‘Screaming girls? I’ll never get bored’
He’s the heart-throb diving superstar determined to turn his talent to gold this summer. Form an orderly queue, ladies
Tom Daley has the boyish good looks of a teenage pop star, and the body of a fully grown, gym-honed beefcake. An 18-year-old man-child on whom a nation’s Olympic hopes are pinned.
He’s also got the patience of a saint for remaining so staunchly cheerful, despite being continually drenched over the course of two hours for the sake of our Fabulous photo shoot.
“No, no, it’s fine, really!” he half-laughs, half-gasps, as yet another bucket of water is sloshed over his lovely face.
Mind you, as one of the world’s top divers, getting wet is a hazard of the job. Since taking up the sport at the age of seven, Baby Daley (as his girl fans have nicknamed him) has represented Great Britain at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, aged just 14, claimed two Commonwealth golds, and won both the World and European Championships – reclaiming the latter title with another gold medal just two weeks ago.
It’s made him both a sporting hero and – squeal! – a serious pin-up. A status that was cemented even further when, in February this year, Tom and his Team GB pals made a hilarious lip-synced video to LMFAO’s Sexy And I Know It, which has had nearly 1 million hits on YouTube.
Tweens and teens want to hug the life out of him… and their older sisters (not to mention their mothers) know why.
“I’ll never get bored of the attention from girls,” he says. “My friends think it’s hilarious. It’s funny how differently people react. Some girls are too cool to come over, but I can tell they’re looking. Others come up and scream in my face and start shaking. I’m like: ‘I’m just Tom!’
“Some will come and chat away normally as if they know me. And I get marriage proposals quite often! I get them on Twitter, through the post and sometimes I hear them shouted out at competitions. I find it all quite funny.
“I’m doing sport because I love it. That’s the only reason, so it’s kind of cool that I get that as well.”
Despite the adoration from lovesick girlies, Plymouth-born Tom is very much single. His tough Olympics training schedule (as well as his maths, Spanish and photography A-Level exams) doesn’t leave time for any hanky-panky.
“I’m doing so much training at the moment, I don’t need the pressure of feeling like I have to go and see my girlfriend and do this and that,” he says.
“So yes, I’m single. I don’t have any time for a serious relationship because there aren’t enough hours in the day.
“I don’t see why I shouldn’t have a girlfriend in the future. But I can’t do it now because there’s no point – I’m away so much it would just go wrong. It’d have to be someone who understands the commitment. Whoever I go out with, diving comes first.”
If anyone out there fancies applying for the vacancy of Mrs Tom, what does he look for in a girlfriend?
“Personality is the most important. She’s got to be fun, up for a laugh and have a ticket for the banter bus.
“The girls I’ve been with before have mainly been brunettes and olive-skinned, but I’m not picky! Just as long as they’ve got a nice personality, are nice-looking and around my age. Or older.”
Ahem. How much older? Are we talking Caroline Flack and Harry Styles?
“Ha ha! Not old older! Three years older is acceptable at this age.”
For a young man who has only just celebrated his 18th birthday, Tom is remarkably mature and wholly comfortable in adult company. But then he’s had to grow up fast, especially in the last year.
His dad Rob – his biggest champion and, as Tom describes him “my best friend” – died at the age of 40, last May, after battling a brain tumour. Last week was the first anniversary of his death.
“I actually find it easy to talk about him, because every time I remember my dad it’s happy memories,” says Tom.
“It was terribly sad that he passed away, but he’d taught me so much up to that point. It’s weird, but in a way if it hadn’t have been for his tumour I don’t know if I’d have got as close to him. The last five years were when we were closest and did most things together.”
A long struggle
Rob, who gave up his electrician business to accompany Tom around the world, was first diagnosed with brain cancer in 2006. He protected Tom and his brothers by never letting on just how bleak the outlook was. He thought he’d beaten the illness after a tumour was removed, but the cancer returned aggressively in February 2010.
“He didn’t tell us how bad it was in the beginning. He overcame the first tumour, then had another one. It was the third tumor that got him,” Tom says.
“It’s taught me that you have to make sure you treasure time with your friends and family, the people you love, and never ever take them for granted.”
Rob was the proudest of proud dads. The time he interrupted Tom’s post-victory press conference at the 2009 World Championships, with tears in his eyes, to ask for a cuddle was a gorgeous moment. Tom, then aged 14, duly shuffled over, blushing profusely, in front of the world’s press. But he looks back on that now and smiles.
“I hear people saying: ‘Argh, my mum and dad are so annoying, they’re so embarrassing!’ But they’re really not.
“I used to find my dad embarrassing, but looking back I can see he was really funny. And lots of things that he did that I found embarrassing I find myself doing and saying now! I’ve got his sense of humour, and I like having fun. You have to enjoy life while you’ve got it.”
As the eldest child, Tom admits he feels a sense of responsibility towards his mum Debbie, 40, and brothers William, 15, and Ben, 13.
“I find myself talking to my brothers more. I’ve passed my driving test, so I take them places. I suppose I’ve taken on more of a role-model figure. And I really try to help my mum out.”
When Tom stands on that 10m board at the London Aquatics Centre this summer, heart pumping in his chest, Rob won’t be far from his mind.
“He’d have loved to have been there. But he’s always been, and still is, a big, big motivation and inspiration to me. I’ll go into the competition focused on my performance, but it’ll be my dad I’ll be thinking about before and afterwards.”
Personal tragedy isn’t the only struggle Tom’s had to overcome. A few years ago, on the back of his success, he became the victim of bullying at his local high school. It became so bad that he left when an independent college offered him a sports scholarship.
He says: “It started off gradually and got worse. It got to the point where if they’re taking my legs out in a rugby tackle… well, that’s not very funny.
“It does knock your confidence, and that’s why it’s so important to have someone to talk to. For me that was my parents. I know lots of kids go through it and I hope they have someone to speak to. Don’t be afraid to tell someone.”
Tom admits he would bottle up his anguish before coming home in “floods of tears”. But moving to Plymouth College in 2009 changed everything.
“We had meetings with the teachers at my old school, but it just didn’t stop. Then Plymouth College approached me. They understood about the diving and the support I needed as an athlete.
“Once I moved there it was fine. One of the things my dad taught me was not to worry about what anyone thinks. And as long as I’ve got my friends and family right behind me, then that’s all I need.
“The friends who helped me are still my best friends today. It helped me realise who my true friends were. It made me stronger. I look back and think: ‘I came through that,’ and I think I’m a better person.”
Despite the punishing six-day-a-week training schedule and rules curbing his lifestyle – no drinking, no late nights and a limit of only one of Tom’s favourite Fab ice lollies per week – he doesn’t resent the sacrifices he’s had to make for diving.
“I really don’t feel like I’ve missed out. I still get to see my friends, it’s just a different kind of lifestyle. I’d rather go into competition with no regrets and be able to give it my best shot,” he says.
“I can compartmentalise my worlds – diving, media, friends and school – and I don’t let them overlap.”
How tough is his regime right now?
“At the minute it’s pretty tough. It’s six hours a day in the pool and gym, working as hard as I possibly can.
“Sunday is my day off and I literally don’t do anything other than chill and sleep. I use that time to relax so I’m ready for the next week of training.”
Tom makes it all look so gracefully easy, but every time he dives off that board he’s taking his life in his hands. In those seconds before he hits the water, at more than 34 miles per hour, is the potential for so much to go wrong.
“There are so many dangers – hitting your head, landing flat. I’m always scared, but that’s part of the rush,” he says.
“I’ve gone through stages of my diving when it’s gone wrong, and it’s terrified me. It takes time to build up that courage and go again.”
Witnessing fellow Brit Monique Gladding’s near-fatal dive in February 2011, when she smashed her head on the edge of the platform before plummeting into the pool unconscious, was particularly traumatic for Tom.
“I saw what happened, and it was one of those frightening situations when you realise how serious and risky diving is. There was blood all over the poolside. If she’d hit her head in any other place she would have died.
“But you can’t let it affect you. If you start thinking like that, then that’s when diving goes wrong.
“I get more and more nervous with every step up the ladder. The nerves really kick in when I’m standing on the board. I know exactly what I’ve got to do and when. If I lose sight of where I am for a split second then it goes wrong.
“It’s the thought of losing yourself in the air and having that feeling of not knowing which way is up, which is down, and when you’re going to hit the water.”
Away from the pool, there are of course plenty of perks – Tom’s celebrity status has opened up showbiz doors. Like hanging out at The X Factor last year.
“Simon Cowell came out, saw me and said: ‘Hello Tom, well done on the diving, keep up the good work.’ I went: ‘Sorry, who are you?’ Ha! I didn’t really!”
Louis Walsh spotted Tom’s potential for an alternative career should the diving go belly up, as it were.
“He asked if I could sing and said I looked like I should be in a boy band.
“I guess I could click my fingers in the background, but no, that’s not me.”
Being able to spice up a GCSE photography project with a picture of Kate Moss he shot has been another highlight. The two of them were on a magazine shoot together, and Tom seized his chance to ask if he could take a few snaps of his own.
“I just asked her and she said yeah. She couldn’t give me enough of her time.
“When she’d first arrived she was just in her normal clothes and chilling and it was like: ‘Oh. Is that Kate Moss?’ But when she’s done up it’s amazing and she looks like, well, she looks like a supermodel. She’s stunning. But I didn’t fancy her. It was almost like she wasn’t real – it felt wrong to touch her.”
With our shoot finished, we drop Tom off in a taxi and the driver, chuffed to pieces to have such a VIP passenger, asks to shake his hand.
“See you later, Tom!” he tells him. “Keep the flag flying!” Tom thanks him and promises to do so.
The amount of goodwill towards him is heartwarming – and all entirely deserved. Quite apart from his super-human talent, Tom is thoughtful, unfailingly polite to everyone and an absolute pleasure to be around. Team Fabulous comes away completely smitten. Tom will draw on every ounce of that public support in London.
“I don’t necessarily believe in it, but… I pick up my phone not even thinking about anything and the time says 20:12. And I drew a picture when I was younger saying London 2012, before the Games had been given to London.”
And a recent advert he filmed wrapped on the 12th take.
“Stupid things like that, it’s a bit scary. I have to ignore it. I’ve just got to stay injury-free and train hard to the end.”
- My Story by Tom Daley (Michael Joseph, £16.99) is out now.
Do you have a most treasured possession?
My iPhone. I’d be lost without it.
What superpower would you have?
To fly. I’d never be cramped on a plane ever again.
Who would your dream dinner party guests be?
Elvis, Cheryl Cole and James Corden.
What’s your biggest fear?
Do you have superstitions?
I’ve got a lucky monkey toy and I take him everywhere.
Which word do you overuse?
Instead of saying “LOL”, me and my friends say “lollipop”. It’s random I know!
If you could travel back in time, where would you go?
The dinosaur age, and fly on a pterodactyl.