How Matty Lee and Tom Daley sealed their golden moment at Tokyo Olympics
Matty Lee was a fan again on Friday morning, setting his alarm early to tune in and watch diving superstar Tom Daley compete in the premilinary round of the 10m competition at the Tokyo Olympics.
Lee got comfortable on the sofa at his family home in Leeds and cheered on British diving’s poster boy as he booked a place in the semi-final.
The ritual will have been the same again this morning as Daley contested the individual semi-final and then, hopefully later today, the final.
By then it still won’t have sunk in for Lee that just 12 days earlier he was competing alongside Daley in the Olympic 10m synchro final and winning gold for Great Britain.
“It’s really weird, it genuinely feels like I’m watching a different competition and that I was never there,” says Lee, one of five new Yorkshire Olympic champions crowned in Tokyo along with mountain biker Tom Pidcock, triathletes Jonny Brownlee and Jess Learmonth, and equestrian Oliver Townend.
“I got up early to watch Tom compete, it’s weird to think I was there competing myself just over a week ago. It already feels like it was a long time ago.”
It has truly been a whirlwind couple of weeks for 23-year-old Lee, coming at the end of a life-changing few years.
Lee was safe in his comfort zone and developing steadily at the highly-successful City of Leeds Diving Club when the invite came towards the end of 2018 to become Daley’s 10m synchro partner.
It meant Lee would have to put his individual ambitions on hold but he didn’t hesitate in taking up the opportunity of a lifetime and moved to London to link up with his new team-mate.
Daley and Lee struck up a friendship out of the pool and an understanding on the 10m platform that saw them win bronze at the world championships, gold at the Europeans and then in Tokyo last Monday, scale the mountain top to become Olympic champions.
“Everything went the way it was meant to go and I just let it happen,” recalls Lee of a competition in which the British pair got stronger with every passing dive.
“The Chinese dropped a dive and it opened the door for us. Usually I wouldn’t pay attention to what others are doing, I try to concentrate on myself, but I heard the Chinese splash and it made me realise that this was our opportunity now to go and get the one thing I’ve always wanted.
“In the past I’ve been guilty of thinking too much about the outcome and not enough about the present and what I need to do to get the outcome. That often leads to you messing up your dives, but luckily I’ve been through that before so I knew how to deal with it and I was able to stay in the present.”
Lee and Daley saved their best for last, a 101.01 score for a forward 4.5 somersault that led to an anxious wait as the Chinese stood on the edge of the platform needing a miraculous dive to snatch gold. They nearly pulled it off, falling less than 1.5 points shy of the British duo.
“I genuinely believe I would have been upset with second,” reflects Lee, “only because all the emotion that goes through your body at that exact time, that feeling when we both nailed that last dive.
“They do say the happiest Olympic medallists are first or third because you’ve either won or you’ve scraped onto the podium. A lot of second-place finishers have usually lost or are so close to the gold.”
Daley has had plenty of near-misses, twice a bronze medallist and went into his fourth Olympics wondering if this might be his last shot.
Understandably in the aftermath, the national spotlight shone on Daley for the fulfilment of a journey the public have followed him on since a fresh-faced 14-year-old competed in Beijing.
For Lee, there was no jealousy, only warmth for a close friend he had the pleasure of sharing such a life-affirming moment with.
“Tom has been in the public eye for so many years, he’s got Olympic medals, he’s a world champion, it’s the only thing he hasn’t got,” Lee tells The Yorkshire Post.
“That’s why it hasn’t sunk in for me yet. Tom was my idol for many years, I have looked up to him for so long.
“It took him four Olympics to get his gold. We were in an interview together and he said ‘it’s taken me four goes and this guy rocks up and wins it at the first attempt!’
“It was all good natured. But I’ve made my own sacrifices the last few years to get to this stage.
“Our preparation for the Olympics was spot on, mine especially; I had no injuries, a really good block of training, no illnesses.
“It didn’t feel easy but I was in the exact position I wanted to be in.”
With the gold medal safely in his possession, the whirlwind continued for Lee. Media mixed zone, press conference, drug testing, television interviews.
Celebrations that night in the athletes village were under-stated.
“I filled up my plate with pizza and deep fried cheese,” he laughs.
Then on Tuesday it was off to the airport to catch the flight home. In a Covid world there is no staying on in the Olympic village for athletes who have finished their programme.
“My mum, dad and brother greeted me at Heathrow and I didn’t think I’d get emotional but I was as soon as I hugged my mum,” says Lee.
“This Olympic gold is for me but it’s also a token of all the sacrifices my family and parents have made.
“It’s all been worthwhile, because all those sacrifices got their son to the top step of the podium.
“And that’s what made me so emotional. I’ve not had a privileged career. I’ve had upsets, injuries, poor performances, I made them go through emotional times. So it was nice knowing it’s all been worthwhile.”
Lee’s parents and family still have a role to play.
So often a freshly-minted Olympic champion can crash back down to earth in the months and years after achieving their lifetime goal.
Lee will need a good support network around him to keep him on an even keel.
“I am conscious of it, I’ve spoken to a lot of people already about that because it is very real,” acknowledges Lee.
“But it’s not just Olympic champions, it’s Olympians as well. No matter the result you’re still on a high, you’ve finally got to the Olympics Games and things die down. It’s really strange.
“My manager is great with that and has an understanding of mental health which is really helpful in this day and age.
“I’ve just got to try and reason with the fact that I have got everything I ever wanted and anything else on top of that now is a bonus. Try not to put too much pressure on myself, take things as they come.
“This initial part I need to stay busy, not crazy busy because I don’t want to crumble, but have things to look forward to. I’ve had the Olympic rings tattooed onto my bicep, I’m going on holiday with may mates soon, just little things like that.”
A new challenge for the Paris cycle will help. Lee, as planned, will now look to carve out a career for himself in the individual as well as in defence of his synchro title.
And maybe it will be Daley tuning in in three years time to cheer on his old synchro partner in the individual Olympic final.