Tom Daley: last Olympic chance for teenage sensation turned crocheter

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Tom Daley was only 13 the first time I interviewed him in April 2008. “He is small and smiley,” I wrote, “with flashing braces on his teeth and an engaging way of setting you at ease within minutes of meeting him. He likes playing on the Wii far more than football and, one day, he wouldn’t mind becoming a Blue Peter presenter. In the meantime Daley is the new European diving champion who takes his lucky monkey with him wherever he competes around the world.”

Daley was preparing for his first Olympic Games amid giddy national interest. Thirteen years later, he and his husband are proud parents and Daley is about to compete in his fourth Olympics. He has won two medals, lost a few more, while suffering doubt and grief alongside his emergence as one of the few British sportsmen to have come out publicly.

Related: Tom Daley: ‘I'm only recognised when strangers think of me in my pants'

It has been a tumultuous 13 years and, in 2008, Daley told me about being bullied at school and watching his dad struggle with brain cancer. At the Beijing Olympics he was mobbed by Chinese girls before his debut event ended in disappointment. Daley and Blake Aldridge finished last in the synchronised 10m platform. Aldridge, 26, stacked shelves at B&Q while Daley was already a celebrity. Their competition ended in a spat as the 14-year-old castigated Aldridge for calling his mum during the competition. Daley did better on his own – finishing seventh in the individual 10m platform.

I met Daley again the following April. “I’m turning 15 next month,” he said, “but I seem to have been 14 for, like, forever.” Daley told me more about the distressing bullying he endured at school. It became a story in the national press and, that June, he moved schools. A month later he became world champion in the 10m platform.

Daley’s life was streaked with pain and fame. His father died in May 2011 while, just before London 2012, Daley released his autobiography and participated in a BBC documentary about his life. British Diving’s performance director, Alexei Evangulov, warned Daley his commercial and media work compromised his medal prospects.

I carried out Daley’s last interview before the London Olympics when he told me it would be “scary” to dive. “I’ll be amazed when, one day, I look back and see what I withstood between 13 and 18. But my dream is to win Olympic gold.”

A few weeks later Daley and Pete Waterfield led the 10m synchronised final at the halfway stage. But their diving went awry and they were devastated to finish fourth. Redemption came in the individual event where Daley finally won an Olympic bronze medal as the tears fell.

After London, as he said in another Guardian interview in 2020, “I never wanted to dive again.” He was abused on social media but still launched an abject reality TV show called Splash. A year later, in September 2013, he said: “I think it’s funny when people say I’m gay. I’m not. Even if I was, I wouldn’t be ashamed.”

Three months later he made a YouTube announcement: “My life changed massively when I met someone and it made me feel so happy, so safe. Well, that someone is a guy.”

Dustin Lance Black, 20 years older than Daley, had won an Oscar for writing Milk, the biopic of gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk. In October 2015 they announced their engagement. Daley’s third Olympics, in Rio, was typically dramatic. He was ecstatic when winning bronze in the synchronised, with Daniel Goodfellow, and desolate when failing to reach the individual final. “At the Olympics your dreams can get crushed in an instant,” he said after some of the worst dives of his career. “It doesn’t get any lower than this.”

Daley became the 10m platform world champion again in 2017 and, the following June, he and Black announced the birth of their son. His public life became calmer and I had to smile this March, almost 13 years since we first met, when I read that Daley now crochets jumpers, cardigans and a woolly pair of swimming trunks which he posted on his knitting Instagram page @madewithlovebytomdaley. That same page featured a colourful unicorn he made for his two-year-old son and his version of a £1,750 Gucci halter-neck which he crocheted with “a bit of leftover yarn”.

It is hard to know what to expect from him now but, aged 27, Daley heads to Tokyo for his fourth Olympics. He will dive again in the individual as well as the synchronised – this time with Matty Lee. As always there might be drama and tears, despair or joy.

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