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Monday, September 20, 2021

Tom Daley’s long wait for gold ends at Tokyo 2020

A prodigy, a son missing his deceased father, a gay athlete who found love and safety in his Oscar-winning partner, a young father and now Olympic champion: Tom Daley is a happy winner after years of fighting demons

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai |
Updated: July 27, 2021 2:28:11 pm
Thomas Daley (left) and Matty Lee of Great Britain react on the podium after winning the gold medal. (Reuters)

Before he took to the air and plunged down in a whirr of somersaults to fish out gold with Matty Lee in Tokyo, before tears of loss dampened his cheeks in the London 2012, before he had a spat with his diving partner just ahead of their disastrous dive in Beijing 2008, before a dive fashioned out of a Russian circus move swerved out of control in Rio 2016, before cancer took his father in 2011, before he was bullied at school, and before he came out as gay, Tom Daley had a recurrent dream.

He’s 15 in the dream and needs a simple dive to win gold in the Olympics. He throws himself off the board but panics as a shark stares at him. He dives right into it. Darkness. “Of course I die and see on the news that an Olympic diver has been eaten by a shark. I don’t know what was happening with my imagination then,” Daley says in a BBC documentary in 2010.

The shark would shapeshift into cancer, bullies, spats, homophobic slurs before it would give up and sink. Daley would come out as gay, get married to the man who wrote the biopic of gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk, have a son. Now, finally after hazy years of troubled fame, the shark is vanquished. Before the light at the end of the tunnel, he would stumble through the darkness.

At 7, Daley didn’t want to dive but fly. He stood on the board and cried. The academy coach, who had just heard about a precocious diver and stood there trying to coax the boy to dive for 20 minutes would say, “you are never going to be a diver”. But, a way out would be found. Let the kid do what he wants, try to get him into “happy thoughts” and then tell him to fly, “Just like the Peter Pan kid”. Daley began to fly.

When he was 9, he drew a picture of a boy doing a handstand with a text London 2012 topped by Olympic rings and titled the page: Ambition. “That’s me.” He would carry a monkey soft toy to all competitions, his lucky charm.

At 13, hundreds of medals began to hang from the roof in his room. Lined one after another, they’d clang when a strong breeze lilted in. “It sounds like a wind chime, and it can be annoying when you trying to sleep,” his father Rob smiles.

At 15, he is the British and European champion and is addressing a press conference when his father gate-crashes. Rob puts up his hand, gets the mic, and says, “C’mon, please come here!” And Daley, draped in the British flag, rushes to hug his teary dad.

India at Tokyo 2020 | Day 3 Highlights

In the interim, his father felt like he was hallucinating. A cat scan exposed a tumour in his brain, a size of a fist. “2012, Olympics, would I be going there?” was Rob’s fear. With a year to go for the event, his father goes for another scan. Even as Daley waits out, the nurse asks Rob what music he wants to listen to during it, and he chooses Beach boys. Daley wants to ask if he can see how the tumour looks but quietens when he sees his pensive grandmother.

The sixteenth birthday comes up, and he shrieks in joy along with his two younger brothers to find a new goldfish in his tank. He has also shot up in height and is learning a new dive ahead of the European championship: the front four-and-half- somersaults, the same manoeuvre that eventually win him the gold in Tokyo. Eleven years ago, harness rope belts hold him as he repeatedly flings himself off the board to perfect the technique.

As Daley sits for his GSCE exams, Rob finds that his tumour is not only growing again but rapidly at that. He needs chemotherapy and is told that he shouldn’t take flights anymore but Rob disregards and flies with his son to Budapest for the European Championship. Along with the red floppy monkey. Not long after, Daley sets to India for the commonwealth games and for the first time, isn’t accompanied by his father. A year later Rob succumbs.

At 18, Daley would tumble through London Olympics, face hate, and would think of giving it all up, that he never wanted to dive again. He would hang on but more hate came his way, this time homophobic slurs.

In September 2013, still only 19, he would say, “I think it’s funny when people say I am gay. I am not. Even if I was, I wouldn’t be ashamed.” Three months later, after he had met his future husband Dustin Lance Black, 20 years older than him, he would say, “My life changed massively when I met someone and it made me feel so happy, so safe. Well, that someone is a guy.”

At 23, in 2017, he announced the birth of his son Robert Ray – Rob, after his dad. Daley began to crochet jumpers, cardigans, and a colourful unicorn for his son. Four years later, he has crocheted himself a gold through the air in Tokyo and proudly announced to the world from Tokyo where at least 168 openly LGBTQ athletes are competing. “I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion. When I was younger I didn’t think I would ever achieve anything because of who I was … I can’t wait to go and see my husband and my son, to give them a big hug.”

He would also choke up about his father. “It was extremely difficult for me because he never saw me win an Olympic medal, get married, have a child. He never got to teach me to drive, have a pint down the pub … after Rio, my husband said to me that my story doesn’t end here and that our child was meant to watch me become an Olympic champion.” At 27, Daley is feeling safe, happy, loved, paternal — and is also, now, a champion who has finally speared that nightmarish shark.

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