Jack Laugher: How Tokyo 2020 gave the GB diver his mojo back

The Rio 2016 gold medallist almost threw in the towel after mental health struggles left him spiralling downwards. Ahead of the FINA 2022 World Championships in Budapest, he spoke to Olympics.com about how Tokyo 2020 reignited a fire within him, and how the experiences of Simone Biles helped him return to his brilliant best. 

By Sean McAlister
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

When Simone Biles spoke out about suffering with the twisties at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021, Team GB diving star Jack Laugher knew exactly what she was going through.

“Her situation was very similar to mine,” the 27-year-old said in an exclusive interview with Olympics.com. “Hers was more with twisting and mine was more with somersaulting.”

Like Biles, Laugher had experienced this sensation in the midst of a major championship, the 2019 FINA Worlds that took place in Gwangju, Republic of Korea.

With just one dive to go, Laugher was in the gold medal position and on course for a world record when disaster struck.

“I just did not know what was going on when I was spinning around. I couldn’t feel where I was and I was unaware, I felt lost in the air.

“When there’s nothing to hold on to, nothing to ground you, it’s very scary and it can cause a huge amount of panic - it almost takes your breath away.”

And that was it.

After a sixth-round score of 30.60, Laugher slipped from gold to bronze position and his dream of becoming a world champion at the event was over.

Like a penalty shootout when you’re the only player on the team

Standing on top of a diving board knowing that only perfection is good enough can be a lonely place. The pressure can be unimaginable.

At those World Championships, Laugher felt all of those emotions, mixed with a desire to win that left him floundering just when it mattered most.

“I think I just wanted it a bit too much and my focus went,” the Briton reflected.

“Probably the only real comparison would be taking a penalty in football. You get one shot and if it goes wrong, that’s it and it's over.

“But with diving you have to take six penalties in a row. One of the things I worked on with my coach was that if one of them doesn’t go right, you put it in a box, move it to the side and just keep going through.

“The unfortunate thing about that competition is that it was the last one, so it’s really hard to continue on because that’s finished now.”

What followed was, in his own words, a “downward spiral” that left him on the edge of leaving the sport.

Laugher: Close to giving up

“My mental health wasn’t in a good place," remembered Laugher. "I had a huge amount of anxiety around diving and everything that was going wrong with my training was just causing huge problems in and out of the pool.

“And to be honest, I’d just had enough, I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. As soon as that spark was gone it was just really difficult to get myself back up.”

But with the support of his coach, friends, family, and girlfriend Lois - a fellow diver "who’s had similar problems in the past" - Laugher soldiered on, trying to regain the confidence required to perform at the highest level.

Even heading into Tokyo 2020, Laugher was on unsteady ground. The European Championships represented another “failure” for him and he had no idea how he would perform at the Olympic Games.

But Tokyo 2020 brought him back to his mental and physical best.

Getting his mojo back at Tokyo 2020

Sometimes the secrets to getting back on track come from unexpected places. For Laugher, his revelation was that he was being too tough on himself.

“I am an athlete and just like any athlete you are your own biggest critic. And sometimes, for a lot of people, trying to beat your own voice in your head is half the battle.

“Just being a bit easier on myself and not being as focused on being perfect, I think that’s really important.”

During the Tokyo Games, something else happened that had a deep impact on the Great Britain hope.

Simone Biles’s open admission that she had been suffering with mental health issues made Laugher realise that someone else - someone great - was going through the same things that had sent his career into a tailspin.

“For a lot of people, when they hear celebrities talk about mental health, it almost validates how you feel within yourself, knowing that someone else is going through something similar,” he explained.

“She might have helped hundreds and thousands of people with their mental health, but she helped me personally.

“I’ve never met her, but she helped me realise that if someone that great can be going through something similar to what I’m feeling, then I’m not alone.”

READ MORE: Simone Biles opens up about the twisties

In the end, despite his fears, Laugher’s Tokyo 2020 experience went beyond his expectations as his confidence returned and he won bronze in the 3m springboard, completing his collection of an Olympic medal of every colour after silver in the 3m springboard at Rio 2016 and gold in the synchronised springboard at the same Games in Brazil.

“It went really well. I felt really confident at the Olympic Games and felt like I’d got my mojo back again…

“I think it just reignited my fire again, and since then the fire’s been burning bright, it’s been really, really good and I’ve been enjoying training.”

A brighter future

Eleven months after those Games in Tokyo, Laugher is in a much brighter place than before.

He has a new diving partner, Anthony Harding, and a new lease of life in training and competition.

At the British Championships in May 2022, the three-time Olympic medallist won double gold in the 1m springboard and 3m synchro events.

Life is good - even if Laugher is aware that there are times when he still has to face up to the challenges of the past.

“I’m still struggling," he said candidly. "There are little bits here and there I need to work on of course, there’s no overnight cure. But it was a massive step forward for me to get back to where I was before.”

Now, with the FINA 2022 World Championships in full swing, Laugher will return to the same stage he suffered so much on before, but this time with experience, self-knowledge and a whole support network on his side.

He has even taken on the role of father figure within the GB team, helping others to achieve their own dreams by learning from the triumphs - and nightmares - he has been through.

“This will be my sixth world championships I’m coming to and fourth Commonwealth Games," he said.

"I feel like I can add a little insight into my journey, I can hopefully try to help people with what they’re going through and put a little of what I’ve learnt into their lives and hopefully sculpt them into better athletes.

“I want my legacy to be like the legacy of the people I looked up to when I was growing up. So when young kids are coming through in diving they would say, ‘I want to be like Jack Laugher.’"

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