LONDON (Reuters) - Obscured by 14-year-old diving prodigy Tom Daley’s sudden rise to fame is the struggle of his synchronized partner Blake Aldridge for recognition.
Since Aldridge began his love affair with diving two decades ago, the London-born 25-year-old has had to deal with numerous setbacks, most notably the death of his previous diving partner Gavin Brown in a hit-and-run incident in April last year.
Aldridge was selected last month to represent Britain in the men’s 10-metre synchronized diving at the Beijing Olympics and he is coming to terms with the interest in his sport generated by Daley’s precocity.
“I’ve dived for 21 years and all of that has gone unnoticed,” Aldridge told Reuters at the Southampton Diving Academy in southern England. “I was a junior world champion at the age of 17 and I struggled to get on the news.”
There is, though, no bitterness, in Aldridge’s tale.
“I’d be the first person to turn around and say I‘m loving it,” Aldridge said almost disbelievingly.
“I’ve had so many problems throughout my career, such as injuries, but I’ve never given up and it just so happens the fact that I haven’t given up suddenly paid off.”
His coach Lindsey Fraser dived in two Olympic Games (Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984) and has also seen a shift since Daley’s arrival on the scene.
“In my local area of Southampton people don’t talk about ‘oh you’re going swimming’, they now actually realize that we’re divers, and it’s just amazing what that boy has done for the sport,” she said, speaking in June from the European junior diving championships in Minsk.
One look at the children peering around the curtain separating Aldridge and Daley from the local swimming pool in Southampton would suggest that success in Beijing followed by London could nudge talented young athletes in diving’s direction.
“I have no doubt that Tom and Blake are going to take this Olympics by storm and just enjoy every minute of it, and particularly with Blake, providing he enjoys what he’s doing he will always perform well,” said Fraser, who has known Aldridge since he was 14.
Although they are not favorites for a medal, the high profile of the sport in China, coupled with Daley’s meteoric rise to fame, has ensured the pairing’s highly successful eight-month partnership has never been far from the headlines.
Since joining forces in November 2007, Aldridge and Daley have raised eyebrows at Beijing’s spectacular ‘Water Cube’ with a third-placed finish in February at the World Cup when they needed a top-eight place to guarantee Britain an Olympic spot.
In May they won the World Series in Sheffield. However they are debutants on sport’s biggest stage and one half of the act is only 14, so Daley’s coach Andy Banks is playing down their chances.
“Getting the medals is going to be very difficult, though anything can happen. If you look at the Athens Olympics (when Leon Taylor and Pete Waterfield won silver for Britain) the Chinese guy failed a dive, the Russian hit the board and the American fell off,” he said.
After the highs of February Aldridge cannot wait to get back to China.
“It’s a fascinating sport,” he said, regaining his breath after several spectacular practice dives with Daley.
“It’s interesting, dangerous and it’s everything you want as a spectator sport. It’s got the wow factor.”
In China, he and Daley will have local gold-medal favorites Lin Yue and Huo Liang to reckon with and Aldridge is determined to make up for lost time.
“I believe we’ve got a massive opportunity in Beijing to get a medal,” he said.
It is this new steely attitude, since he failed to qualify for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, which Fraser highlighted as the reason for Aldridge’s purple patch.
“If you have to identify any athlete who’s the most improved in terms of their commitment, behavior patterns and actual performances it’s Blake. The results of his diving reflect how much he’s made a lifestyle change really,” she said.
The changes include a move away from London to live in Southampton where he now shares a room with fellow diver and first-time Olympian Stacie Powell.
Aldridge’s mother Debbie and Powell’s parents will also be on the plane for Beijing.
“I‘m just over the moon. It’s been a long journey, 21 years, he’s had so many injuries. It’s just fantastic,” Debbie, a national level ice skater until the age of 16, said.
She works at Linden Lodge School for blind and disabled children in Wimbledon, which is where Aldridge learnt to swim.
He remains a regular visitor and hopes to have a medal to impress the children on his return from China.
Editing by John Mehaffey and Clare Fallon