FINA World Diving Rankings.

10

The diver's age when winning the platform competition of the National Junior (Under-18) group at the 2004 British Championship, making him the youngest ever winner of the event.

2007

Daley was named BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year last year after being named Youngster of the Year by BBC South West in 2005.

63

Daley was ranked at Number 63 in TIME magazine's 100 Olympic Athletes to watch in 2008, between Libby Trickett and Oxana Chusovitina.

1960

At the age of 14 years and 81 days in Beijing, Daley became Britain's youngest Olympian in 48 years, since Ken Lester coxed his country in the rowing.

491.95

Daley's point score when becoming European Champion of the 10m platform in Eindhoven this year.

For more pictures from David Ashdown visit independent.co.uk/ashdown

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