Diving champion Jack Laugher's incredible journey to Olympic gold
For years ago he felt slightly sheepish to even be at the civic reception held in honour of sporting heroes like the triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee and boxing golden girl Nicola Adams.
All he could do, after an error-strewn performance at London when nerves got the better of the 17-year-old who struggled to carry the burden of expectation on his young shoulders, was accept the heartfelt words of encouragement from wellwishers – “it will be your turn in four years time” – and draw inspiration from Yorkshire’s golden generation of Olympians.
Tonight Laugher will be announced as Britain’s most successful Olympic diver in history following his synchro gold with his best friend Chris Mears before the Harrogate-born, Ripon-raised and Leeds-based competitor won an individual silver in the three metre springboard event.
“Seeing these brilliant athletes really inspired me,” Laugher told The Yorkshire Evening Post.
So, too, did two very special guests who were asked to sit down with Team GB’s diving squad at the John Charles Centre for Sport in Leeds and provide a motivational talk on the qualities required to become an Olympic champion – the aforementioned Brownlee brothers who no longer need any introduction.
“They train at the John Charles Centre on a Friday and Monday – we see them quite a lot but we never had a chance to sit down with them,” revealed their latest admirer.
“They were brilliant. They told us what it takes to be an Olympic gold and bronze medallist. They didn’t steam into the Olympic village in London until after their event – they said your Olympics begins when your competition is complete.
“We couldn’t change our plans for Rio – we were always going to be in the Olympic village – but they stressed the importance of being mentally prepared and not letting anything to distract you. One of the important things was to just try and treat it as a normal competition.”
This probably explains why the 21-year-old Yorkshireman and Reading-born Mears were the two calmest people when they stepped onto the diving board to execute the forward four and a half somersault dive that would change their lives as they twisted and turned through the air before entering the infamous green water perpendicularly.
Back in Britain, more than eight million people watched with growing trepidation – with fingers and toes crossed – as the American pair of Sam Dorman and Michael Hixon produced the dive of their lives to increase the pressure on Laugher and Mears, who matched Team USA before the Chinese pair of Cao Yuan and Qin Kai, the pre-event favourites, mistimed their entry into the pool.
As the result was confirmed after a pause that appeared to last an eternity as BBC commentator Leon Taylor began to combust, Laugher sank to his knees – the emotion of the moment getting the better of him – before he began to appreciate his reversal of fortune and how Mears had been left perilously close to death after suffering a ruptured spleen while competing in Australia.
“I was as confused as hell,” he said. “I had just won the Olympics. I had dreamt of the moment from when I was just a kid. Fulfilling a lifetime ambition at 21 is special in anyone’s world. It was just crazy. Ridiculous. That’s why I shook my head as they played God Save The Queen. So surreal.
“If I had known 8.1 million people were watching, I would have messed up the final dive for sure.”
Even though he’s not dived since Rio, Laugher hopes his sport can become even more popular in the coming years thanks to this exposure.
Thanks, he says, to Tom Daley’s world championship win in 2009, British divers have been regularly medalling at global events and he says the increased media attention can only benefit the sport that he took up when swimming in his native Harrogate as a hyperactive youngster and being persuaded by a lifeguard to take up diving. “We’ve been doing really well, but not always getting the credit,” he said.
Laugher recently returned to the same pool to present medals to the next generation of divers. He’s also been encouraging youngsters at the John Charles Centre which he describes “as the best possible” training base. “You couldn’t ask for more.”
Teaming up with Mears nearly three years ago has also helped Laugher fulfil the potential that he showed from the moment he used to dive off the family settee onto a coffee table and require hospital treatment when a tooth produced through his cut lip. Not once but twice.
“We’ve been best friends for ages, six or seven years. We’re basically inseparable. Yet we can be apart for three months and come back and start off from where we left off. I was with Chris on Monday filming in London - we were just back to our stupid ways, like it never changes. It’s a huge advantage to be best friends, we draw encouragement off each other. We know what the other is thinking. A big advantage.”
At present, golden boy Laugher is trying not to think about the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo – and how he will need to win an unprecedented two gold medals at one Games if he’s to improve on his Rio performance.
Keen to emphasise that he’s just one member of a very successful diving squad who continue to push back the boundaries of their sport in this country, he says nothing has given him greater pleasure than showing his gold and silver medals to family, friends and wellwishers who never lost faith in his ability: “Nothing has changed. I’m still Jack. The only thing is I’m not in a pool 24/7.”
But he is a history-making champion who can’t wait to return to Leeds, celebrate Team Yorkshire’s success at the Olympics and Paralympics and, hopefully, inspire the next generation.
Just like Jack Laugher was four years ago.