9.6 seconds… that's all Tom Daley's dream comes down to
As Tom Daley parked his black Mini
after a dash across Plymouth through late afternoon traffic last week,
it was hard to resist acknowledging the far greater journey he has
The boy who went to the Beijing Games
in 2008 with a rucksack strapped to his back as though he was just off
on an Outward Bound adventure will be a man when he returns to the
Olympic arena in London this summer.
Since Beijing he has grown more than
five inches in height to 5ft 9in, and now weighs a muscular 11st 4lb,
at least 25lb heavier than he had been when he became the second
youngest athlete in history to represent Team GB at an Olympic Games.
Thriving on pressure: Tom Daley is Britain's best hope for gold
In Beijing, he was entitled to wear the wide-eyed innocence of a schoolboy living out a fantasy; in London, Daley must bear the burden on his now-broad shoulders of being expected to challenge for an Olympic gold medal.
His role, though, runs deeper than simply nurturing his own aspirations.
Daley's value to those publicising London 2012 was evident again last Monday, when he was photographed on the 10metre diving board at the Olympic aquatic centre with Mayor Boris Johnson as Prime Minister David Cameron looked on from below.
All grown up: Daley with his rucksack in 2008
'Boris was pretty terrified, and wanted to make sure he was holding on to the rail,' chuckled Daley.
'But, to be fair, that's the reaction almost everyone has. I asked Mr Cameron to come up and have a look, but he didn't!'
Daley's ease in such company is symbolic of his maturity and the responsibilities that he has instinctively accepted.
While he may be still four months away from his 18th birthday, Daley has been exposed to adult competition from a tender age and, sadly, he has had to learn to live without the omnipresent comfort and support of his father, Rob, who lost his fight against cancer almost 10 months ago.
'This year has to be better than last year,' said Daley, a wish he shares with his mother, Debbie, and younger brothers, William and Ben.
When he passed his driving test, Daley relieved his mother of having to operate the taxi-service his father had provided, twice a day, six days a week, as he ferried his son from the family's neat, semi-detached home to his training centre at the diving pool next door to Plymouth Argyle Football Club.
On average, Daley trains for six hours a day; in the pool, the gym, or in the converted squash court where he practises an ever more-complex routine of dives in a harness suspended over a foam mat.
Beijing baby: Daley has come on a bit since 2008
Yet the reality is that only Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who has lowered the 100m world record to 9.58sec, is liable to spend less time in pursuit of an Olympic gold medal than Daley.
'Each of my dives lasts 1.6 seconds,' said Daley. 'I will have six dives in the Olympic final, so the scary part is that after all these years of training, the Olympic Games will come down to 9.6sec of my life.'
It is a cold, stark fact.
'I thrive on the pressure and adrenaline rush,' admitted Daley. 'I still remember how I felt when I went to the top of the board for the first time in Beijing. I looked down and saw the Olympic rings on the bottom of the pool. At that moment, the adrenaline was pumping, it's a feeling I won't ever forget.'
One year later, Daley became the youngest-ever world champion.
Unforgettable feeling: Daley wants to feel the same adrenaline rush
But since then, he has been consumed by enhancing his programme with more difficult dives that are now within his range due to his increased strength.
The harder a dive, the greater tariff it is awarded, so Daley is now able to compete for higher scores from the judges like all his rivals.
'Any one of eight of us could be Olympic champion,' he argued.
'It really does come down to who dives best, or doesn't freeze, on that one night in August.
'I haven't set any outcome goals. All I can do is focus on the process of each dive. I have to try to jump as high as I can, spin as fast as I can, come out of the dive as tight as possible, and try to enter the water with the least splash as I can. I can't think of anything else. I certainly can't change what anyone else does.
Home ground: Daley performs a dive into the new aquatic centre dive pool
'But I know I'm not going to be given a medal in London, I'll have to earn it. If it doesn't go to plan, it's for me to be upset, no one else. If I go out and dive a personal best, but come fourth, it's still an achievement. Qui Bo, from China, is the world No 1 and hot favourite. He's been doing these style of dives for a long time, and he's like a machine.
'Chinese divers have a history of winning Olympic medals, as the sport is as big in China as football is in England. When I last saw Bo, at the world championships last year, he looked good. But we have to see what he will be bringing to the Olympics.
'He's really small, and I've heard he's done a new dive, a front fourand- half-somersault with a half pike. That could be a hit or miss dive. If he nails it, he'll be hard to beat. But if he gets it wrong, well… I don't think he needs to be taking that risk, but no one will know what he intends until this summer. He likes to lead in a competition, but, it's been shown in the past that if someone can get near him, or any of the Chinese, they can panic a little bit.'
In Beijing, Matt Mitcham did just that to win the gold medal; and only 18 months earlier he had been so disillusioned with life inside the Australian Olympic squad that he quit. Almost penniless, he spent a period diving in a circus in a clown's suit.
Golden boy: Daley dives into the new aquatic centre pool
'Matt definitely showed us all in Beijing that the Chinese aren't invincible,' said Daley.
Last month, Daley, in the company of six other divers, spent three weeks at a warm-weather training camp in Australia organised by Alexei Evengulov, the performance director of the British diving team.
'Alexei wanted us to get some sun to boost our immune systems against colds and flu of the British winter,' said Daley.
'He likes training camps to create a good team environment, and to make sure we are resting and eating properly. I find the camps make me more competitive in training, too.'
Focused: Daley is a study of poise and
precision as he performs another perfect dive
Over the next eight days, Daley will sit four exams in maths and Spanish, at A2 and AS level, at Plymouth Academy.
After that, he will spend just 12 more days in the classroom until he returns for the new school year next September.
While he has been balancing training with his education, which he views as a welcome distraction, the Chinese squad have been full-time athletes since the last Olympics ended.
'I have always liked to study, but now I know I need to focus on the Games,' Daley said.
He will compete at the national championships at the end of this month, then restrict himself to competing solely in the 10m synchronised event with his partner, Olympic silver medallist, Pete Waterfield, at the World Cup in the Olympic pool at the end of February.
The two are expected to perform at the Games in greater harmony than Daley and his first partner, Blake Aldridge, who embarrassed himself, and the British team, by making a phone call to his mother from the warm-down area before the final round had been completed at the Beijing Olympics.
'Pete and I have a chance of a medal,' said Daley.
He will be competing in Dubai, Beijing, Russia, Mexico, and Holland before the Olympics, with further training camps scheduled in Plymouth, Majorca and Southend.
'As soon as New Year's Day dawned, London 2012 became real in my mind,' said Daley.
'I'm excited and it's going to be an enormous advantage to have almost everyone supporting us.'
Before then, he has supporting to do himself. His mum, Debbie, is in training for the London Marathon, having never shown the remotest interest in actively being engaged in sport until Rob died.
'Mum is running to raise money for the Samantha Dickson Brain Tumour Trust, and she's lost 2 stones,' he said.
'She's determined to complete the course – Dad would be very proud of her.'
Tom Daley's own motivation has been ingrained in him since childhood, of course; but he will take with him to London this summer cherished memories of the precious times he spent with his father, who always had the largest Union flag and biggest smile in the house.
Mini marvel: Daley is a man about town
LITTLE TOM'S GROWN UP
AT the wheel of his Mini, Tom Daley is now quite the man about town. And he will cut a different figure at London 2012 than when he made his debut on the Olympic stage in Beijing.
In the Olympic Village where giants of sport roamed like Usain Bolt, Chris Hoy and Rafael Nadal, 14-year-old Daley wandered around, almost dwarfed by his rucksack.
Even then, there was a hard edge to Daley the competitor, who was nerveless in the Olympic final. Since Daley's father Rob lost his battle with cancer last year,
Tom has greater responsibilities as he nears his 18th birthday in May.
'Now I can drive, my mum doesn't have to take me, or collect me, from training twice a day,' he said.
'Sometimes, I pick up my brothers William and Ben from school. Or I can pop out for bread or milk. It's a help to Mum.'