Can Tom Daley dominate diving again?

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Tom Daley surprisingly missed out on an individual medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio
2017 World Aquatics Championships
Venue: Budapest, Hungary Dates: 14-30 July (diving events 14-21 July)
Coverage:Watch the diving finals live, via BBC Red Button and online

“I’m truly heartbroken,” said a tearful Tom Daley moments after his Olympic dream – and what he felt was his destiny – came to an abrupt end in 2016.

Just 24 hours earlier – in the 10m preliminaries in Rio – he had set a new Games record for the highest score recorded in an Olympic diving event. Yet he missed out on the final.

This was not in the script for the boy who had grown up in the public eye, declaring at the age of 13 that he aimed to win the sport’s ultimate prize.

“I want to get to the Olympics and hopefully win an Olympic gold medal,” he said in 2007. “If I wasn’t to win one then it would drive me on to be at the next Olympics and win that medal then.”

After bronze at the London Games in 2012, Rio 2016 was meant to be his moment. It didn’t happen. But despite considering retirement and getting married, Daley is back – shrugging off back and hip injury concerns – to put his body on the line once more.

Over the next 10 days, at the World Aquatics Championships, the diver will take his first steps towards ‘righting the wrongs’ of Rio. His attempt to prove he can return to the summit of the sport begins as he competes in three events in Budapest.

The ultimate aim is Olympic gold. However, reaching Tokyo 2020 and then claiming that elusive glory is likely to be the toughest challenge of his career.

“It [my future] all depends on what my body can handle year-by-year,” Daley told BBC Sport. “But success at these World Championships would mean everything.”

What went wrong in Rio?

Daley and Dan Goodfellow celebrated their synchronised bronze in Rio by falling into the pool

It should not be forgotten that Daley did win a medal at the Rio Olympics – he took bronze with synchronised partner Dan Goodfellow. The pair’s ‘falling in the pool’ celebratory hug became one of the Games’ most iconic moments.

However, much more was expected of him in the individual competition.

Was he injured? Did the pressure get to him? Did he fall out with his coach? The debate raged in the moments after his shock elimination.

“It’s sport and that’s why we watch it, but it was a massive surprise to everyone even Tom,” said Leon Taylor, a 2004 Olympic silver medallist and Daley’s former mentor, who was commentating on the event.

“Even when he’s injured, he’s consistent. We’ve never seen such drama when he’s royally messed up. It shows he’s not infallible. He’s human and not a machine.”

Nearly a year on, the diver himself is still unsure as to the cause, but he is certain that he wants to move on.

“My mind and body didn’t connect – in the competition it fell apart,” he said. “What’s done is done.

“It’s very frustrating, but I can’t keep wasting energy being frustrated about what’s already happened when I need to be focusing on what I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Daley – pictured with coach Jane Figueiredo – admitted to being heartbroken by his Rio disappointment

Why Daley continues to batter his body

Now 23, Daley may still be fresh-faced, but his body does not quite have the same bounce of old.

His injury problems are well documented, from the triceps problem that has plagued him since tearing it at the European Championships in Budapest in 2010 to more recent back and hip problems, which required surgery.

His media profile is also such that he could seamlessly slip into full-time celebrity mode, but Daley has always been, first and foremost, a diver.

Daley has become a celebrity beyond the sporting world – yet says his focus remains on diving success

He wants to finish his athletic career having achieved everything he possibly could – ideally at the top of the podium of a major event – and will continue to strive for the perfect ending.

“I didn’t really know what was going to happen post-Rio, but I still love the sport,” Daley told BBC Sport with a smile.

“Sometimes my body is like: ‘OK, that’s enough. We need to start winding this down.’ And then some days I’m like: ‘I could go on for another 10 years.’ But I still love diving.”

Taylor understands the struggles that athletes face towards the end of their careers – as he tried desperately to reach the Beijing 2008 Olympics before reluctantly accepting his body could not longer stand the daily hammering.

“Every time he dives, he risks injuries and that goes up as you get older,” Taylor told BBC Sport.

“Diving is all encompassing. It’s what he knows and what he does. It’s a danger for all sportspeople trying to unravel from their sport.

“Ideally he would have retired after Rio [with a gold medal], but he has set himself up for the perfect Hollywood comeback story.”

Marriage put Daley back on track

Daley married American film director and writer Dustin Lance Black in Devon in May

In the year that followed the high of London 2012, Daley struggled to find focus and motivation. The 12 months since Rio 2016 have been the polar opposite.

He said: “2013 was a year where I really struggled with my diving. I never wanted to get back into it because I couldn’t really look past London and was thinking: ‘What am I going to do now?’

“Post-2016, I had so many things to look forward to, like the wedding. Getting married was one of the massive highlights of this year.

“It’s been a completely different experience and I haven’t had the post-Olympic blues like I did in 2012.”

Despite a “longer than usual” break from diving, Daley did not have time to squeeze in a honeymoon with new husband Dustin Lance Black.

Fearing a tabloid intrusion into his private life, Daley is understandably coy when asked about a destination, but says they will take advantage of his post World Championships competition break.

“The favourite time of any athlete’s year is when they can just chill and relax,” he said.

“When you get to travel for pleasure, you can go to the jacuzzi or hot tub and chill by the pool, rather than train in it – and that makes it quite nice to look forward to.”

Daley’s toughest challenge – Tokyo gold

Daley has faced bigger challenges personally, if not professionally.

Following his breakthrough success as a teenager, he had to move schools as bullies targeted him, while his father Rob passed away in 2011.

Daley admitted he was also nervous about how the public would react when he came out – although he would later reveal how he was “overwhelmed” by the positive response.

All of these experiences, combined with a winning mindset hardened by years of battling – and often beating – the world-leading Chinese divers, makes Daley a formidable force despite his physical problems.

“He’s got problems in some areas, but he’s always been super-diligent with recovery,” said Taylor. “He’s training smartly inside and outside of the pool with yoga and doing things that other divers simply aren’t.

“It may be the toughest cycle yet because of demands on his body, but it could be his smoothest yet as he’s been doing it since he was 10.”

World Championships success ‘would mean everything’

Daley has competed in the Fina World Diving Series in 2017

Daley said that the introduction of his ‘firework’ or ‘twister’ dive in 2015 would be the last new routine of his career, which leaves him with limited options in terms of how to progress his scores further in the sport.

He will adjust the order of his dives for the World Championships and place his more difficult routines nearer the beginning of the competition to reduce the pressure in later rounds.

Rediscovering his consistency is likely to be key to future success across both the individual and synchronised 10m events as he bids for success at the next Olympics.

“It all depends year-by-year what my body can handle, but I would love to be able to do both events in Tokyo,” he said.

“I just have to make sure I’m training smartly and looking after myself so I can go into the Olympics in any event in the best shape I can.”

The Plymouth-born, London-based diver will compete in three events – individual 10m, synchronised 10m and mixed 3m springboard – in Budapest.

It is eight years since the then 15-year-old diver announced himself on the global stage by winning his sole individual World title, although he did gain gold in the team event alongside Rebecca Gallantree at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan.

“Success at these World Championships would mean everything,” Daley said.

“It would definitely help me feel content with the way that the year’s gone and make me feel a little bit more like I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve.”

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