Newly-crowned European diving champion, teenager Tom Daley, talks about preparing for the Olympics and how he juggled school and sport
Tom Daley is an extraordinary boy. As most children prepare to move from the comfort of their primaries up to ‘big school’, 10 year-old Tom was preparing to become British U18 Diving Champion. Then, in February this year, he qualified for the Beijing Olympics: he’ll be just 14 years and 79 days old when he dives for Britain at the world’s greatest sporting showpiece.
And in March 2008, Tom became European diving champion and with it wrote his name into the record books as Britain’s youngest diving gold medallist. On the way to the podium the teenager managed to dispatch both the current World Champion and World Cup champion in the Men’s 10m Platform.
Since his selection, the media have tried to establish just who exactly is the youngest ever Olympian. Does it really matter? Tom Daley has his sights set higher than that particular record, as PE & Sport Today found out.
At what age did you start diving and how did you get started?
I went along for swimming lessons at my local pool one day when I was eight years old and saw some children on the diving boards doing somersaults and thought that it looked exciting and would be a fun thing to try out. I had a go and just took to it.
Did you turn out to be a good swimmer too at that age?
Well, I had learned to swim quite early, at about three or four years old, and I got my 2,000m distance badge before I stopped my lessons. But no, I was just a regular swimmer.
When did you realise on your own that you were so talented?
Not until I won the British U18 title when I was 10. It was only then when it really sank in what I could potentially achieve.
Were you ever told you were not good enough?
Yes, at around the same age (10), I was learning a new dive and was standing on the platform, crying and saying that I couldn’t do it to my former coach. My current coach Andy Banks was there at the time. He went up to my coach and he told him that I was never going to make it. I think he changed his mind later!
How supportive are your teachers and your school (Eggbuckland Community College in Plymouth) in general?
They are very supportive of me. They give me extra work to do while I’m away diving and catch-up stuff when I return. My school has held special receptions for me, for example after my BBC award but I see school as an important support network for the good times and when things don’t go right too. They support me regardless of what happens with my diving.
Does your schoolwork suffer?
No, it doesn’t really suffer. I’m still in all the top sets but long term I’ll probably eventually have a tutor with me on the long trips away, when I’m training or in competition.
How are you treated by your fellow pupils? Is there any jealousy?
All my friends understand what I do and are very happy for me. I get the odd joke about diving and the kit I have to wear for my sport but it doesn’t bother me. You have to not care about what anyone else thinks if you are trying to excel in something. I try to stay focused.
Are you good at any other sports at school? Do PE teachers expect you to be good at other sports?
I don’t enjoy sports like football and rugby and I’m not very good at them, so generally ‘no’, I’m not particularly good at PE. My teachers and friends don’t naturally expect me to be good just because I’m good at diving, so that’s ok!
Do you think that you have inspired other young people you’ve known to become involved in diving?If I have inspired any young people who are known to me or not to get involved in any sport – not just diving – then I’d consider that an honour.
As it’s not the most obvious sport for children to get involved in, do you have any ideas about how to make the sport more accessible?
It’s not easy, as there are only five Olympic diving pools in the UK (Plymouth, Southampton, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield). Perhaps if more children gave it a go, there would be more demand to build the pools.
(…We discuss dry land training where divers try out and perfect new dives before training in the pool. Athletes use rigs and harnesses with elastic cords to practice somersaults and twists…)
Working in the harnesses is really good fun. Maybe that could be a way of getting children to have a go at diving, without the pool first putting people off.
It’s quite a challenge for any experienced athlete to deal not only with the pressures of competition but also the demands of the media. Do you get any expert, formal assistance as part of your training?
As part of the Visa sponsorship programme, I have two mentors, Tanni Grey-Thompson and Steve Redgrave. They give me advice on how to handle any tricky aspects of being an elite athlete. I’ve got their mobile numbers, email and I can go on Facebook whenever I need to ask their advice.
Do you ever feel fear when you dive and, if so, how do you overcome it?
Yes, lots of divers experience fear. I occasionally get scared when I’m learning new dives and it can happen when I’m on the platform, in competition. The fear never permanently goes away but it gets much easier to deal with it. I’ve learned to block out any negatives and focus on what I need to do.
You could potentially compete in four or five Olympics. Do you have any fixed objectives about what you want to achieve?
I’d like to still be competing in 2024 but I don’t think I could give it all up before I’ve won Olympic Gold.
Do you have heroes in any other sports?
I’m impressed with Lance Armstrong. I read his book and could identify with his battles with cancer as my Dad had a brain tumor. What he achieved in his sport was amazing.
Do you feel that you get the support and facilities you need in the UK?
The facilities are not great in Plymouth but there are plans for improvements. The main issue for me is being able to have my family present at competitions, as it’s great to know they are there in the audience watching me. I’m not sure whether my parents can afford to travel to Beijing yet, so the money side can be a worry. Diving isn’t one of the high-profile sports so the funding is very limited.
What advice would you pass on to other pupils who dream of playing sport at an international level?
Work hard and success will follow. I believe that if you are constantly focused on what you want to achieve, the results will come.
Tina Ryan is a freelance journalist