New season, new prospects

 

After taking time off Thomas Daley was then ready to start the season again in January 2017 with only the expectation of doing mixed synchronised events with Tonia Couch on the 10m and Scottish diver Grace Reid on the 3m springboard. However, a week after finishing nationals he was offered the opportunity to compete at the World Series in the individual event. While his coach Jane Figueiredo believed he still wasn’t ready to make his comeback, Daley’s champion determination took over. “Me being as stubborn as I am said, ‘No, I really, really, really want to be able to dive in the individual event in the World Series’. So I did.”

Again, his preparations failed to go smoothly when he received a frantic call from Figueiredo to say she had snapped her Achilles and would be unable to accompany him at the World Series. “I didn’t know what I was going to do as all of a sudden I had to have a different coach come away with me on all of the World Series. It was a little bit stressful as I had to compete for the first time since the Olympics.”

It was also the first time he was to compete internationally since Rio in the men’s synchro event with Goodfellow, who himself had been suffering from an injured tricep. “It didn’t quite go to plan,” said Daley. “Then I was starting to think maybe I should have just stuck to mixed synchro, maybe I shouldn’t be pushing myself to get back up there and do it as soon as I did. But then the individual event came around and I really wanted to do the best that I could and show that I was still one of the best divers in the world – and I came away with a bronze medal.”

He then went on to the second leg of the series in Guangzhou, where he said: “I went into that competition thinking, ‘You know what, I’m just going to give it everything, who cares, I’m going to enjoy it and give it the best shot that I can’.” This resulted in some of his best- ever dives and he came away with silver, which he followed by becoming the first Briton to win a medal in the men’s 10m, men’s 10m synchro and mixed 10m in the same competition, in Kazan. The series ended in a bronze in the final leg in Canada and sealed the most successful World Series in his diving career.

And just when it seemed he had surpassed all obstacles, he suffered an injury himself, then having to have injections in his hip and back, again just two months before the start of the World Championships in Budapest. “It was a little bit of a setback and that put me out of diving for about 10 days until I could build back up to the 10m. But when I got back up on to the 10m, after all the tests I had done, I increased the range in my back by 50% and for the first time I have been diving pain-free in a very long time.”

 

Success story

 

Diving pain-free together with a more relaxed approach to competition and a happy home life proved the best combination, which we were then able to witness in Budapest. Not only did we see him reclaim the world title he had won eight years before but he was also able to gain a silver medal in the mixed 3m springboard with Reid. “It’s crazy because I’m not a springboard diver and I got a silver at the World Championships,” he said of his success.

“This whole year I was making sure that I wasn’t just taking it as completely seriously as it was last year and making it the only thing I think about every single day, every single moment – so I got married.” And, after the championships were over, he was able to go on his honeymoon with his new husband, American film director Dustin Lance Black.

“There’s something about married life that changes the way that you think, the way that you feel or how secure you are and how everyday life just seems to be a whole lot better,” said Daley. “It was nice to have him here and be home and be with me while I was training and my training got better and better.”

This change in mentality, along with synchro partner Reid recently moving to London to train full-time alongside Daley and coach Figueiredo, is an exciting prospect for the future, especially when he is looking to fulfil his Olympic dream of winning individual gold at Tokyo 2020. And while there is no doubt that Daley’s exploits on the diving board over the last 10 years have made him one of Britain’s sporting greats, it is also his triumph over adversity that has made him a role model for future athletes around the world.

 

Congratulations on being voted the Best Athlete of the Year in the men's diving discipline – how does that feel?

It is such an honour to be given such a prestigious award. I have been working very hard since the Rio Olympic Games and I am over the moon with the way that this season has unfolded.

What changed in the year separating the Worlds from the Olympics in Rio, having turned things around so dramatically? What do you think went wrong in Rio?

I put so much pressure on myself going into Rio and I forgot about the real reasons why I love diving, and that is because I love to compete and be on the board. This year I really focused on enjoying every second of my competitions and it really changed my attitude in competition, and it got the best out of my performances.

 

It was an incredible moment for you to turn the Chinese celebrations before your last dive in Budapest into motivation to beat them, when some athletes would have crumbled under the pressure. How do you feel looking back at that now, having had time to reflect on what you achieved?

When I watched the video back from the competition, I don't really know how I did it... I was in a complete sense of competitive flow and I don't think in that moment there was going to be anything that could have stopped me.

Will you change your approach to competition now in the way you psychologically prepare, especially with Tokyo in mind?

Absolutely, the key to me diving well has always been when I am at my happiest and most relaxed and when my body is feeling good, so I really want to make sure I can maintain that mentality moving forward.

 

How are your preparations towards Tokyo going? Do you wish there were more events such as the mixed synchro for you to have more medal opportunities?

The preparations are going well, there is still a long way to go and I will do my best to make sure I am in peak physical condition for the Olympics in 2020. Of course I wish the mixed 3m synchro event was in the Olympics, as we won a silver medal at the World Championships, but hopefully in the Olympics in 2024 it will be included, as I think it is a great way to include both male and female sport together.

 

When you finally hang up your trunks, what legacy would you like to leave in your sport?

I think it is important for any kid out there, no matter their background, their race, religion, gender or sexuality, to know that they can achieve great things if they put their mind to it. One day those differences might just be what makes them the best at what they do.