Tom Daley is not the youngest person ever to contest an Olympic Games for Britain. When one newspaper suggested that he was, a chap called Ken Lester got in touch to point out, somewhat apologetically, that he had been 13 years and 144 days when he coxed for a rowing pair at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. When Daley competes in Beijing he will be 14 years and 81 days. But there is a more beguiling record very much up for grabs: Brian Phelps, like Daley a diver, was 16 when he won a bronze medal. That was in Rome, too. Britain has never had a younger medallist.
Neither Daley nor his coach Andy Banks, however, expect him to come home to Plymouth with a medal. "I'd say it's unlikely but not impossible," Banks says. "If everyone dives to the best of their ability, Tom won't get a look in. But if Tom dives as well as he can and the others don't, then yes, he could make it. Of course, Tom could mess up in the preliminary rounds and not even reach the semi. But I'm a big believer that if my auntie had balls she'd be my uncle. There's no point in thinking 'if this happens' or 'if that happens'. We just have to plan as scrupulously as we can."
Those plans have received a level of global media coverage that is all out of kilter with these determinedly low-key expectations. On the day that I interview Daley, the spectator seats at Central Park Pools in Plymouth are full of journalists, while no fewer than eight camera crews mill around at the bottom of the diving platforms. There is a writer from Stern magazine in Germany and a crew from NBC Television in the United States. It is by no means only in Britain that Daley has captured the popular imagination. The fact that the youngest competitor at this year's Games also has a genuine shot at glory has ignited interest around the world.
At poolside, the lad himself is taking it all in his stride. He is used to being the focus of media attention, if rarely quite as much attention as this. He skips up the steps, two at a time, to the five-metre platform, and from there executes what looks to me like a perfect dive, albeit that I am a man who would think twice before even attempting the flying bomb from such a height. Then he lets his team-mates Brooke Graddon and Tonia Couch take their turns.
Graddon, aged 21, and 19-year-old Couch are themselves accomplished divers, but today they must feel like particularly anonymous bridesmaids at a society wedding. There is silence while they go through their paces, then a maelstrom of camera clicks when Daley steps up. After a few more dives he moves up to the 10-metre platform, again skipping up two steps at a time while some distance behind him, and a good deal less athletically, an overweight television cameraman attempts the same ascent.
At the very edge of this alarmingly high platform, Daley casually moves into a perfect handstand. It feels almost illicit to admire his body, yet it is impossible not to. He is beautifully proportioned, muscular but not disconcertingly so for a 14-year-old child. He launches into a back somersault, followed by another one, then straightens and twists, before entering the water like an arrow. It is all over in about the time it just took me to type the word "somersault", but I have no doubt that I have seen something special. Maybe Banks is deliberately downplaying his Olympic chances; at any rate it is hard to imagine anyone performing a more aesthetically pleasing dive.
TOM DALEY: Born 21 May 1994. Began diving at age of seven. Youngest winner of a National Junior title in 2004.
TITLES: Allowed special dispensation to compete at 2007 Youth Olympics. Won first senior title at ASA National Championships, also named BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year. Youngest winner of a men's 10m title at British Nationals. Youngest gold medallist at the European Championship in March.
BEIJING EVENTS: Men's Platform individual 10m dive; Men's Synchronised 10m dive.
A selected few have been invited to conduct one-to-one interviews with Daley when this training session is over, but to fit them all in, only 15 minutes each have been allotted. How many boys of 14 have people making train, plane and automobile journeys for the promise of a 15-minute audience? The Dalai Lama half a century or so ago, perhaps? Yet I have been told that Daley remains utterly unaffected by the razzmatazz. We will see. If it is true, it is an achievement no less than the two-and-a-half back somersault with one-and-a-half twists that I have just watched.
Daley has a set of six dives to be unveiled in Beijing. The trick in diving is to attempt the hardest possible dive within your zone of absolute control. Daley's hardest dives have a difficulty tariff of 3.4, and the best divers in the world attempt 3.8, but there is more scope for error. It is better to do a less ambitious dive immaculately than to mistime a hugely ambitious dive even slightly, and it is these nuances that make anything possible in the world of diving. For example, the German Sasha Klein dived wonderfully to win the 10m category in this year's World Cup with a haul of 560 points, yet finished second to Daley in the European Championships. Daley, standing 5ft 2in and weighing 7st 7lbs, was on average nine years younger, seven inches shorter and 40lbs lighter than the 11 men he beat that night in Eindhoven.
No matter how much Banks attempts to suppress his own expectations, Daley has already exceeded them by making the Olympic team in such relative comfort. "We were always aiming for 2012, but by the beginning of 2005 I felt there was an outside chance of Beijing," Banks tells me. "What he has managed to do is beat my plan."
Nevertheless, it is one thing to take on and beat the best that Europe can muster, something else to take on the world. "The Chinese," Banks says, "are robotic in their ability. But Tom revels in trying to stay with them, in scaring them. He's like this little terrier nibbling at the heels of guys who've been around for two Olympics."
Banks concedes that he has never seen a boy in his early teens who is any better than Daley, and that includes men who went on to conquer the world. "Tom has an extremely good rip," he adds. "He has very big hands, which means that when he hits the water there's no splash. The water gets sucked down, making this natural rip. And that's important, because it's the last thing the judges see. Of course, a lot depends on what happens when he grows, but so far he has grown symmetrically. We have managed to keep his strength in line with his growth."
The Central Park Pools themselves do not quite conform with their most famous regular's standards of excellence. The building was fully state of the art when it was built in 1984, but looks decidedly tired in 2008. "The boards are not quite wide enough and it's often a bit too cold," says Banks. He oversees his charge's circuit training in a converted squash court supplied by the council. "And we're very grateful to the council," he says. "They've been extremely supportive. But it does look a bit like the Soviet Socialist Republic of Plymouth in there."
The irony being, I venture, that sporting facilities for Olympic hopefuls in the real Soviet Union were always tip-top. "Yes," says Banks. "But we are going to have a brand new pool, hopefully opening by 2011." A mischievous glint enters his eye. "Although it will probably open in September 2012, ribbon cut by Tom Daley, Olympic diving champion."
Our would-be future champion is now ready for his 15-minute sessions with the press, and I am first up. He declares himself pleased with his practice session and claims to have been a little daunted by the media crush. "It's really weird," he says. "I've never seen so many photographers. A couple of them were on the platform with me and I had to ask them to stop flashing. That was weird."
He is a friendly, articulate, hugely engaging young man. "It all seems like a dream at the minute," he adds. "I even got asked to sign someone's forehead the other day. It's quite scary, all the attention, but I can enjoy it if I keep the worlds separate, between the diving, the media time and my social life. "
There is limited time for a social life, indeed he has asked his friends not to tell him when they are going to parties, so that he doesn't feel left out. Yet there can't be a more eligible 14-year-old in all of Devon. And so I ask him the crass but obligatory question: will sporting fame give him a better chance with the girls?
I am painfully aware that of the two of us, I am the only one blushing. Daley, meanwhile, smiles broadly. "It will help, I think," he says. "I do get lots of people coming up, and I do get lots of comments on social networking sites, Facebook and stuff. It does make it easier to get a girlfriend, I think. But I don't want a serious girlfriend before the Olympics, because I'll be away for five weeks." And a non-serious one? "No. Erm, well, no."
Daley is no less friendly and guileless when a rather more sober subject comes up, that of his father Rob's health. In 2006 Rob Daley had an operable brain tumour diagnosed. The day before the operation he came home with his head shaved, and told his three sons, of whom Tom is the eldest, that he had done it done for charity. Only after the tumour had been removed did he own up. "That was typical of my dad," Daley says .
The family will all be in Beijing, but only because of the generosity of two companies, who are paying the fares for Daley's grandparents, parents and brothers. For tickets to the actual event, Rob Daley had to stump up himself. And for the World Cup, also in Beijing, he had to buy tickets from touts. I ask Daley if he thinks that is right. He shrugs. "I don't think he minds. He comes everywhere to watch me dive."
As well as his father's ever-present support, he also has that of Sir Steve Redgrave, his official Olympic mentor along with Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson. "They're there to give advice whenever I need it. At one point I had trouble sleeping before competitions, so I contacted Steve and asked if he ever had the same problem, and he said he did, but that you don't need that much sleep to perform at your best, so that was a help."
It has occurred to Daley that he could yet give Redgrave a run for his money, longevity-wise. "I don't think I'll be able to beat him, though. I've worked it out and I think the maximum [number of Olympics] I could take part in is probably five, but it's hard enough trying to get to one."
I ask him whether he expects to miss family life while he is away with the Olympic squad. "I'll miss being annoyed by my brothers," he says. "They annoy me in all sorts of ways. We're all very competitive inside our house, especially on the Nintendo Wii. And I'll miss my mum's cooking. She does this thing with jacket potatoes where she scoops out the potato, mashes it up with cheese and ham, and puts it back in the oven. That's probably my favourite."
And with that, my time is up. We have not talked much about diving, but I have seen and heard enough to know that this an ordinary boy, with an extraordinary talent.
THREE OTHER YOUNG BRITISH OLYMPIANS
SARAH HARDCASTLE (15yrs 3mths 22ds): Took silver behind Tiffany Cohen in 400m freestyle at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Also won bronze in the 800m three days later.
HILDA MAY JAMES and CHARLOTTE RADCLIFFE (16yrs): The 16-year-old duo helped Britain to silver in the 4x100m freestyle relay in the 1920 Antwerp Games. Constance Jeans and Grace McKenzie completed the quartet.Reuse content