LONDON (Reuters) - Poised on the edge of a 10-meter board towering over a public diving pool in the southern English city of Southampton, Tom Daley looks small, isolated and even younger than his 13 years.
Hailed as Britain’s youngest male Olympian before an embarrassed British Olympic Association discovered they had the wrong age for a cox at the 1960 Rome Games, Daley will represent his country in Beijing a couple of months after turning 14.
Daley has captured the British public imagination to an unusual degree, counterpointing his precocity in one of the Olympics’ more spectacular events with his maturity and composure in the face of increasing media attention.
Partly as a result of the swelling interest, Daley and his coach Andy Banks have sought to dampen expectations for Beijing and preferred to look instead to the 2012 London Games.
“My aim for Beijing is to go there, have an enjoyable experience, hopefully do a good performance and by the time 2012 comes around, that’s when I‘m going to go for the medals,” Daley told Reuters in a poolside interview after an hour on the board.
Banks said Daley’s seventh place at the World Cup in Beijing this year, which qualified him for the Games, had been exceptional.
“I think realistically his ultimate goal at the moment, although he talks of doing many more Games, is to feature with the top guys in the world in London,” he said in a telephone interview.
Even Daley’s father Rob has been startled by his son’s sudden celebrity. Only Kenneth Lester, an Olympic cox whose birth date had been incorrectly recorded as 1937 instead of 1947, was more youthful than Tom.
“I didn’t think 13-year-old boys went to the Olympics,” Daley said by telephone from the family home in Plymouth.
”That was a distant dream, I didn’t think my boy would be qualifying to go. It didn’t actually dawn on me until he was in the World Cup in Beijing, there is a real possibility that he is going to the Olympics.
“Everyone was saying he is the best talent this country has ever seen but no one was mentioning the Olympics.”
Rob Daley took the eldest of his three sons to swimming lessons from the age of three “just for safety reasons. He never intended to be a competitive swimmer.”
Tom, though, was attracted by the diving board.
“Seeing people jumping off the diving board and doing somersaults and twists, that was something that really inspired me and I wanted to be like them and to be able to do the somersaults,” he said.
Banks said Tom’s nascent talent had been spotted by his first diving coach.
“She got me to come over to the pool to have a look at him and he spent the first 15 minutes just standing on the poolside behind a pillar and crying. At which point I made the great mistake of publicly explaining that I didn’t think he would ever make a diver,” Banks said. “But to be fair I didn’t actually see him get into the water. After I had seen that his talent shone through.”
Because of his achievements, including the European title in Eindhoven this year, it is easy to overlook Daley’s extreme youth.
“He’s dealt with media and competition and competing with people who are a lot older than him very well,” Banks said.
“He did struggle a lot in his younger years with homesickness when he went away. There were a couple of very famous comments that he would rather be dead than be on a training camp and if anybody left him alone then he would jump out of the window. It was fairly intense for the poor old chaperone.”
In Southampton, watched by a scattering of spectators, including some curious schoolchildren from the adjoining swimming pool, Daley went through his paces after a spell in the gymnasium with his synchronized diving partner Blake Aldridge, at 25 nearly twice his age.
Due to a malfunction in the heating equipment, the arena was stiflingly hot and Aldridge used chamois leather to wipe the sweat off his body before plunging into the pool. Daley dived with supports on both wrists to lessen the impact of hitting the water at speeds around 55 kph.
“Tom is making history, I‘m just another diver who is doing well. I’ve got a 13-year-old kid with me that’s doing it, that’s why it’s such a massive story,” Aldridge said after the first of the pair’s two daily training sessions.
Banks said Daley had experienced technical problems, known as the Lost Move Syndrome, before a major international competition and there was a frightening family crisis two years ago when his father had a brain tumor which Rob Daley described as “the size of a fist” removed.
“I‘m still here,” Rob Daley said. “I’ve battled through it.”
Tom Daley said his Team Visa colleague Beth Tweddle, the 2006 world asymmetric bars gymnastics champion, had helped with the former problem. “Because diving and gymnastics are quite similar, when I have struggles with my diving, when I have mental blocks and things like that, I can go to Beth Tweddle and ask her,” he said.
At the moment he balances school, training and the media and public attention with close support from his father and mother Debbie while his brothers William and Ben help to keep his feet on the floor.
”I try and keep the diving in its own separate world, in its own little bubble,“ he said. ”I’ve got to dive when I‘m diving, when I finish diving I go and do all the media things and homework.
“I try and keep it all separate because when I‘m not diving and doing media stuff I‘m just a normal kid.”
Editing by Clare Fallon