BEIJING – Listening to Tom Daley reflect wistfully upon a time when he was "little" and dreamed of the Olympic Games is slightly surreal. At 5-foot-4, Daley, who will represent Great Britain in individual and synchronized diving, is still little. Very little.
He is little enough to be called "Tom Thumb" by his colleagues at the Athletes’ Village. He's little enough to be nicknamed "Baby" by a Chinese public who fell in love with him during a pre-Olympics event in Beijing last year. And he's little enough to carry a stuffed toy monkey to every competition as a lucky charm.
Yet while the 14-year-old is officially the youngest competitor in Beijing and addresses fans, fellow Olympians and journalists with a refreshing wide-eyed charm, he is a force to be reckoned with atop the 10-meter platform.
A year ago, these Olympics were not even part of the career master plan that coach Andy Banks and Daley's father Rob had devised. But a stunning spurt of technical development and a shocking victory in the European Championships have made him a genuine medal contender here.
He will take to the platform on Monday with partner Blake Aldridge in the 10-meter synchronized event, where teams attempt to perform identically perfect dives. The individual competition begins on Aug. 22.
Until then, though, good times must be had. And for a teenager, the Athletes’ Village provides more entertainment than any theme park.
"One of the goals for him is to have some fun here," Banks said. "There is plenty for him to do in the village, and the down time is important as well."
Daley was thrilled to have his photo taken with tennis superstar Rafael Nadal, and he took advantage of a machine that allows athletes to print stamps emblazoned with their faces.
"I sent loads of them to my family," he said.
Rob Daley has given up thousands of hours ferrying his son to training sessions in their hometown of Plymouth, located in the southwest corner of England. When the elder Daley was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor two years ago, he kept the condition a secret from Tom for fear of distracting him from an upcoming competition.
"I came home and the treatment had made me lose my hair," Rob said. "I told Tom that I had shaved it off for charity. Tom's success helped me through, though. I wanted to see him finish what we have started."
Daley will be cheered by his parents, his three brothers and a collection of grandparents, aunts and uncles who jetted into China on Friday. It is a testament to his upbringing – plus coach Banks – that he still appears as a pleasing and normal youngster.
"My monkey mascot made it safe and sound," Daley said when quizzed about the stuffed toy that has cast a skeptical eye over countless competitions across three continents. "I know he is probably not that lucky, but I couldn't change him before the Olympics."
The emergence of Daley as a potential threat to China's diving dominance has invigorated the sport. Chinese divers took six of the eight gold medals at Athens four years ago and will be favorites again in most events.
"The important thing is not to be afraid of the Chinese," said Steve Foley, Great Britain's national diving coach. "For the first time, they are under extreme pressure, and that could play into someone's hands. China has everything to lose, we have nothing to lose.
"Tom is fantastic for the sport in general. It is great for the world of diving to have a non-Chinese star. People see what this young man is doing and raising their own standard."
Daley is in some ways a hostage to the performances of his rivals. His comparative lack of physical strength means there are some dives with a high difficulty rating that he simply cannot perform. If his opponents go for maximum difficulty and succeed, there is little he can do.
His best chance, as at the European Championships, is if his rivals falter and he perfectly executes a series of marginally simpler but still spectacular dives.
While the 2012 Olympics and a gold medal on home soil in London are the dominant goals for Daley, his career path is not without obstacles. One of his idols, Alexandre Despatie of Canada, won gold at the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and was expected to become one of the sport's all-time greats. However, Despatie struggled for several years while coping with his maturing physique, and heading into Beijing, he has just one Olympic medal, a silver from Athens, to his name.
Daley has grown three inches over the past year, but his muscular and skeletal developments have fortunately remained in synch so far. In any case, he is not the type of character who seems overly daunted by what the future holds. Daley is still a teenager first and an athlete second, and he appears to be loving every minute.
"When you are little, you dream about becoming a famous person, but you don't expect it to happen to you," he said. "I get recognized a lot here because diving is pretty big in China. It is an amazing experience."
The media circus surrounding Daley has thrust the previously unheralded British diving squad firmly into the spotlight.
His partner, Aldridge, is competing at his first Games after a career littered with injuries and ailments, and he embraces the slightly bizarre reality of rooming and competing with a comrade half his size and age.
"I have been in the sport for 21 years," Aldridge said. "Tom has helped me to get here after lots of ups and downs.
"We have a similar diving style. We jump about the same height and travel at the same speed. As for sharing a room, Tom is the messiest person on the team, but he is great to share with. He keeps me young in body and mind."
Daley's room may be chaotic, but his mind is uncluttered. Neither the spotlight, nor the prospect of greatness, fazes him.
Maybe it's because this is the culmination of a plan, albeit one that is four years ahead of schedule. Or because it is a moment he has dreamed of – ever since he was little.
- Tom Daley