Matty Lee - Tom Daley’s diving partner ready to deliver British diving’s pin-up an Olympic gold
The role of Tom Daley’s diving partner can be a double-edged sword.
While it can elevate an athlete to medal contention on the greatest stage of all, it is also a position that brings with it enormous pressure not to let down the darling of British diving.
Any failures of the pairing are largely down to you, and any success is in spite of you.
It is a role forever entitled ‘Tom Daley and...’, but it is one that has been embraced and strengthened these past two-and-a-half years by an impressive young man from Leeds.
Matty Lee was one of the great number of successful divers training with the City of Leeds Diving Club at the John Charles Aquatics Centre in the latter half of 2018 when the opportunity came to be Daley’s ‘plus one’.
Just 20 at the time, Lee could have rejected the opening and stayed in his comfort zone. Having missed out on selection for Rio through what he describes as his own mistake in the pool, he could have continued on his path to redemption surrounded by family and friends who had supported his diving ambitions since the age of seven. But that Rio setback proved the making of him.
“When (performance director) Alexei Evangulov said ‘do you want to move to London and work with Tom?’ there was not a doubt in my head that I wouldn’t,” Lee tells The Yorkshire Post.
“Maybe that was because of what I learnt from missing out on Rio, you’ve got to make the sacrifices.”
There certainly were sacrifices. Lee had to prove he was good enough to be Daley’s next partner, so needed to learn a new dive from the 10m platform, one that affected the rest of his routine and led to him being a diver in transition at the 2018 European Championships.
Just as he was moving down to the capital to link up with Daley, Lee found himself tumbling down UK Sport funding ladder to one of the lower levels.
“There were some desperate times that first year I was in London, I wasn’t on a great income at all,” recalls Lee, who got into diving after watching his elder brother at Leeds International Pool. “My mum, dad and brother all have birthdays in November and I remember struggling to even buy them a present, that’s how tough it got. But sometimes in life you’ve got to take a few steps back to take that leap forward, and this was a prime example.”
Within a year the new 10m synchro partnership were world championship bronze medallists, headed to the Olympics and Lee was back at the top of the funding bracket.
In the last two weeks, following the resumption of competitive international diving following a 14-month break due to the coronavirus pandemic, Daley and Lee have won a World Cup meet in the Olympic pool in Tokyo and a gold medal at the European Championships in Budapest.
Their selection for the GB squad is not yet confirmed but is as certain as saying in April that Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City would be Premier League champions.
“I have absolutely no regrets about moving down,” says Lee, now 23 and settled in London.
He is also at ease with his role as Daley’s partner, despite their sport being one where each diver has to share responsibility for the execution and be a mirror image of the other.
“That is fine with me. I understand it, I get how it all works,” he says. “I’m not a household name, Tom is. He’s been successful to gain that.
“My best friend is Dan Goodfellow who was Tom’s synchro partner; after they won the bronze medal in 2016 they barely mentioned Dan’s name. That’s a bit rubbish, and it hurts a little bit.
“But I know if you’ve done well, and I don’t need people to tell me that. It won’t bother me.
“There’ll be time for me after Tokyo, hopefully, to make a name for myself in the individual.”
His relationship with Daley is strong, says Lee, and despite the gulf in experience – this will be Daley’s fourth Games, Lee’s first – there is less than an Olympic cycle between them in age.
“I’ve know Tom for years, diving is a very close family, but he really has become one of my best friends,” says Lee of a man who turned 27 yesterday.
“We’re a good team. He’s obviously the more experienced one. I see it as teacher and student, I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him so whenever he retires I can then try and push like he has done.”
Daley helped Lee settle in London and also keeps him calm in competition.
At the world championships in Gwangju in 2019, even though they won bronze, Lee made a mistake on a dive that could have knocked them out of medal contention and cost Team GB the Olympic spot that a top-three finish guaranteed.
“I was angry in between the rounds thinking I’d messed up and cost us,” recalls Lee.
“But he didn’t make me feel bad about it, he knew exactly what to do to keep me in the zone. He helped keep my mind straight.
“Tom’s had his highs but he’s also had some really tough hits in this sport. He knows exactly how it feels, and some of that is brushing off on me.
“It’s weird when you think about it – he’s been on our TVs since he was 13 before he went to the Olympics in 2008.
“Luckily, we are a similar age, but he’s more mature than me, he’s married, he’s got a child which is crazy to think. Because he’s been in the public eye for so long he’s had to mature quickly.
“In a way, when we’re together we act exactly the same, it’s a good friendship, we can have fun as well as perform well.”
On both occasions recently, Lee and Daley got into an early lead and held off the competition. The fact that it was the Russian pairing of Aleksandr Bondar and Viktor Minibaev who had beaten them in Guagzho but now could not catch them in Budapest, stands them in good stead for later this summer.
“It was good to have a battle with the Russians,” says Lee. “They put up a good fight and didn’t let us have it our own way. It was nice to have that pressure of competition before the Olympics.
“It was encouraging to get all my dives down consistently and also justify how hard I’ve been training during the pandemic.”
Time spent out of the pool during lockdown also helped change Lee’s perspective, made him realise how much he missed competing and that he should enjoy it when he got back out there.
He says: “A German competitor came up to me in Budapest and said ‘do you get nervous, because you don’t look it at all’. That’s a good state to be in; something has changed in my head and on the outside I must look more confident.
“I used to wish competitions would be over because I was so nervous, but this timeround I was just enjoying it.”
So to Tokyo, when all eyes will be on Daley to see if at the fourth time of asking the pin-up of British diving can win an elusive gold medal.
If he does, Matty Lee of Leeds will be right by his side.
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