Tom Daley “never thought he’d feel emotion” the way he did when, at last, he won Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.
Britain’s Daley has been a household name since he first stepped on an Olympic diving board, aged 14. The public watched as he won major titles, shared his grief when he lost his father to cancer, and his joy when he married and later became a father.
For many, it was the moment of the Tokyo Games when the 27-year-old finally became an Olympic champion, at his fourth Games, alongside Matty Lee in the synchronised 10m platform event.
In an exclusive interview with BBC Breakfast’s Sally Nugent, Daley talks about getting that gold medal, his late father, how his son has changed his perspective, and his favourite hobby – knitting.
Daley on… winning Olympic gold
“Winning an Olympic gold medal has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid, and to have that medal put round my neck by Matty was just a total dream come true.
“I never thought I’d feel emotion the way that I felt it. I always dreamed about singing the national anthem at the top of my lungs and I literally couldn’t even speak.
“Although it was me and Matty up on the podium, there are a lot of people behind that medal, and just everything came to that moment of pure elation at having done it after 20 years of training.
“I was trying to sing the national anthem. I just couldn’t. I was a mess.
“There were just all the emotions that you feel, from the high of finally finding out that we had won the Olympic medal. But then it really sinks in when you’ve got the medal round your neck and you see the flag being raised.
“You know when you see the movie of all the things, a flashback in your head of all the things that were really hard and challenging and difficult and then all the good times, the bad times, the people that helped you get there… it all kind of just came flooding back.
“I’m not a crier usually but I was so overwhelmed with all kinds of emotions. I actually found myself during the whole Olympics being quite emotional.”
Daley on… winning Olympic gold as a gay man
Daley came out as gay in 2013 and married Oscar-winning screenwriter and producer Dustin Lance Black in May 2017.
“I feel incredibly lucky to be from Great Britain and being able to stand on that diving board and not feel afraid of any ramifications, or even fear for my life. But there are still those countries where being gay is punishable by death.
“I feel extremely lucky to be able to dive and not have those ramifications, but I also feel like when I was younger, there weren’t many out athletes that were still competing.
“Lots of people would come out after they had retired, so I just hope that winning an Olympic gold medal, winning any Olympic medal, going to the Olympics as a gay person, a member of the LGBT community, that any young kids out there that feel like they are less than… who feel like they are on the outside and feel different, or feel like they’re never going to achieve anything just because of who they are… they know that with hard work, you can achieve anything.
“No matter who you are, where you come from, you can you can be the best in the world.
“There were more [out] LGBT athletes in this past Olympics than in all of the Olympics combined previously. So even just knowing that, people will feel less alone.”
Daley on… his dad
Rob Daley died of a brain tumour in 2011 when his son was 17.
“He never, ever got to see me win any of my Olympic medals. He got to see me compete in Beijing, but he wasn’t around for London 2012, Rio or Tokyo. I think he would be extremely proud to think that I have not only got four Olympic medals, but one of them is a gold.
“Often lots of people get quite sad when they think about the parents they’ve lost, but for me, it just makes me so happy and proud to have done what we had always dreamed of doing.
“I know he would have done something crazy [after the gold in Tokyo], he would have fallen down off the balcony, he would probably have jumped in the pool. He would have been the streaker of the Olympics; I just know he would have done something silly.
“It just makes me extremely proud to think that all the hard work and sacrifice that he put into my diving career is, I’d say, worth it.
“At the time, travelling around with my dad, I used to find it so embarrassing. He used to do such silly things, like bursting in on press conferences, doing all these things. I thought it was extremely embarrassing.
“But now being a parent and being slightly older, I realise he just didn’t care what other people thought – if he wanted to go and see his son and give him a hug after winning the World Championship, he was going to do that. And he didn’t care what anyone else thought about it.
“I think those kind of lessons that he has taught me about being a parent. I now understand. And I have a whole new level of appreciation for my parents.”
Daley on… his son
Daley and Black welcomed son Robbie in 2018.
“I think Robbie changed my whole perspective and outlook on so many parts of my life.
“In 2018, at the Commonwealth Games, I thought I was down and out in my diving career. I had stress responses in both of my shins, I had a lateral hip tear, I had disc problems in my back and I just thought I wasn’t going to be able to get back to even being able to go to these Games.
“And then finally the whole thing shifted when Robbie was born. It all fell into place.
“Robbie is the most important thing in my life and when you have that kind of perspective, when you go to training, you can enjoy it for what it is. You know you’re going to go home and being a parent is number one. It shifted the way I thought about it.
“And going into these Olympic Games I knew even if I did really well or really terribly, I knew I was going to go home and be loved regardless. And when you have that type of unconditional love, it took so much pressure off me.”
Daley on… surgery pre-Olympics
“My knee started clicking really badly and clunking but there was no pain, and I thought ‘well this is really weird’ and that had been for about a year.
“I was actually doing a meditation and when I stood up, my knee kind of clicked – that felt different. I tried to carry on training. I woke up the next day and I couldn’t walk. My knee was locked into position.
“Essentially the meniscus, the cartilage in my knee, had torn away, flipped up and got stuck in the joint so my knee was locked.
“So when I saw my doctor, he said: ‘Maybe you might need an injection to loosen it up. Worst case scenario is that you need an operation.’
“I went in for an MRI scan, and they said: ‘Sorry, we’re going to need to operate.’ And they said it was a four to six-week recovery. This was only eight weeks before my synchro competition with Matty.
“I didn’t have a choice. I had to get my knee fixed, because if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to be able to dive at all.
“I felt strangely at peace with it, because I knew what I had to do to be at my best at those Olympic Games, doing whatever visualisation, rehab and supplements to be able to get on the diving board and be there and ready. I was prepared to do it.
“I felt everything was happening for a reason. If anything, I see it as a blessing that I was able to feel rested and I hadn’t just been training, training, training.
“Sometimes you can arrive at the Olympic Games and you can feel exhausted, whereas I know if I can arrive at the board feeling good and having the energy to dive well, I’ll dive well.”
Daley on… knitting
“My knitting has become a lot of my mindfulness, I actually only started because I’m terrible at sitting still. My coach is always like: ‘You need to rest.’ But if there is a cupboard that needs sorting out, I’m going to sort out the cupboard.
“It was actually Lance who said that on set, people will knit squares just to pass the time and I was like: OK, I’ll try that. So I started trying it, and fell in love with it and here we are.
“When I say I’m obsessed with knitting, I was knitting on the way, on the bus to the pool, on the bus home from the pool, in the stands, whenever I had a spare moment.
“While the other boys in our apartment were playing video games, I would just sit and knit. I’d wake up and if I had time to sit and knit, I would just continually knit.
“In the Olympic village, you can find yourself over-thinking so many things. This is like my form of escapism to get away, pass the time and not have to think about diving.”