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Two teardrops stood still for a moment and glistened on Tom Daley’s skin soon after he and Matty Lee had draped gold medals around each other’s necks. Earlier on Monday afternoon they had won the synchronised 10-metre platform amid great drama and emotion in Tokyo. A single teardrop slipped from Daley’s left eye. It stopped millimetres from the black Team GB mask covering his face. A little higher up, another solitary teardrop nestled just below the lower lid of his right eye. It was as if even his tears had paused to remember everything Daley had been through to reach this pinnacle of achievement.
Daley and Lee were on the podium as God Save the Queen echoed around a deserted arena. He is not an unpatriotic man but I am pretty sure Daley’s tears were the culmination of him remembering all the hope and disappointment, the despair and joy, he had endured these past 13 years. He had felt crushed at each of his three previous Olympics, in-between some happier moments when he won a bronze medal at London 2012 and then again in Rio 2016.
But Daley had also been subjected to more lasting grief when, six days after he turned 17, he lost his father to brain cancer in May 2011. He had also been through much private tumult before he came out as one of British sport’s very few openly gay men in 2013.
Transfixed by those two lonely little teardrops I kept thinking of one particular quote from the many times I had interviewed Daley. When we did his final interview before London 2012, just after he had told me knew it would be “scary” to dive in his home Olympics, Daley shook his head. “I’ll be amazed when, one day, I look back and see what I withstood between 13 and 18,” he said. “But my dream is to win Olympic gold.”
He had used that same phrase in our first interview in April 2008 when Daley was only 13 and already on his way to national fame. When I arrived at his family home in Plymouth, on a lazy afternoon during the school holidays, his 11-year-old brother opened the door. William Daley wore his Chelsea kit and he nodded wearily at the sight of another strange reporter on the doorstep. “Tom,” he hollered, “it’s for you.”
Tom came bounding down the stairs and for the next hour he gave me an engaging but sometimes unsettling interview. Six minutes of that conversation are still linked to the written interview on the Guardian website and, after his victory in Tokyo, I listened to the audio file for the first time in 13 years. The diving prodigy was as impressive as I remembered – and endearingly normal.
In 2008 I wrote: “He has a nice line in nonchalant catchphrases like ‘blah-di-blah’ that he uses whether dutifully answering questions about his growing fame or when revealing that William and eight-year-old Ben, the youngest of the three brothers, keep telling him that he’s ‘rubbish’. Five weeks before his 14th birthday Daley appears as unaffected in person as he is extraordinary on the diving board.”
After talking about his dad’s cancer, Daley also told me how he was being bullied at school and that he had twice suffered a psychological meltdown before diving. He had withdrawn from an event in Germany while, in Madrid, he described being in the grip of Lost Move Syndrome – when he forgot a specific dive.
Our next interview, in 2009, covered similarly dark terrain and he sounded a little lost and lonely. Daley told me the bullying had worsened. His revelations became a story and, that June, he moved schools.
After his father’s death he was accused of allowing his media work to dilute his competitive focus but, as he showed in London and Rio, and especially now in Tokyo, Daley’s passion for the Olympics has always been searing.
He has also always been more than just a diver. His decision to come out and his subsequent engagement to Dustin Lance Black, who had won an Oscar for writing Milk, the biopic of the gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk, were far more important milestones. He seemed to have found real happiness, which was confirmed in June 2018 when he and his husband announced the birth of their son. As with their engagement, they chose a rather old-fashioned way of making the announcement by placing a notice in the Times.
Gareth Thomas, the former Wales rugby captain, is the only other high-profile British sportsman to have come out publicly as gay. This year, when I interviewed Thomas about his campaigning work as a man living with HIV, we chatted about Daley who had since become an Instagram sensation with his site @madewithlovebytomdaley devoted to the grand old art of crocheting. Thomas spoke of the bigotry and hatred that still shadowed the lives of so many gay men. He believed it would be a long time before a gay footballer could stand proudly alongside him and Daley.
Thirteen years ago, Daley had laughed when I mentioned seeing his face plastered across a glossy magazine. “That’s weird because I used to pull out pictures of athletes but now younger kids will be seeing my picture. It almost feels like all the hard work I’ve put in and the sacrifices I’ve had to make have finally become worth it. I’m finally being rewarded for what I’ve done.”
Life never unfolds quite so smoothly and it took another 13 years for Daley to win the Olympic gold medal which he had always said would be his ultimate sporting reward. The way in which he and Lee sealed their victory, with a series of stunning and seemingly nerveless dives, spoke of his resilience and tenacity.
As the tears of Tom Daley shone in Tokyo I also thought of the pithy words Gareth Thomas uttered to me this year, in a tribute from one seriously competitive gay sportsman to another: “Tom Daley? Fucking legend.”