After a life lived in the public spotlight of love and loss, Tom Daley now also has a gold medal to his name. As confirmation came through of a first-placed finish alongside Matty Lee in the 10 metre synchronised dive, Daley jumped into Lee's arms and you could hear him saying "Oh my God!" over and over again. The United Kingdom's state broadcaster BBC delayed its 8am news bulletin, Daley and Lee had just created the story of the day, and history in the process.
Daley, 27, stayed calm throughout in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. They led from the fourth round over the Chinese pair Cao Yuan and Chen Aisen with a series of flawless dives. They went from the chasing pack, to the chased, but kept their cool. Lee, in his first Olympics, looked to the more experienced Daley, in his fourth Games. Daley was for so long the coming man -- having made his Olympics debut back in 2008 as a 14-year-old -- and he stood resolute, undeterred while maintaining focus on the scoreboard. With two rounds left, they had to keep their composure. The fifth set up the victory -- a 3.5 somersault tuck -- saw them throw down the gauntlet to the Chinese pair, and the sixth -- ranked 3.7 difficulty and a forward 4.5 somersault -- cemented it.
That dive saw a host of 9.5s and 10s on the scoreboard. The Chinese pair needed to record a score of 102.76 on their final dive. Nearly mathematically impossible on the difficulty of their planned effort. But they executed it perfectly. Daley and Lee looked even more nervous. Then came that wave of relief as their names stayed at the top of the leader board, and a gold medal appeared next to it. Lee placed Daley's medal over his neck; Daley returned the gesture and they stood there on top of the podium soaking in the anthem. Tears flowed, as Daley could finally breathe with 20 years of expectation and pressure finally lifted off his resilient shoulders.
"It's kind of unbelievable. I've dreamt, as has Matty, since I started diving 20 years ago for this moment of becoming an Olympic champion," Daley said in a statement after the win.
"To take it to my fourth Olympic Games when I think a lot of people would have not considered it to be my peak Olympic Games, I thought I was going to win an Olympic gold medal in Rio and that turned out the complete opposite by a long shot."
The feat caps a career which has seen him grieve, succeed and fail in the glare of the public and media spotlight. Everything was played out in plain sight, all amidst the quadrennial churn of expectation and pressure. Just five years ago in Rio he was assessing his 18th place finish in the 10m individual. "I truly am heartbroken, it's really hard to accept today" he said, distraught at another opportunity passing him by. He now realises the pressure he'd placed on himself was crushing. He needed perspective outside of the sport -- his years in the spotlight just blinding him at the key moment.
Back in 2008 at his debut Games he was Britain's youngest competitor, aged 14. He'd been in the sport for seven years, with his father Rob taking him to Plymouth Diving Club. He progressed to No. 1 in the world by 2009 with victory at the World Championships in Rome in the 10m platform and with a home Games awaiting him in 2012, he was one of the billboard stars of the London Olympics. He'd lost his father, Robert, to cancer in May 2011 and had to navigate that grief while being caught up in the hype of London 2012. He faced criticism from his own performance director Alexei Evangulov for doing too many media and commercial appearances but still entered that Games as one of the favourites. A poor fourth-round dive put paid to the those hopes, and he returned a bronze in the 10m individual.
In late 2013 he announced his relationship with Oscar-winning American screenwriter and director Dustin Lance Black and by October 2015 the two were engaged. Daley's profile saw him not only represent British hopes in the Olympics, but also a prominent figure in the drive for greater equality and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in world sport. He tried to calm the inner churning of pressure in the run up to Rio by taking up meditation and kickboxing but those Games came and went, with Daley returning another bronze in the 10m synchro alongside Daniel Goodfellow, the gold medal tantalisingly elusive.
Over the past five years, he has re-focused, re-built himself (again) and gone again. Quietly he embraced fatherhood, with the birth of their son Robert Ray Black-Daley in June 2018 and once sport opened again in 2021, he channelled the enjoyment and perspective being a dad gave him into his diving.
"It was my husband who said to me my story wasn't finished and that my son or child, we didn't know at the time, needed to be there to watch me win an Olympic gold medal," Daley said on Monday.
"The fact that I can say my son watched me become Olympic champion, albeit on TV and they couldn't be here, is such a great feeling."
With Team Great Britain doing their utmost to play down expectation heading into these spectator-less Games by refraining from putting a number on their medal hopes, Daley was less prominent in the spotlight. Two golds in the 10m individual and 10m synchronised at the 2021 FINA Diving World Cup saw him and Lee emerge as the biggest threat to the Chinese stranglehold on the sport, and then came that glorious hour in Tokyo.
He was already one of Britain's most-loved athletes. But that gold gives him his own sense of self-fulfilment in the sport that has been his best friend, and worst enemy for the past 20 years. He'd gone from the baby of the 2008 Games, to the grandad of the 2020 Olympics. He'll look back at that sporting journey as a formative experience. He had the unknown of Beijing and the Olympics experience, the pressure of the home crowd in 2012 and then the expectation of Rio where -- with hindsight -- he now realises he put too much pressure on himself, lacking distraction outside of diving. He now has a YouTube channel which promotes wellness, and then there's the enjoyment of his three-year-old son Robbie. It's fatherhood and being a husband first for Daley, and that shift in outlook allowed him to live up to his boundless potential at Tokyo.
Lee, 23, is appearing at his first Olympics and was the perfect partner for Daley. The two worked brilliantly together, and Daley paid tribute to him afterwards. "I'm just so proud of you holding that together," he said to Lee. "I felt I was going to crumble at lots of points in that competition. Matty was just in the zone. I've said to Matty all day today, everything's fallen into place and we found that sense of flow. We didn't say all that much to each other. We just knew what we had to do to get the job done." Daley had taken Lee under his wing when he moved his life to London to chase this Tokyo dream and formed a close friendship. The two kept each other going through pretty cut-throat, tongue-in-cheek banter and encouragement. On Monday that came together with their golden moment.
"To be able to do it with your best mate as well and to share that moment. At the back of the podium when you're by yourself, it's all internalised, but when you have someone that's done it with you, you don't feel bad about saying 'Oh my goodness, we just bloody did amazing,'" Daley said.
"To be able to share that moment with someone has been a wild ride, but I'm very, very happy right now."
Perspective has been king for Daley and those 20 years of emotional scars, and scattered medals has led to his greatest moment on the diving board on Monday in Tokyo. He said he would finish with a gold medal, but he still has the 10m individual to come. His place amongst the sport's elite is immortalised with that gold medal and you hope that'll bring him peace with his sport. But he was already loved by his country for being Tom Daley.