Exclusive Tom Daley interview: I considered hip surgery like Andy Murray - it was terrifying to have to stop diving

Pippa Field
The Telegraph
Daley made his Olympic debut aged just 14 in 2008 - Geoff Pugh
Daley made his Olympic debut aged just 14 in 2008 - Geoff Pugh

Tom Daley had reached breaking point. The effects of crashing into the water at speeds up to 35mph over a decade-and-a-half had taken their toll.

“I said I’d always carry on until my body fell apart. And last year felt like that was it,” he says.

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It was in May 2018 that Daley announced that he would be taking a break for the rest of the year. Daley was then 23, and expecting his first child with husband and Hollywood screenwriter and director Lance Black in the summer. He said he needed "to take some time to recover".

It was no secret Daley, who took up the sport aged seven, had been struggling – a hip injury and concussion hampering his Commonwealth Games campaign the previous month – but the announcement barely scratched the surface of the suffering being endured by one of Britain's most recognisable athletes, an individual who had been subjected to the public glare since making his Olympic debut aged just 14 in 2008 and who revealed his sexuality via a candid YouTube video five years later.

“Everything hurt all the time. When everything hurt all the time, in previous years I was still able to make all my dives. This was a completely different thing,” reveals Daley in his first major newspaper interview since his competitive return.

“My hips were sore, I had stress responses in my shins, my health was deteriorating. For me, it was terrifying to think I’m taking a break. What am I going to do? I’m missing out on all this training. But taking that break last year was the best thing I’ve done in my whole diving career. That break really reset things and gave me that balance of where my priorities are in life."

<span>Daley announced last May that he would be taking a break for the rest of 2018</span> <span>Credit: GEOFF PUGH </span>
Daley announced last May that he would be taking a break for the rest of 2018 Credit: GEOFF PUGH

Meeting at his London Aquatics Centre training base, Daley is three days on from a successful comeback at the British National Diving Cup where he won two titles in the 10m individual and synchro events.

The only ailment he is nursing now is a slight head cold, a far cry from this time last year when he was considering similar hip surgery to that undergone by Andy Murray last year. “My hip joint is not round so they were going to scrape away some of the bone basically to make it rounder,” he explains. “I could have got more range with the surgery yes but then you have to recover. and it’s not always successful."

The hip was not the sole concern either for Daley. A bout of pneumonia put him on the back foot in the off-season, then there was a month off in February, again due to illness, before pushing too hard to prepare for April’s Commonwealth Games. It all left him crippled with doubt.

“I wasn’t making any of my dives, everything was extremely difficult. I remember speaking to Lance a couple of times when I was out in Australia and being like ‘I can’t do it.’ He was telling me I would be fine and I would respond ‘no I don’t think you understand. This isn’t going to be good.’” 

On medical advice, Daley pulled out of defending his individual 10m platform and concentrated on the synchro with Dan Goodfellow, the thinking being that the dive take-offs in the synchro would reduce the potential impact on the stress responses in his shins. Miraculously, the pair, who won Olympic bronze together in 2016 but have since split, claimed the title.

<span>Tom Daley with his gold medal in the Men's Synchronised 10m Platform Final at the 2018 Commonwealth Games</span> <span>Credit: PA </span>
Tom Daley with his gold medal in the Men's Synchronised 10m Platform Final at the 2018 Commonwealth Games Credit: PA

“It may not have been as tough a competition compared to if it had been the World Championships or the Olympics, but for me to achieve that under the circumstances I was under was one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my diving career," admits Daley.

“In between training sessions I was wearing protective moon boots on my legs and taking them off when I got to the pool so no one would see. After the Commonwealth Games, it was a case of wearing my boots all the time to prevent my shins from breaking.” 

And so, shortly afterwards, Daley began a four-month career break which would not see him return to diving until mid-September. Instead he focused on doing things he enjoyed: yoga, spin classes or going for hikes in California while waiting for his son to be born. There was also an emphasis on returning his body to full health, including taking up gyrotonics, a training method favoured by Murray. "If you were to Google it, it kind of looks like ancient torture devices," quips Daley. "It's intense."

Gyrotonics is certainly that. A combination of elements derived from from yoga, dance, gymnastics, swimming and t'ai chi, Daley undergoes weekly sessions for up to two hours at a time, part of a wider overhaul in his attitude to general recovery which he admits he had previously underestimated. 

Of all the changes Daley experienced, however, there was one that had the most profound effect on rebooting his diving career: the arrival in June of son Robert Ray, named in honour of his late father, who died in 2011 from a brain tumour, aged just 40. 

"His arrival massively impacted upon my decision to carry on diving. In the first three weeks, I couldn’t think about anything other than trying to get as much sleep as I could in and around Robbie napping," recalls Daley.

"Once we got into our routine, I started to feel like I want to set an example for Robbie, of never giving up and against all odds, to keep trying and keep working hard. 

"Life isn’t easy, nothing worth having is easy. It was about spending the time to figure out what it was that was making me unhappy and was making me injured, then coming up with a game plan to make it that I was going to be okay, and start to enjoy diving again."

<span>Tom Daley and with his husband Lance Black</span> <span>Credit: PAUL GROVER </span>
Tom Daley and with his husband Lance Black Credit: PAUL GROVER

It was in mid-October, when Robbie was almost four months old, that Daley resumed full-time training, six days a week. Lance assumes parent duties during the day and then they switch in the evening so the former can make work calls to his native America.

Robbie was in the crowd in Plymouth last week to watch his dad's national success. The plan is also for him to be at Tokyo 2020 when Daley attempts to finally land a much-coveted Olympic title following bronzes in London and Rio plus a capitulation at the latter which saw him go from being the gold-medal favourite to not even making the final. 

"Lance says to me maybe Rio just wasn’t my time, maybe it’s meant to be when little Robbie is around and able to watch me achieve my dreams," he says, when pushed on the "unfinished" business of the Olympics. 

"Of course it’s always in the back of my head to win an Olympic gold. But for me now, it’s not the be all and end all. It’s the biggest thing that I could ever achieve in my sport. But the biggest thing in my life is Robbie. He's completely reorientated the way I think about the sport."

Inevitably, having a child has sparked memories of his own father, who was always an unashamed cheerleader for his son, famously interrupting Daley's press conference in 2009 after he became Britain's youngest ever world champion aged 15. 

"Back then I used to think he was the most embarrassing person in the whole world. Now I get it," Daley says. "If Robbie won the World Championships as a 15-year-old, I would do the same thing and ask for a cuddle at the press conference.

"He didn’t care what anyone else thought, he was just out there to be happy and care for his family and friends above all else. To me that is such a valuable lesson, to not worry about the opinions of other people and not let other people bring you down because the only opinions that matter are the people that are closest to you.

"People can think what they want to think about mine, Lance’s and Robbie’s life but I know we’re doing the best we can to keep everyone happy."

This July Daley will bid for a third world title - and first as a father. Reinvigorated by fatherhood and a fresh bill of health, you would not bet against him. "It feels like I’m back in 2007 again, really excited about qualifying for my first Olympic Games and everything was new. It’s like I’ve had a fresh start."

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