Tom Daley on bullying, losing his dad, coming out and Olympic glory

Tom and diving partner Matty Lee with their gold medals, after winning the synchronised 10m platform (Image: China News Service/Getty)

It was at the moment when the strains of the national anthem rang out and the Union flag rose highest that Tom Daley could no longer hold back the tears. And let’s be honest, there were plenty of us shedding a tear with him.

The journey to Olympic gold has taken Tom half a lifetime and it’s a life the country has cared deeply about since that grinning 14-year-old dived into our consciousness before the Beijing Olympics. 

It was not just the angelic smile that won the nation’s hearts back in 2008, but the fact this small boy was so gracefully and athletically plunging from a 10-metre high diving platform that would give lemmings second thoughts and the rest of us the heebie-jeebies.

Tom shed a tear

Tom shed a tear on the podium in Tokyo (Image: Oli Scarff/Getty)

The infectious smile for his fans has never wavered, in spite of severe hardships in his life that have all played out in the public glare, and the boy had become an inspirational man even before winning the gold medal to which he had always aspired.

By the age of 14, Tom had already been diving, and achieving remarkable successes, for seven years. He had won a judo cup when he was nine but was, he said, hopeless at football, so when he saw older boys leaping from the high boards at the swimming pool, he decided that was the sport for him.

Even so, that first climb to the 10m platform was as scary as we all might imagine.

“It was terrifying going up there because it was so high. I had butterflies crawling to the edge,” he told me back in 2008 before he became Britain’s youngest Olympian in nearly 50 years. 

But he added: “Once you have done it once you want to do it again and again.” And he did, but not without difficulty.

His then coach Andy Banks revealed: “He has natural talent but he is a perfectionist. That is what makes him potentially one of the greats.”

He went on: “As a youngster he was quite emotional. He got upset a lot and we have had to deal with that.”

His solution was the “Peter Pan” treatment: Get Tom to think “happy thoughts” and then he would be flying again. But there were still those who wanted to pull him down.

Tom before the Beijing Olympics in 2008

Tom was just 14 when he competed in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 (Image: Martin Rickett/PA)

While Tom’s eighth place in the men’s synchronised 10m platform competition with partner Blake Aldridge in Beijing, and creditable seventh in the individual 10m, won the hearts of the nation, his stardom and earlier BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award had already earned him the attention of bullies at college in Plymouth, as he had bravely revealed when he became a celebrity supporter of Childline, aged 13.

The bullying only increased with his fame, but he always had the support of his loving family, his two younger brothers William and Ben, mum Debbie, and his proud dad Rob, an ever-present in the crowds, waving an oversized Union flag, at any event around the world where Tom was competing.

Rob’s pride memorably overflowed when 15-year-old Tom won the World Championship for the first time in 2009 and, blubbing, he interrupted a press conference to announce himself as the father of the new World Champion and to ask his son: “Tom, can you give me a cuddle?”

When Rob felt Tom’s school had not satisfactorily addressed the bullying, he moved his son to independent Plymouth College where he thrived academically. 

Tom would go on to win his third BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award in 2010 and the same year launch a hugely popular YouTube channel with vlogs on exercise and diet. 

But a devastating blow struck Tom and his family when dad Rob was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died in 2011, aged 40, just a few days after Tom’s 17th birthday.

Suddenly Tom, the poster boy for the London Olympics in 2012, had to train and compete, and finish his A-levels, without his dad beside him every step of the way.

Tom Daley with his parents

Tom was close to his dad Rob, who died in 2011 after battling a brain tumour, and still struggles that his father never got to see his son win an Olympic medal (Image: David Davies/PA)

He not only earned an A* for his photography A-level and A for maths and Spanish but went on, in spite of the weight of the nation’s hopes bearing down on him, and abusive social media messages, to win a bronze medal in the men’s individual 10m event.

Tom recalled last year: “All I wanted to do was get back on the diving board ‑ not stop. I didn’t take any time away from the pool.”

He admitted that he did not allow himself any time to grieve.

“I left my dad’s wake early, to compete at the national championships,” he said, and it took him a long time to recognise his delayed grieving for what it was.

He said: “I was so focused on the London Games in 2012. Then it happened and I had a bronze medal around my neck and I looked into the audience ‑ Mum was there, my brothers, no Dad. I couldn’t see the big flag he always brought.This was the moment we’d been working towards ‑ and it hit me right then.”

Tom admitted that he fell into depression after the London Olympics and wanted to quit diving altogether, but could not bring himself to tell people how he felt for fear of seeming ungrateful for his success and all the support he had received. He said: “It was 2012! 2012! 2012! And then it was over, and everything after it looked unknown to me.”

Tom Daley with his Bronze medal from London 2012

Tom was the poster boy for the London Olympics in 2012 (Image: AFP/Getty)

Being invited to be an expert adviser on the ITV celebrity diving show Splash! continued to raise his profile though not his spirits, but on a visit to America in 2013 he was invited to join a friend at a party in a Los Angeles restaurant and first saw Dustin Lance Black, a California screenwriter and gay rights activist, 20 years his senior, who had won an Oscar for Milk, his 2008 biopic about campaigner Harvey Milk.

Tom recalled: “I walked in and clocked him. Locked eyes. It was weird.”

He announced later that year in aYouTube video that he was in a relationship with a man and said: “I’ve never been happier.” 

He admitted it had been a difficult decision to speak out about his private life but said: “I’d never felt the feeling of love, it happened so quickly, I was completely overwhelmed by it, to the point I can’t get him out of my head all the time.”

According to Tom, the pair flirted heavily, exchanged numbers and, after he returned to London, spoke, FaceTimed or texted every day. 

Within a week of Dustin later coming to London for Tom’s birthday, they had discussed wedding plans and even come up with the name ‑ Robbie ‑ for their future child if he was a boy, he explained last year.

Tom said: “I remember telling my best friend and she said, ‘Tom. You’ve spent seven days with him. He could be a serial killer.’ But I just knew.We both did.”

As Tom’s media career continued with a second series of Splash! and a six-part travel series for ITV2, Tom Daley Goes Global, in 2014, and he announced his engagement to Dustin in 2015, it was easy to forget he was still competing and winning international diving events.

But there was more disappointment for Tom at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro when, in spite of winning another bronze medal in the men’s synchronised 10m platform, this time with partner Dan Goodfellow, and setting a world record score for a single dive in the early stages of the individual competition, he underperformed in the semi-finals and failed to qualify for the final.

Tom and Dustin

Tom and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black married in 2017 and now have a son, Robbie, together (Image: Doug Peters/PA)

He was comforted by Dustin who moved to London in 2016. The couple were married at Bovey Castle, Devon, in May 2017 before announcing in February 2018 that they were expecting their first child by a surrogate mother in America. 

Robert “Robbie” Ray Black-Daley was born on June 27, 2018, completing Tom’s transformation from child star to doting father with increasing confidence to stand up for the things that matter to him. 

He said last year he had often been criticised for continuing to compete in countries where gay people are still persecuted, but he said he saw sport as a perfect platform to promote gay rights, and there was a special significance at his triumphant press conference when he was able to sit between divers from China and Russia, where there are very few rights for homosexuals, and say: “I feel incredibly proud to say I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion.”

He added: “I came out in 2013 and when I was younger I always felt like the one that was alone and different and didn’t fit. There was something about me that was never going to be as good as what society wanted me to be.

“I hope that any young LGBT person out there can see that no matter how alone you feel right now, you are not alone. You can achieve anything.”

Tom and Matty diving at Tokyo

Tom and diving partner Matty Lee during their gold medal performance at the Tokyo Olympics (Image: Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty)

As the national anthem confirmed his triumph yesterday, the only sadness for Tom would have been that not only could he not see his father in the crowd but nor could he see his mother, or his husband and child. There was no dad to embarrass him this time at a victorious press conference.

But he told journalists: “When he passed away in 2011 it was extremely difficult for me because he never saw me win an Olympic medal, get married, have a child. He never got to teach me to drive, have a pint down the pub.

“None of that was ever a thing, so to finally become an Olympic champion, especially after Rio 2016 where I was extremely disappointed with my individual performance. After that, my husband said to me that my story doesn’t end here and that our child was meant to watch me become an Olympic champion.”

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