Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Britain’s Hope for the Future, and He’s Just 14

....Tom Daley, who turned 14 in May, at a news conference last week in Beijing.

BEIJING — The Olympic fortunes of Britain sank into the pits at Atlanta in 1996, with the nation winning one gold medal, in the men’s coxless pair rowing event, and sending the folks back home into a crisis of athletic self-doubt. In the last two Olympiads, Britain has rebounded a little, thanks in part to a system of lottery-financed support for athletes, and it picked up more ground Monday morning with gold and bronze medals in the women’s 400-meter freestyle swimming.
The men’s synchronized 10-meter platform diving team of Blake Aldridge and Tom Daley was thought to have a chance at winning medals later in the day but finished last among eight teams when Daley, the youngest member of the British Olympic team and the darling of the British news media, for once performed like an athlete his age.

Britons still placed a lot of hope on the not-very-broad shoulders of Daley, who will dive again in the individual platform competition starting Aug. 22.

Daley turned 14 (the minimum age for international diving) in May and was thought to be Britain’s youngest male Olympian ever until recently when Ron Lester, who coxed the pairs boat in 1960, pointed out that he was 13 then. But Lester could hardly have been much smaller than Daley, who is 5 feet 1 inch and weighs 104 pounds. Daley is smaller than more than half the women competing in his events.

Platform diving is not for the faint of heart; it is practically a contact sport. Standing 33 feet above the water, divers sometimes get the yips, and no wonder. Plummeting at 40 miles per hour, they can sprain fingers and toes if they hit the water the wrong way, and even tear their retinas.

For a long time, in fact, most Western countries thought it was too dangerous to allow divers as young as Daley to go off the 10-meter platform. What changed their mind was the example of the Chinese and the success of divers like the 16-year-old sparrow-weight phenoms Chen Ruolin and Wang Xin, who are favored to win the women’s 10-meter event.

Smaller can actually be safer, it turns out, and divers with less body mass can control themselves in the air better. Steve Foley, the director of diving performance for the British team, said in March: “We were going wrong for a while because of our consciousness of child-protection issues. It could be that Thomas goes to London to aim for platform gold and then moves down to the springboard in 2016. It’s the opposite of the way we’ve done it traditionally, but the way the Chinese have proved to be better.”

Daley, who is from Plymouth, took up diving at 8 because he happened to be at his local pool and it looked like fun. “I thought I’d give it a go,” he said.

When he was 10, he won the British national championship for divers 18 and younger, and that was when he convinced even the skeptics. He had natural acrobatic ability, and big hands for his size, which enabled him to carve a space in the water for his body to slip through. And he was fearless, racing back up the ladder even after a failed dive had left his body covered in welts.

In March, when he was still 13, Daley won the European championship, earning three perfect 10s on his fourth dive and five on the fifth.

Daley still takes a lucky stuffed monkey with him to competitions. He only recently shed his braces, and his voice is still changing, probably a register or two from where it will eventually settle. He is more muscular than an average 14-year-old, though he could hardly be called ripped. In practice sessions next to the other divers, some of whom have shaved heads and tattoos, he looks like a child who has sneaked into the adult swim session.

Outside the pool, Daley is followed everywhere by the British news media. He is bright-eyed and personable, boyish and grown up, and either puts on a good act or has not yet wearied or grown wary of the news media.

“Amazing, amazing!” he said last week as journalists kept asking him about his Olympic experience. “It’s absolutely amazing — a phenomenal experience. In China, diving is a big sport, so people actually recognize me in the street. It’s kind of weird to be getting that sort of attention.”

As if his own story were not compelling enough, there is also that of his father, who travels everywhere with his son and who two years ago was operated on for brain cancer.

His teammates, far from resenting the focus on Daley, appear to welcome it.

“Tom has taken a lot of the media attention, which means the pressure is off the rest of us,” said his teammate Ben Swain, a 22-year-old springboard diver.

In the Olympic Village, Daley roomed with Aldridge, his partner in the synchronized event, who is 12 years older, a head taller and 40 pounds heavier. The size difference did not matter much.

....British divers Tom Daley, front, and Blake Aldridge during the men's 10-meter platform synchronized diving final on Monday