The Olympic Games places stories of triumph and heartbreak side by side but you’ll struggle to find a more heartwarming redemption tale than Jack Laugher’s.
During the “worst two years of my life”, the Harrogate diver regularly cried himself to sleep, if he could sleep at all, and came agonisingly close to quitting the sport he loves altogether.
Redemption was earned in the form of a hard-won bronze in the 3m springboard at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Tuesday, to not only complete his Olympic medal set but also banish the demons that had plagued him since 2019.
“I know it’s not a gold medal, it’s not as good as it was in Rio,” he said afterwards. “But for me, this bronze medal means 100 times more than any medal I’ve ever got.”
So how did the handsome, charismatic, supremely talented Yorkshireman, who had reached the pinnacle of his sport not three years before, get to this point?
Diving had always come naturally to Laugher, which isn’t to diminish the incredible dedication and sacrifices he’d made for the sport – after all, you don’t win Olympic 3m synchro gold and 3m springboard silver as he did at Rio 2016 without an almost unimaginable work ethic.
But it meant that when the house of cards came tumbling down at the 2019 world championships, he was searching for answers to questions he’d never considered before.
In the 3m springboard final, he had led from the first round until his final dive – not only building a huge lead over his closest rivals, all-conquering Chinese pair Xie Siyi and Cao Yuan, but on course for a world record.
But he tanked the dive – the back 3½ somersaults in tuck that had always been the jewel in his crown – scoring just 30.60 points to crash into bronze, leaving him mentally broken and setting off a chain of events that threatened to end his diving career before the age of 26.
“After the 2019 world championships and failing to make myself a world champion, embarrassing myself with my final dive and the mistakes and failure I had there, it crushed me, it really crushed me,” admitted a candid Laugher after sealing Olympic bronze.“It’s been the worst two years of my life. It put me in a place that was just terrible – I cried myself to sleep quite a few times, I had a lot of sleepless nights as I still make that same mistake.
“Up until two months ago at the Europeans, I did the exact same thing, I scored eight points in the preliminary on the back 3½ because I just had no idea where I was.
“I had no confidence in myself, my anxiety was through the roof. I was physically scared to do the dive. I wanted to quit this year, quite a few times. It has been awful. I’ve hated it.
“It’s very hard for people to understand that when you are so good at something... I’ve always been very good at the back and reverse movements, that’s why I’ve finished on the back 3½ all my life.
“Then at the worlds, I not only embarrassed myself but I cost myself a gold medal. I just had a shocker. After that I kept making the same mistake over and over again. I can’t tell you how hard it is going to training every single day being scared of doing a skill because you don’t know where you are.
“It’s so hard to throw yourself off a diving board while your heart is racing and you just don’t know where it is. I just thought that maybe this is a sign. I’ve had a long and prosperous career. Maybe this was a sign that I’ve lost it, I’ve lost my mojo, I don’t know what I’m doing any more.”
Still the incredible physical specimen he always had been, Laugher’s struggles were purely psychological but that made them all the harder to correct.
His girlfriend – fellow diver Lois Toulson – talked him out of quitting while his support team of coaches, psychologists, friends and family worked together to try and restore his confidence.
He had an epiphany after the European championships this year, stripping things back to basics and focusing on what had made him so successful in the first place.
Results, but more importantly his confidence, started to improve, and once he arrived at Tokyo 2020, he safely navigated the preliminary round and the semi-finals to reach another Olympic 3m springboard final.
There, Laugher executed all six dives well – his total of 518.00 not enough to overhaul either gold medal-winner Zie or Wang Zongyuan in silver but well clear of Woo Haram in fourth place, with no calamities and the only missing colour of Olympic medal added to his collection.
“This means everything to me,” beamed Laugher. “Today it really is redemption but without Lois or my psychologist Laura, my coach Adam Smallwood, my amazing strength and conditioning team, my friends and my family – everyone around me has been my rock.
“The work we’ve done after the Europeans has got me to a place where I feel confident in myself again. I feel relaxed, I feel good and I feel like I’m back again. I can take this confidence moving forward and now is a time where I can try and be the best version of me that I can be.”
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