Harrogate's Jack Laugher 'still striving for the top' ahead of fourth Commonwealth Games
Twelve years ago, he was the 15-year-old schoolboy taken to the Delhi Games to represent England at the start of what would become a boundary-breaking career in British diving.
“Just making that team for Delhi in 2010 and getting that experience when I was so young really helped shape me, my performances and my career,” reflects Laugher, who has been announced as Team England’s flagbearer for Thursday’s Opening Ceremony in Birmingham.
“Having the opportunity to go out there and compete for Team England was massive, I really think it helped me on the path to where I am now.”
Where he is now is still at the very top of the diving tree – a statement proven at the World Championshps in Budapest last month where he won two silvers and a bronze medal.
Add those to a medal of every colour from the last two Olympics and five golds and a silver from subsequent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the Gold Coast and the picture of a decorated athlete becomes clearer.
But those many highs have often preceded great lows in the life of a young Yorkshireman who has always been honest about himself, open to discussing his feelings and therefore vulnerable to the rollercoaster of emotions.
Never was that more apparent than in the post-Rio glow of an Olympics in which he and Chris Mears won Britain’s first ever diving gold medal in the 3m synchro and Laugher followed it up with a silver off the individual springboard.
Not even three gold medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games could mask the self-inflicted pain Laugher was privately suffering. He had become a victim of his own success.
“It becomes a lot harder once you’ve done it with the expectation you put on yourself,” reveals the former Ripon Grammar School pupil.
“Before Rio my only Olympic experience was London and it was awful. I went into Rio as a 21-year-old excited to be there, still pretty young, I’d been around for a while, so to come away with gold and silver was a massive achievement and something I’d dreamed of since I began diving at the age of seven.
“Once you’ve got that you feel that expectation. You get in your own head a bit, you’re almost trying to not make mistakes so you don’t drop from that level, and when you’re trying not to make mistakes, that’s when those mistakes tend to happen.
“After Rio it was difficult to deal with in a way, the more success I was having bred that deterioration of my mental health.
“I’d gone from somebody nobody knows to an Olympic champion. I found that difficult.”
By the time he arrived at the delayed Tokyo Olympics last summer, Laugher found the strength within himself to win a bronze medal in the individual event, an achievement that elicited floods of tears from Laugher.
“The bronze meant so much. The Olympics were a real eye-opener for me to see where I was in my life, where things were and how much of a struggle it had been leading up to the Games,” he says.
“The problems I had leading into it were massive, there was a huge amount of pressure I put on myself, it felt insane, it was a lot harder, way more difficult than it was in Rio, so to actually come away with a bronze medal after all those hurdles I had to climb over, to get to the Games in one piece but also do a really good performance and feel confident in myself is something I’m hugely proud of.
“A year on I’ve taken those lessons I’ve learnt and tried to put them into my diving.
“It’s not been an easy road, it’s still quite a bumpy road here and there, so there’s still lots I’m learning which is quite strange to say when I’ve been so confident in the past, so consistent, that I feel I’m learning a lot about myself and am taking some massive strides where I need to be.
“I’ve worked on myself loads, mentally. I’ve got a great team around me and they’ve put me in a really good position and the results I’m getting still are great and I feel there’s loads more to come.
“I was a lot more comfortable in myself after Tokyo than I was Rio. I’m happy with who I am, I’ve got great people at home, a lovely dog and an amazing girlfriend.
“Things don’t faze me as much these days. I’m trying to embrace that side of it a bit more, enjoy the process a bit more. Three medals at the recent worlds suggests it’s working and I’m really looking forward to the Commonwealth Games now.”
With all the ups and downs the highs and lows of his career have wrought, it would be easy for Laugher to get away from it all and say enough is enough. He has, after all, won it all.
And yet he still spends 40 hours a week at the same John Charles Aquatics Centre in Leeds he used to get the bus to from Harrogate as a teenager, still striving to be the best version of himself.
So what is the motivating factor, especially ahead of a Commonwealth Games in which he attempts to defend three titles.
“To do that again,” he responds, when asked what motivates him now.
“After Glasgow I got two golds and a silver and trying to turn that silver into gold was my main driving force.
“In doing so on the Gold Coast it felt amazing, but now I’ve had that taste of what it feels like to win them all, I’d like to try and do it again.
“That’s where I am now in my career, I’m still striving for the top. I know I’m getting older and the competition’s getting harder, the competition has caught me up which brings excitement and the risk that I won’t be able to perform to that level, but if do everything right I’m going to have a good competition.
“I’m trying to focus on that and not being too fussed about the medal position I’m in - it’s now a case of am I pleased with the dive I just executed, if I am then I’m not bothered about the position I finish, it’s all about the process.”
Laugher will contest the 1m and 3m individual springboard in Birmingham as well as the 3m synchro with a new partner, Anthony Harding, a 21-year-old from Ashton-under-Lyme who has been training with the City of Leeds club since he was seven.
A silver medal at the world championship last month, their first major championship together, augers well.
“Anthony has trained with us in Leeds for quite a while, he has the same coach as me, so a lot of things he’s been learning growing up will have been reflective of my training and he’ll have been watching me,” says Laugher.
“He’s grown up being able to mould his performance on mine so that’s one of the things that makes us so successful. He’s got a very good head on his shoulders. He’s never had this opportunity before, he’s been overlooked a few times, but now he’s got this opportunity he’s so excited and so motivated.
“For me, motivation is like a fire, you’ve got to keep adding stuff to it, you can’t just keep things the exact same for 10, 15 years and expect to get the same results.
“You need that excitement and motivation and having someone who is so excited to go out there and compete really helps me have that buzz again.
“Six world championships, fourth Commonwealth Games, I’m building towards a fourth Olympics, I don’t really have that childhood excitement about it.
“But having that fresh look on it makes me think back to when I was going to Rio, Glasgow, and it brings that excitement.”
The partnership with Harding has breathed new life into Laugher, who is thinking beyond Paris and towards the Los Angleses Olympics of 2028.
“Five Olympic rings would be cool,” says Laugher, who would likely just concentrate on the synchro for that final cycle to cut down the training.
“That’s the plan but I’m not insistent on it, if my body and mind is telling me I can’t do it, then I’ve got to listen to it. It’s improtant to listen to those two things, if they’re not right then I’m not going to perform to my best.
“I don’t want to be a person who is turning up and not performing at my best, I don’t want to taint my legacy.”
What a legacy Laugher has already left.