Who’s the real Tom Daley?
Tom Daley’s nose is pressed to the glass surrounding the 14th floor balcony at HarperCollins London HQ. ‘What a view,’ he says, taking in the scene – trains gliding silently along near invisible tracks, snaking between postage stamp-sized buildings and streets dotted with people the size of ants. It’s late afternoon on 15 December and a blanket of wintery fog has lifted sufficiently for us to photograph Tom outside where he makes an exciting observation.
‘I can see my apartment,’ he says, pointing to a spot somewhere between Borough Market and the River Thames. ‘You see that train? Go right a bit, past the Flatiron Building, then do you see those three windows in white? Right there.’
Tom, 22, has always had incredible vision. Nine years before winning bronze at London 2012 and becoming the poster boy for British diving, he doodled himself balancing upside down on a diving board with a medal dangling from his neck beside the Olympic rings. He then wrote the words: ‘My Ambition. London 2012.’
‘I’d just had my ninth birthday and I saw The Commonwealth Games in which Canadian diver Alexandre Despatie was one of the younger divers. I thought “wow, that’s really cool, I want to do that”. I knew London was a candidate city but I had no idea that we’d win.’
Positive visualisation – the process of creating a mental image of a future event – is a technique that Tom describes as ‘goal setting’, which he says he relies on in everyday life.
‘If you want to achieve something, it doesn’t just happen like that,’ he says, clicking his fingers. ‘There’s a process to it. Every time you wake up in the morning you have to think “what do I need to do today in order to make it as productive as it can be to achieve my long-term goal?” Then “what am I going to be able to achieve this week?” and “this month” then “this six months?”. Right now, my long-term goal is the Tokyo 2020 Olympics but between now and then I’m thinking ‘what can I do to get there?’”
That’s a good question. At last summer’s Olympic Games in Rio, Tom’s dreams of winning gold unravelled spectacularly after he scored bronze with Dan Goodfellow in the 10m synchronised diving, then broke the Olympic record in the men’s 10m platform preliminary round. But with no explanation, he failed to qualify for the final and crashed out in last place. ‘I’m truly heartbroken,’ tweeted Tom minutes later.
‘I’m still heartbroken now,’ says Tom. ‘It’s horrible because I know that I could have won. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with. Definitely a career low for me.’
It wasn’t the first. The jubilation of winning bronze in front of 18,000 spectators at London 2012 and then completing his A-levels (maths, Spanish, photography), had a negative effect on Tom. ‘It was like post-Olympic blues. Lots of athletes get it because they don’t look past that year,’ he says, acknowledging that his teenage years were very different to those of his peers. There was no university, no drunken nights out, just training.
‘There are lots of times when I feel like I missed out on my youth and after 2012, I got a taste of that when I had 10 days off. I went wild. I went out and was loving it. Then I had to go back into diving and I was in a really horrible place. It was difficult for me. I used to go out on weekends because I didn’t want to dive any more.’
Tom was at a crossroads but after travelling the world for six weeks he ‘made a few changes’ and reprogrammed his mindset. Andy Banks, the coach who had mentored him since the age of eight, was replaced by US diving trainer Jane Figueiredo, and Tom moved out of his family home in Plymouth and into a place of his own in London. Later that year he signed a deal to appear on ITV1’s reality TV show Splash! as a mentor.
‘I’ve been back into the diving swing of things ever since,’ smiles Tom. Following Rio, there was no career crisis and no blip in focus. Quite the opposite, in fact.
‘It’s easier to think “let’s get back into it” when you don’t finish the way you wanted to,’ says Tom. ‘Failure is something that drives you and gives you the motivation to want to get back out there and do it again and do it even better. You debrief it, analyse it, know what you need to learn and then you leave it behind.’
Tom credits mindfulness for his newfound sense of perspective. He began practising meditation a year ago and now spends 10 minutes every morning listening to the Headspace meditation app, which is used by 8.5 million people, including Richard Branson.
‘I was sceptical at first but once I got into it I felt myself becoming a lot more calm and patient,’ says Tom. ‘It gets me into the right frame of mind to take on the day without worrying too much.’
Instead of rushing back to the pool after Rio, Tom spent three indulgent days ‘eating what I wanted and not doing anything’ and then two months focusing on other interests. ‘It was so important for me to not think about diving,’ says Tom. ‘I’m a busy person and like to have interests outside diving.’ Such as?
‘I went to a cookery school, I’ve done camera operations courses, editing courses, Spanish lessons, I work on my YouTube channel. But usually when I get home from training I put on some music and cook dinner. He might chop and I’ll cook, or the other way around.’
OUT AND PROUD
Ah, yes – ‘He’. Otherwise known as Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning US screenwriter, director, film and TV producer. Otherwise known as Tom’s fiancé – the man who Tom met in March 2013 at a dinner in Los Angeles before revealing 10 months later, via YouTube, that he had fallen in love… and ‘that someone is a guy’.
‘Being gay is something I always thought was possible. I never thought I’d fall in love with a guy but then I met Lance and that was the end of that theory!’ laughs Tom, who proposed (in his underwear, FYI) at their London home in October 2015.
‘We sort of have a tentative date but I’m keeping it under wraps,’ says Tom of the nuptials, keeping all details close to his (impressively chiselled) chest.
Tom has not looked back since coming out. ‘I feel like I’ve just been able to be me, completely and truly me,’ he smiles, crediting 42-year-old Lance for being the person he ‘can talk to about everything without any filter’. Tom also shrugs off the 20-year age gap by insisting he is ‘way more mature’ than Lance.
Admittedly, Tom, who began diving at the age of seven, had to grow up fast. He says he was ‘terrified and scared’ of learning new dives but pushed through his fears because of his love for the sport. At nine, he spent his first night away from his parents for a competition. Tom became the youngest gold medal winner at the European Championships aged 13 and then in 2008 he competed at the Beijing Olympics aged 15, where he was billed as the ‘Harry Potter of the diving pool’. A year later, and with a growing fan base, he scooped two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games.
PAIN THEN GAIN
Behind the success lay secret pain. At Eggbuckland College in Plymouth, Tom became a target for cruel bullies who called him names such as ‘Speedo’ boy and, later, turned to physical violence. On one occasion, Tom was deliberately tripped up and landed on his wrist. For five days, he was unable to dive hands-first into the water.
‘At the time I felt like it was the end of the world. Bullying can be quite a lonely place,’ says Tom, whose parents later enrolled him into Plymouth College where the teachers were supportive, generously fitting the timetable around his diving training.
‘Looking back on [bullying], it really does sculpt you into being prepared for life after school,’ continues Tom, ever the optimist. ‘Although it feels like the roughest thing at the time, if you can tell someone and make things better, you’ll learn how to solve certain problems.’ Tom’s bullying misery is all the harder to imagine when you consider what else was happening at the time. When Tom was 12, his father Rob was diagnosed with a fist-sized brain tumour, of which surgeons were originally able to remove 80%. However, the tumour returned and, in May 2011, Rob passed away aged only 40 with Tom by his bedside.
At London 2012, Tom punched his gold medal to the sky as if to share his moment of glory with his dad. It’s those moments – and at times of disappointment – when Tom misses Rob the most. ‘If I did well he’d know what to say, and if I did badly, he wouldn’t say anything and we’d just go and get ice cream,’ he says. ‘Your dad knows what you want to do.’ But through grief comes growth and Tom believes that his dad’s death has encouraged him to no longer sweat the small stuff.
‘You can be the person who’s carefree or the person who’s not, and you can make a conscious decision about how you want to spend your energy,’ he explains. ‘If you’re constantly putting things into perspective, then you can relax more.’
After he bowed out of Rio, Tom ignored a hateful tweet from a Christian group which blamed his bad luck on his sexuality. ‘I don’t think what was said was fair and that’s why I didn’t respond to it,’ says Tom. ‘I wasn’t going to draw any more attention to it because that’s often what they’re looking for – attention.’
Perhaps author JK Rowling fuelled the fire when she sprung to Tom’s defence saying: ‘Can’t decide which is more offensive in this tweet, the stupidity or the spite’? Tom smiles. ‘It was probably not a good thing but it’s cool that JK Rowling did that. I was like “it’s JK Rowling. It’s fine!”’
Tom’s brown eyes are big and eager but although he’s smaller than you might imagine, he’s as broad-shouldered as you’d expect for a seriously fit swimmer. There’s a day’s worth of stubble on his face – proof enough that the child prodigy has grown up. Does he remember the moment that Tom the boy turned into a man?
‘About a year after moving to London and just being a little bit more independent,’ he replies. ‘My mum wasn’t close by, so I had to do things for myself. For example the gas, the electrics, the water.’
In the Daley-Black household, Tom is kitchen king. Rewind to Beijing and Tom survived on a diet of rice and cabbage, but his fussy days are over. Today, he’s a culinary connoisseur, passionate about fuelling his body with a diet of nutritious, tasty food, which he cooks himself. Many of his favourite recipes are detailed in his new book Tom’s Daily Plan, which is packed with health, fitness and mindfulness tips. Save for a glass of Champagne at the Olympic homecoming party, Tom has been teetotal for over two years, which surely bodes well for Tokyo 2020. Or are the rumours of retirement true?
‘I’ll carry on diving as long as my body will let me,’ assures Tom. ‘That could be 28, 30, 32. Who knows? As long as I’m at my peak and my body’s doing OK, I want to be able to keep diving.’ He adds: ‘Olympic Gold is the ultimate mission.’ Watch this space.
Tom’s Daily Plan by Tom Daley (£16.99, Harlequin)
TOM’S TIPS FOR A HAPPY, HEALTHY LIFE
People rely on taking supplements but you can get vitamins naturally from what you eat. Lots of health issues can be rectified by what’s in your diet. Make your plate as colourful as possible.
You only need to do 20 minutes a day, whether it’s going for a walk or doing my 20- minute workout. Do some sort of exercise, you’ll really start to feel a lot better and more energised throughout the day.
During your lunch break, take 10 minutes to focus on breathing. Use the opportunity to reflect and enjoy time to yourself. You’ll feel instantly calmer.
When things are whirring around your head it gets overwhelming, but if you have a clear plan you will feel less anxious. Think about what you need to do now to be the best in the future.
DON’T SLEEP IT OFF
Always resolve arguments before your head hits the pillow. You never want to wake up angry so put disagreements to bed before you go.