It was a painful wait of only a few minutes, but enough to send the dreams of a lifetime flashing through Tom Daley’s mind.
After 20 years of trying – started at Plymouth Leisure Center – Daley and his partner Matty Lee topped the standings in Tokyo after their final dive of four and a half, nearly perfect tuck forward flips.
The only problem was that the Chinese had yet to perform what may well be the last in a long line of synchronized wonders from the 10-meter platform.
Tom Daley and Matty Lee had to wait nervously before beating Chinese opponents to win gold
Dive partner Lee was 10 years old when Daley made his Olympic debut in Beijing in 2018
Handpicked from a Beijing-sponsored production line, drilled to within an inch of their sanity and unnerved when falling vertically, they may have terrified Daley and his friend who waited by the silent pool to learn their fate.
Cao Yuan and Chen Aisen jumped. Hardly a splash to talk about. Lee turned to Daley and said, “Oh, shit.” They were afraid that the victory had been taken from them. But the final scores lit up the screen and with 471.81 points to 470.58, the British had held on.
And little Tom Daley, who grew up in the eyes of the world, sometimes bewitching us with his precocious talent and high-flying character, was an Olympic champion.
At the age of 27, he was not supposed to do it at these Games. His time would have been in Rio five years ago, when his bones, muscles, and tendons hadn’t been overly affected by these bruises.
Yes, he was helped by the Chinese making their fourth dive, but Daley and Lee were exceptional.
My thoughts went back to Plymouth and the nondescript three-bedroom house he grew up in, and especially to his late father Rob. He called himself “Taxi Dad” for driving Tom to practices and races, some 100,000 miles and more. A happy, smiling man, electrician by trade, his devotion to his eldest son was immense.
In his last interview, while suffering from a second brain tumor that had deprived him of the use of his left side, Rob told me that despite his advanced illness he would be traveling to Sheffield to support Tom the following weekend.
Daley paid tribute to his late father Rob after winning his first gold medal at four Olympics
Rob Daley Called Himself ‘Taxi Dad’ For Driving Tom 100,000 Miles To Races
Pushed through the doors of the venue in a wheelchair, he took a video camera with him to capture the action. That and a Union flag. Tom, seeing his father in the viewing gallery, threw his arms around him.
I think they both knew it was the last time he would see his boy fight. A month later, in May 2011, Rob Daley died. He was 40. Tom had turned 17 a few days earlier.
Tom had never seemed so vulnerable, suddenly the man of the household, although he was cared for by his adoring mother Debbie and shared pleasure with his two brothers. The public took him to their hearts.
But even before that trauma, at age 14, Daley had competed in the Beijing Games, the second-youngest British Olympian in history, only to finish last in the event he so spectacularly won yesterday. The following year, he also took the world title at the age of 15 in Rome.
By a twist of fate, watching the events in Beijing was a certain little Matty Lee, then 10. And he made Daley his idol. The couple soon met and a photo of them together still exists. They talked last night about that memory and how they are the best of friends now.
Daley took Lee, now 23, under his wing when he made the journey from Leeds to London to live and train, a present-day Dick Whittington in search of roads paved with gold. And as soon as they knew they had won on Monday, Lee picked Daley off the floor with such enthusiasm that he nearly knocked him over.
“I know he would be very proud. It was always our dream to grow up,” Daley said of the late father
Before and after London 2012, where he took bronze, Daley was a very marketable star as the boy next door. He came out gay the following year and later moved in with Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Now they are married and have a three-year-old boy, Robbie, named after Tom’s father.
Sometimes he was caught up in the whirl of celebrities. As GB’s former performance director Alexei Evangulov once said, “He risks becoming Britain’s Anna Kournikova,” referring to the Russian tennis player who seemed more interested in modeling and fame than serving and volleying. Not that Daley didn’t land a combined 13 World, Commonwealth and European titles over the years.
“My son is my biggest supporter,” Daley said Monday, when he talked about how fatherhood has brought a new balance to his life. “He hugs me whether I dive good or bad. It has helped me change perspective and see what really matters.’
No one knew at the time, but last month Daley underwent surgery for a long-standing knee injury to save his Olympic hopes. He had his meniscus removed and could barely walk. But six weeks later he was on the plane to Tokyo for this and one week on Friday and Saturday he was again gold in the individual event.
“My father never saw me win an Olympic medal,” Daley thought. “I know he would be very proud. It was always our dream to grow up. To have achieved this makes all his sacrifice worth it. I really can’t believe it.’
On Monday evening, Daley played with the match in Paris over three years. He can still. But after Lee put the gold medal around his neck and cried out to God Save the Queen, it felt like a fairytale was reaching its natural end.