ASK most people to name a British diver, and if they don’t say Ashley Young, it’s a safe bet the vast majority of respondents will plump for Tom Daley.
Young, photogenic and an Olympic bronze medallist at the age of just 18, Daley has transcended his sport to become a bona fide British celebrity, with all the various opportunities and pitfalls that entails.
He has spearheaded his own TV shows, Splash and Tom Daley Goes Global, advertised a range of products and companies from British Gas to Nestle, and found his private life thrust into the public arena after he was forced to confirm his homosexuality. Increasingly, it has become impossible to tell where Tom Daley the diver ends and Tom Daley the showbusiness star begins.
All of which acts as both incentive and warning to Jack Laugher as he increasingly finds himself outperforming Daley on the diving board and challenging his team-mate’s monopolisation of the growing spotlight afforded to a sport that increasingly sees British competitors challenging the traditional powerhouse of China.
Yesterday morning, Laugher, who is from Ripon, won his second Commonwealth gold medal, adding the synchronised 3m springboard title to the 1m springboard crown he claimed on Wednesday. In between, he claimed silver in the 3m individual competition, and his hat-trick of medals makes him not only the most successful diver at this Commonwealth Games, but also one of the biggest British winners in the event’s history.
With his boyish looks and carefully-gelled hair that would not look out of place in One Direction, Laugher is attracting a growing audience that stretches way beyond those who would normally be interested in diving.
His Twitter account has more than 71,000 followers, he increasingly finds himself stopped when he walks the streets of Leeds after a training session at the city’s John Charles Pool, and there was an internet campaign yesterday in which more than 1,000 respondents demanded to know what music he listens to when he clamps his state-of-the-art headphones to his ears after every dive. For the record, it’s “chilled out house”.
If not quite yet a household name, these Commonwealth Games will surely come to be recognised as the point at which Laugher stopped being just another diver and evolved into a genuine British sports star. That will inevitably present challenges, but with his happy-go-lucky persona and laidback attitude, the teenager appears more than capable of handling them.
“I love having a higher profile and being in the limelight a bit,” said Laugher, who has successfully banished the memories of a disappointing London Olympics thanks to the strength of his performances at the Glasgow Games. “It’s a great thing, and it’s fantastic when people show an appreciation for what you’re doing.
“I take a lot from that. It’s great when people are appreciative of the work you’re putting in and the performances you’re producing. It’s great having the support that we do, and diving in this country is just growing and growing and growing.
“You can tell by the crowds that we’re attracting to events now, people know about diving and are taking an interest in it. It’s such a huge sport now, and it just seems to be growing every day. Having all that behind you, it just should spur you on to do really well.”
Laugher certainly seems to have drawn inspiration from the level of crowd support in Edinburgh’s Royal Commonwealth Pool this week, and after missing out on a second gold medal on Thursday evening when he made a crucial error in his penultimate dive in the individual programme, it says much about the strength of his character that he performed so strongly alongside his close friend and house mate Chris Mears yesterday.
The pair finished fifth in the World Series this season, a level of performance that entitled them to start as strong favourites against the best of the Commonwealth. They still had to complete the job though, and eventually finished almost 30 points clear of Australians Matthew Mitcham and Grant Nel thanks to a wonderfully consistent series of dives.
“I went to bed on (Thursday) night and all I could think about was nailing those dives,” said Laugher. “We laid them down pretty well. Everything that happened in the 3m just gave me a really good feeling that I could go out there and do everything I could to get another gold. That was all I wanted really.”
The joy when their final score was confirmed was clear to see, and the pair’s close friendship is clearly a key part of their professional relationship in the pool. It says much that they had to fight not to break into giggles as they received their medals.
“We say a lot to each other whenever we’re competing,” said Laugher. “We just try to get each other laughing because that calms us down. It can range from everything from corny jokes to movie references – it’s basically just two mates messing about.”
That is as maybe, but that ‘messing about’ means Laugher will return to North Yorkshire with three Commonwealth medals in his possession.
“The Commonwealth Games have been an absolute dream for me,” he said. “I was hoping to do well, and I thought if I could come away with three medals, it would be a dream come true.
“For two of them to be gold and the other one silver is absolutely fantastic. And to get the last one alongside my best mate is just the best thing ever.”