Tom Daley: 'I jumped higher and spun faster than ever before'

Interview No.10: The diver speaks to Simon Turnbull about achieving Commonwealth Games perfection

Wednesday 29 December 2010 01:00

The setting could have been better – more salubrious, certainly. The press benches at the Dr SP Mukherjee Complex were decorated with pigeon poop, as they had been from the start of the aquatics programme at the XIX Commonwealth Games. Someone suggested it was a statement from above on the standard of copy being trotted out, or an attempt perhaps to put it into pidgin English. The Aussie hack whose laptop took a direct hit was not so amused. He had upped and gone with his banjaxed computer, effing and blinding as he went, long before Tom Daley came along to provide us with a vision of sheer perfection.

It was the penultimate day of competition at the troubled Delhi Games and the 16-year-old Plymouth schoolboy was trailing after two rounds of the 10-metre platform diving final. As he stepped on to the board, Daley was 15 points down on Matt Mitcham, the Olympic champion from Australia who has become his arch-rival.

The British boy wonder was in less than perfect physical condition. The top of his right arm was strapped, to protect a damaged triceps muscle. With his back to the pool, Daley sprang up from the end of the board and launched himself into a spectacular sequence of three and a half inward somersaults. He hit the water like an arrow at 30mph. The splash was minimal but the score was maximal.

All seven judges awarded the diminutive Devonian 10 out of 10. It was a feat the Romanian Nadia Comaneci famously achieved as a 14-year-old gymnastic sensation at the Montreal Olympics in the summer of 1976. The great British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean only got sixes when they performed to Ravel's Bolero at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo but then that too was a perfect score. "I don't remember those performances, because I wasn't born then," the ever-cheery Daley points out, two months on from his moment of sporting perfection. "But I have watched Torvill and Dean on Dancing on Ice. I know them from that."

Daley had achieved much in his young sporting life before he headed out to Delhi for his first Commonwealth Games: Olympic selection at 13; European champion at 14; world champion at 15. At 16, the pride of Plymouth Diving Club could add a perfect score in a major championship final to his expanding first-class CV.

It was not Daley's first flawless dive in competition. He achieved one in a grand prix meet in Fort Lauderdale last year. This was different, though. It was produced in the heat of battle on a major Games stage.

It looked like a perfect dive from the pooped-on press benches at Delhi's Commonwealth pool – as it does now, watching it on YouTube. Did it feel like one to Daley at the time?

"Well, it's normally a dive that I struggle on," he says, "so it's something that I knew I had to put all of my effort into. I knew I was 15 points behind Matthew Mitcham at that stage, so I had to do something pretty special to catch up. I just put everything into it and just thought that I just had to do it the best I could.

"I remember jumping higher than I've ever jumped before in that particular dive, and spinning faster than I've ever done before, so it kind of felt all quite new and quite weird. But then it landed the right way up, so it ended up being OK."

OK? Make that very OK. Despite the full marks, Daley still trailed Mitcham with three rounds remaining. It said much for his steely temperament that he managed to maintain his composure in the midst of what became a gripping duel, clinching victory – and his second Commonwealth gold medal (having won the synchronised 10m platform competition in tandem with Max Brick the previous day) – with another 10 from one of the judges in the final round. It said even more about the remarkable teenager that he managed to produce such golden form in the autumn of what was a far from perfect year for him.

For one thing, there was the triceps injury which forced him to miss the European Championships in Budapest in August, and which required daily treatment while he was in Delhi. For another, there was the battle his father has been fighting against a brain tumour. Rob Daley gave up his electrician's business in 2006 to concentrate on chaperoning his bright spark of a son to training and competitions but he was unable to travel to Delhi because he was undergoing chemotherapy.

"Dad's doing fine," Tom reports. "He's still having chemotherapy at the moment. He's got to do six cycles but the tumour is shrinking, which is good news. He always says that he's just going to keep his chin up – all of them in his case. But he's going to keep marching on and stay strong. Yeah, it's been a tough year, obviously with my dad not being very well, and with me growing and learning new dives. I also had GCSEs at the beginning of the year.

"Everything was a lot of pressure and there were a lot of things to do. The injury left me out of the European Championships, which was absolutely gutting because I couldn't defend my title. But then, going into the Commonwealth Games, I had the best rehab, with great physio support. It was my first Commonwealth Games. I qualified in 2006 but I wasn't able to go because I was too young, so it was something that meant a lot to me. It was a top competition. I was up against the Olympic champion. I was very pleased with the result."

It was not the only pleasing result for the diving star in a year that finished with a third BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award. His GCSEs produced another set of top marks: five A* and two As.

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