Tom Daley ready to handle the pressure of a home Olympics

By Nick HopeBBC Sport at London Aquatics Centre

In the latest part of our weekly #olympicthursdayexternal-link series profiling leading British hopes, BBC Olympic sports reporter Nick Hope speaks to diver Tom Daley.

He may only be 17, but Tom Daley has already been through more than most on his way to becoming one of the most recognisable faces in British sport.

The Plymouth-born diver qualified for the Beijing Olympics at 14, won a world championship gold medal at 15 and two Commonwealth titles at 16, but has also had to cope with the loss of his father, Rob, defend his media commitments and deal with the rise in expectation leading into a home Olympic Games.

And, on Thursday, the reality of a home Olympics will loom large when he competes at London's Aquatics Centre.

"I have learned how to deal with pressure and focus," Daley told BBC Sport.

"It's about compartmentalising my life and knowing which mind-set to be in and when."

Having spent so much of his life in the spotlight, little fazes this teenager, who is open about his prospects for London 2012.

"I wouldn't say that I'm the perfect age for a diver yet, that usually comes between 20 and 24, so I think my actual peak Olympics should be in Rio in 2016," said Daley.

"People do expect, but I don't really see it as pressure because I can only try my best and, if I don't achieve, it's only me that can be disappointed."

Acquiring the mental toughness required to challenge the best in the world did not come easily to Daley at first and has been an on-going process.

"The first time I saw Tom, I had been asked to go over to the pool in Plymouth to look at this kid I was told was quite good," explained Andy Banks, Daley's coach for the last 10 years.

"I sat down, watched him for 20 minutes and at the end I turned around and said to all of the assembled coaches, 'That boy will never make a diver'.

"In my defence, I never saw him get in the pool. What I saw was a little kid sat at the end of the board crying and stubbornly refusing to get on the board to dive off it. That kind of emotion I figured may be a little difficult to control."

Things were to change and the "pretty awesome" diver, as Banks put it, went on to compete internationally by the age of 12 and win his first European Championship title the following year. But some traits remained.

"The emotion which I saw when I first met him stayed with him throughout his early career," said Banks. "When things weren't going right he would get very upset and often either the competition or the training session would go out of the window.

"He recognises that he has that fiery emotion in him and learning to control that is really important, which he has managed to do in recent years."

Another profound change Daley has experienced relates to his physique.

Between the 2009 World Championship, where he won gold, and 2011, where Daley finished fifth, he grew approximately five inches in height and put on around 15kgs [just over two stone] in muscle.

"From a technical point of view, you've got a changing body and a change in dimensions combined with the biomechanical madness which goes on in the sport of diving," said 2004 Olympic silver medallist Leon Taylor.

"It's been incredible that Tom's been able to stay as well as he has in the rankings."

And for the world's best divers, look no further than China. To keep up with the ever-improving scores of the world's leading diving nation, Daley introduced four new dives into his routine for 2011, which he attributes to his fifth-place finish at last year's World Championships.

"I raised my degree of difficulty by a lot and it was one of those things where I just had to use them at a World Championships to get the experience before the Olympic Games," Daley said.

"It is difficult to try things out before going into an Olympic year but you have to do it if you want to be up there in the medals."

Daley's aim is clearly to get a podium place in London, but just last week he was criticised by GB performance director Alexei Evangulov, who suggested the diver's media commitments could hamper his prospects.

Although Daley has made it clear that he sees himself working in television after ending his diving career, with his dream job presenting Blue Peter, the teenager's management company were quick to point out that they reject over 90% of media requests for his time.

"I'm lucky enough to be close to the camp and I know that the dynamics [between Daley and Evangulov] are absolutely fine," Taylor said.

"Tom is completely cool with it. Alexei has said his comments are not how he meant it to come across."

And having deferred some of his A-Level exams until after the summer, to focus full-time on training for the Games, Daley's best prospect of Olympic success could come in the 10m platform synchronised event.

At the last Games he experienced a public fall-out with partner Blake Aldridge after a disappointing performance in the Olympic final and subsequently paired up with Max Brick for Commonwealth success in 2010.

He now competes with 30-year-old Pete Waterfield, who alongside Taylor, dived to an Olympic silver in Athens eight years ago.

Despite the age gap, this is a partnership both athletes believe can lead to success this summer.

The pair will have the opportunity to sample the Olympic atmosphere on Thursday when they compete together at the Diving World Cup in London.

"It's really great diving with Pete because he has so much experience and you can learn so many things from him," Daley said.

"We kind of lift each other because I feel like I'm diving next to an Olympic silver medallist, and that makes you think, 'right well I need to do a good dive here'."

Waterfield added: "It works both ways. I take a lot from Tom. He is a very talented diver, so he inspires me as much as I probably inspire him."