Tom Daley is nothing if not resilient. The 18-year-old British diver has had to put up with being bullied in school, an understandable loss of confidence, injuries and, most tragic of all, losing his father Rob to brain cancer last year.
You wouldn’t have blamed the youngster for putting his career on hold to deal with the tumultuous events. Instead, to cite that quintessentially British phrase, he kept calm and carried on, which is why he and partner Pete Waterfield hoped to win Great Britain‘s first ever gold medal in diving on Monday, July 30, in the men’s synchronized 10-m-platform final. Alas, it was not to happen, with their fourth-place finish surely the most agonizing place to be, as they had to gaze up admiringly at the dominant Chinese twosome of Yanguan Zhang and Yuan Cao, followed by divers from Mexico and the United States.
It’s been a long and strange journey for Daley, whose initial performances in the aftermath of his dad’s death were not exactly encouraging. His results at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai were well below expectations: fifth place in the individual platform event and sixth with Waterfield in the synchronized. Worse with Waterfield was to come, as the pair sank to even lower depths at the World Cup in February this year (seventh out of eight), which happened to double as the Olympic test event.
And as the world knows all too well, when it rains in England, it pours. Daley’s Russian performance director, Alexei Evangulov, called him out in public for doing too many media and sponsorship spots rather than training to the same degree as his Chinese rivals. Perhaps Evangulov knew how to tweak Daley’s buttons, because there has been a resurgence in the immediate buildup to the London Games. Daley and Waterfield entered Monday’s competition as the overall synchronized champions in the 2012 Diving World Series, and Daley has the extra distinction of being the individual World Series champion and the gold medalist at the European Championships in May.
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At the heart of whether Daley would be truly competitive at his home Olympics was the following issue: could he nail four new dives that had the requisite degrees of difficulty to make him a medal winner? The toughest dive was surely the front 4½ somersaults tucked, which the Chinese can make look like child’s play at times. As for China’s divers, they started as favorites, in no small part because Yanguan Zhang and Yuan Cao had their way with Daley and Waterfield during the Beijing leg of the World Series in April, winning by more than 40 points.
And yet there were reasons to be cheerful for the Brits: the Daley-Waterfield partnership has improved by leaps and bounds because of intense training. And unlike their opponents, Daley and Waterfield have been to the rodeo before: Daley competed in Beijing, while London marks Waterfield’s fourth Olympics, with silver on his résumé after he took second in the synchro with former partner Leon Taylor in Athens in 2004. Could he and Daley possibly go one better in front of their home fans?
An almost packed aquatics center is shown a montage of stirring British Olympic images to set the mood, and the home crowd certainly responds. When Daley and Waterfield eventually emerge, the diving venue, it’s safe to say, has never sounded so loud. The pair look confident but not overly so. They are the penultimate pair to take to the diving board in each of the six rounds, competing against Russia, China, Germany, the U.S., Mexico, Cuba and Ukraine. The judges score on execution and synchronization but also pay close attention to the degree of difficulty of each dive. If only they awarded points for the Daley-Wakefield predive routine of drying their faces and heads with a towel: they perform it as if appearing in a musical in which perfect 10s are all but assured.
And assured is how the Brits begin. The 56.4 they score for an inward dive ties them with the Chinese. The same score for Round 2’s reverse dive with pike (the last of the compulsory dives) puts them 0.6 ahead of the Chinese. By the halfway mark, they deftly negotiate a reverse 3 1/2 somersault with a 3.3 degree of difficulty as an onlooking David Cameron claps his hearty approval. “Absolutely bloody sensational!” is the verdict of the (ever so slightly) biased journalist next to me. But with another 91.08 points in the bag and an ever increasing lead over China, who can blame him and the home fans for going wild?
But tougher tests lie ahead. The Chinese immediately respond, nailing their reverse 3 1/2 somersault in Round 4. Their 93.06 includes the first 10 of the day, and perhaps something snaps within the Brits. Daley’s and Waterfield’s notorious reverse 4 1/2 somersaults with tuck contains a disasterous entry. The pair plummet down the standings. In the unforgiving world of diving, one false step can kill your hopes for good, and China isn’t going to just open the door. Worse is to come, as the Brits fail to make up ground on Mexico (Ivan Garcia Navarro and German Sanchez Sanchez) and the U.S. (David Boudia and Nick McCrory), which hold on for the silver and bronze, respectively.
Daley does his best to put a positive spin on the proceedings, noting, “It started really well, and we got personal bests on the first two dives, and the third dive was really good, but the fourth was not good enough. You miss one dive and you are gone.” Waterfield also tried to appear upbeat. “It was not our day. It was not meant to be, but the crowd were amazing. It would have been lovely to stand on the rostrum in front of them.” It may not mean much to them, but London Mayor Boris Johnson, who was watching poolside, tells TIME, “I thought they did brilliantly, like twin depth charges. Couldn’t understand why they didn’t win.”
But as the wait for a gold continues for the host nation, that lack of understanding may run out if Team GB fails to deliver. (“This is fast becoming the Games that got away,” says one disgruntled photographer.) And for Daley in particular, bearing in mind that Waterfield already has his Olympic medal, there is no moment of zen. He has one more chance — in the solo 10-m-platform competition on Aug. 10.