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Tom Daley was not supposed to do it at these Games after having surgery ONE MONTH before Tokyo...

It was an agonising wait of only a couple of minutes but enough for the dreams of a lifetime to flash through Tom Daley’s mind. 

After 20 years of trying — starting out in Plymouth Leisure Centre — Daley and his partner Matty Lee were top of the leaderboard in Tokyo after their final dive featuring four-and-a-half near-perfect forward somersaults with tuck.

The only problem was that the Chinese were yet to perform what may well have proved the latest in a long line of synchronised miracles from the 10-metre platform.

Tom Daley and Matty Lee faced a nervous wait before beating Chinese opponents to win gold

Diving partner Lee was 10 years old when Daley made his Olympics debut in Beijing in 2018

Handpicked from a Beijing-sponsored production line, drilled to within an inch of their sanity and nerveless when falling vertically, they may well have struck fear into Daley and his pal waiting at the hushed poolside to learn their fate.

Cao Yuan and Chen Aisen jumped. Barely a splash to talk of. Lee turned to Daley and said: ‘Oh, s***.’ They feared victory had been ripped from them. But the final scores lit up the screen and by 471.81 points to 470.58 the Brits had hung on.

And little Tom Daley, who grew up in the eyes of the world, and at times bewitched us with his precocious talent and skylarking nature, was an Olympic champion.

Aged 27, he was not meant to do it at these Games. His time was supposed to have been at Rio five years ago, when his bones, muscles and tendons had not been too knocked about by this bruising business.

Yes, he was helped by the Chinese fluffing their fourth dive, but Daley and Lee were exceptional.

My thoughts turned back to Plymouth and the unremarkable three-bedroom house he was raised in, and especially to his late father Rob. He called himself ‘Taxi Dad’ for driving Tom to training and competitions, some 100,000 miles and more. A happy, laughing man, an electrician by trade, his devotion to his eldest son was immense.

In his last interview, while suffering from a second brain tumour that had stolen from him the use of his left side, Rob told me that he would travel to Sheffield despite his advanced illness to support Tom the following weekend.

Daley paid tribute to his late father Rob after winning his first gold medal in four Olympics

Rob Daley called himself 'Taxi Dad' for driving Tom some 100,000 miles to competitions

Pushed through the doors of the venue in a wheelchair, he took with him a video camera to record the action. That and a Union Flag. Tom, seeing his father in the viewing gallery, threw his arms around him.

I think they both knew it was the last time he would see his boy compete. A month later, in May 2011, Rob Daley died. He was 40. Tom had turned 17 a few days earlier.

Tom had never seemed so vulnerable, suddenly the man of the household, though looked after by his adoring mother Debbie and sharing fun with his two brothers. The public took him to their hearts.

But even before that trauma, Daley had competed in the Beijing Games, aged 14, the second youngest British Olympian in history, only to finish last in the event he won so spectacularly yesterday. He also took the world title aged 15 in Rome the following year.

By a quirk of fate, watching events unfold in Beijing was a certain little Matty Lee, then 10. And he made Daley his idol. The pair soon met and a photograph still exists of them together. They spoke of that memory last night and of how they are now the firmest friends.

Daley took Lee, now 23, under his wing when he made the trip from Leeds to London to live and train, a latter-day Dick Whittington looking for roads paved with gold. And the second they knew they had won on Monday, Lee picked Daley up off the floor with such gusto he nearly knocked him over.

‘I know he would be very proud. It was always our dream growing up', Daley said of late father

Before and after London 2012, where he took bronze, Daley was a very marketable star as the boy next door. Coming out as gay the following year, he later moved in with Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Now they are married with a three-year-old boy, Robbie, named after Tom’s father.

At times he was caught up in the swirl of celebrity. As GB’s former performance director Alexei Evangulov once said: ‘He is in danger of becoming Britain’s Anna Kournikova,’ referring to the Russian tennis player who appeared more interested in modelling and fame than serve and volley. Not that Daley didn’t rake in a combined 13 world, Commonwealth and European titles over the years.

‘My son is my biggest supporter,’ said Daley on Monday, telling how fatherhood has brought new balance to his life. ‘He hugs me whether I dive well or badly. It has helped me change perspective and see what is really important.’

Nobody knew it at the time but last month Daley had surgery on a knee injury, a long-standing problem, to rescue his Olympic hopes. He had his meniscus removed and could barely walk. But six weeks later he was on the plane to Tokyo for this and another shot at gold in the individual event a week on Friday and Saturday.

‘My father never saw me win an Olympic medal,’ reflected Daley. ‘I know he would be very proud. It was always our dream growing up. To have achieved this makes all his sacrifice worthwhile. I genuinely can’t believe it.’

On Monday night Daley was toying with competing in Paris in three years’ time. He may yet. But, after Lee placed the gold medal around his neck, and he cried to God Save the Queen, it felt as if a fairytale was reaching its natural conclusion.

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