How Olympic champion Tom Daley sealed a golden diving legacy at Tokyo 2020

Thirteen years after his Olympic debut, the British diver finally landed the gold medal that was missing from his collection. His journey is now complete.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Diving? Tom Daley completed it at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Ever since the Brit plunged into his Games’ debut at Beijing 2008, he has been tipped to win Olympic gold.

But in a sport where injuries are common and China is all-dominant, that was never going to be a given.

Heading into Tokyo 2020, Daley still hadn't quite managed it. He'd won everything else diving had to offer, including three world titles, five European championships, and several World Cups. But his previous best finish at an Olympic Games was 10m platform bronze at London 2012 and 10m synchro bronze at Rio 2016.

Add to the fact that Daley has had to overcome significant personal trials and tribulations while under the intense glare of a media spotlight almost his whole life, and one can start to understand just how tall his task was.

But on 26 July 2021 in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, 13 years after his Olympic debut, he finally completed that mission after plunging to gold in the 10m synchro alongside Matty Lee.

"To finally have this gold medal ... I’ve been diving for 20 years, it’s my fourth Olympic Games," Daley, who also become the first British diver to win four Olympic medals, said after. "Lots of people would have counted me out, being the older person, but I’m in the best shape physically.

"I still can't honestly believe what is happening. That moment, being about to be announced as Olympic champions, I was gone. I was blubbering."

Tough road to the top for Tom

Daley’s gold medal was one of the most heart-warming moments of Tokyo 2020, due to the long and bumpy road he had journeyed on to that point.

At the age of 14, Daley was selected to represent Great Britain in the 10m platform at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

The Plymouth native became an overnight celebrity at home, but also started getting bullied at school. A move to a sports-focussed college followed, which paid dividends when he landed a shock 10m platform gold at the 2009 World Championships.

The victory intensified the media spotlight on Daley, who was to become the posterboy for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics.

But just days before his 17th birthday, his preparations for those home Games were dealt a devastating blow when his father suddenly died from a brain tumor in May 2011.

In the end, the diver was able to win his first Olympic medal in London - a 10m platform bronze - which was a significant achievement considering the pressure of the occasion and the emotional rollercoaster he had been on a year previously.

Daley's increased media attention

There would be no respite, however, as Daley’s profile was about to explode globally.

In 2013, he released a video announcing that he was in a relationship with a man. Speaking out about his private life put him on the front page of newspapers, inspiring many with his story. In 2015 he announced his engagement.

Despite the enormous distraction that followed the diver at an Olympics once again, Daley was able to win the 10m synchro bronze medal alongside Dan Goodfellow at Rio 2016.

That momentum led to another fantastic performance at the 2017 World Championships, where Daley won the 10m platform gold.

But years of relentless competition had taken their toll on his mind and body. In 2018, Daley decided to take a break from the sport in order to recover from several injuries and many wondered if the British diving golden child would ever return.

During his break, Daley also became a father, and this proved to be the spark that brought him back to the top of sport for Tokyo. Rather than wanting to complete his medal collection, he just wanted to make his son proud.

Building chemistry

However, there was plenty of work to be done.

Daley and Matty Lee had only started diving as a pair in 2018, but a surprise synchro bronze medal at the 2019 worlds gave them reason to believe they could reach an Olympic podium.

They knew that they would have to reach a new level of diving perfection in order to overcome the challenge of multiple Olympic gold medallists Cao Yuan and Chen Aisen. And that’s exactly what they did. The duo showed nerves of steel to execute a mesmerising final 101.01 dive to edge the gold medal by 1.23.

Winning an Olympic gold in diving, just two-and-a-half years after forming a new team, is an outstanding achievement that cannot be understated.

Tom Daley and Matty Lee
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Tom Daley’s ‘secret weapon’

Daley was a hit away from the pool in Tokyo too, with cameras regularly picking him out in the bleachers fully focussed on his latest knitting creation.

It isn't just a hobby though, as he revealed that it played an important role in his mental health.

“There are loads of things I’m doing to keep myself going, like yoga and visualisation, but I’ve also taken up knitting, which could be my secret weapon,” he told BBC Sport before the Games.

“It’s part of my mindfulness routine, a way of escaping from everything for a while, and I’ve made all kinds of things like scarves and little hats for my son.”

He also took up meditation in 2019 which, in addition to finding true happiness in his private life, meant he was able to enjoy competing more than ever.

Daley carried that calm demeanour into this 10m platform final, where he was smiling and waving between dives en route to the bronze medal.

Leaving a legacy

It seems strange to think that at just 27-years-old, Daley was a veteran and a mentor in the British diving team in Tokyo.

With only three years to go until the Paris 2024 Olympics, Team GB would love to call upon his experience once more.

But whether or not Daley decides to extend his career, his diving CV is complete.

He leaves Tokyo with an enhanced legacy, an elusive gold medal hung around his shoulders, and a metaphorical weight off them.