Grassroots to Glory - Jack Laugher
"I realise the mistake I make is constantly trying to pursue perfection - sometimes you need to give yourself a break,"
London 2012 will always be that storied sporting summer when everything just seemed that little bit better. Wonder and delight were just a flick of the channel or, for many, a short bus ride away. It was a moment in time we would all love to relive - and Jack Laugher would love to forget. Laugher may not be Britain's most recognisable diver - Tom Daley leads him in Instagram followers by a cool 1.8 million - but he is the most successful, with 20 major medals and counting. With a gold and silver from the last Olympics, the 26-year-old from Harrogate heads to Tokyo with a quiet confidence and no shortage of self-belief.
Flashback nine years and the then 17-year-old was a 'blubbing mess' after failure to progress to the semi-finals of his home Games. He righted that wrong four years later before 'throwing away' a winning position - and what was heading to be a world record score - at the last World Championships in 2019. Laugher has certainly lived Olympic founder Pierre de Courbetin's famous words about 'triumph and struggle' and emerged stronger for it.
"It's not meant to be easy, is it?" joked Laugher, who is one of over 1,000 athletes to benefit from National Lottery funding, allowing him to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.
“I believe it’s because I’ve made so many mistakes that I’ve been able to achieve the successes and properly appreciate them. I'm a big one for living in the moment, getting overly excited about success can be as detrimental as being down and distracted after a disappointing performance."
Laugher's diving career began aged seven after a chance conversation with a lifeguard at his hometown pool in Harrogate. While he might have expected a ticking off for his 'top bombing', Laugher's natural technique caught the eagle eye of a team talent spotter.
He adds: "Sometimes you think, what if that lifeguard hadn't been there, what would I be doing now? It is crazy to think how life turns on these small moments. It was a really small grassroots club. We did not have any dryland facilities – we had just a 5m, two 3m’s and a 1m. But it was the drive and the determination and the passion of the coaches that really propelled me to where I am now, without them there's no-way I'd be an Olympic champion. They knew I had talent and they had a plan as well, for me and my future. I managed to become the best at my age group in the world at this tiny little club in Halifax and I'm really proud of that."
Laugher credits his first coach, Eileen Fox, for igniting his passion for the sport and now works with a team headed by Joe Meszaros at a world-class facility at City of Leeds. Adam Smallwood, who competed against Laugher as an eight-year-old before moving into coaching in his late teens after injury, is also a key part of the team.
"Jack wants to keep pushing the sport to new levels, that's what drives him on, doing things no-one else has ever done," he said.
"He is a bit of a freak of nature. His lower body is incredibly strong; he is fast and when he gets to the pool, he is a natural. Diving is a very complex sport. There’s a lot for the brain to process in a short space of time with the spinning and twisting and if you’re not a natural at that, it is very difficult."
Laugher's reference point for success is China, whose divers have long dominated on the world stage. Indeed, in the last five Games they have won 31 of the 40 golds available, Laugher and synchro partner Chris Mears denying them a perfect eight from eight in Rio. Diving in China is a cut-throat business, world champions have been known to get axed from the team after one bad competition. Laugher though revels in the family atmosphere of the British diving team, with girlfriend Lois Toulson also travelling to Tokyo. With friends and family forced to watch at home, this support network will be more important than ever.
"I think one of the things that attracted me to diving is it was an individual sport but also really social, we spent a lot of time waiting around to dive," said Laugher, who has seen the fortunes of Team GB transform over the past two decades thanks to National Lottery funding. "So many of us in this team have grown up together, we're very close and that makes travelling together and sharing these experiences more special."
Toulson and Laugher may be diving's power couple but fellow National Lottery-funded athlete Daley - who made his Olympic debut in Beijing aged 14, remains a key figure in the group."I've always looked up to him - he was the first of us to win that Olympic medal in London and that was a huge moment for the sport and our belief we could challenge at this level," said Laugher.
“Both Tom and I have dealt with some horrible backlash at points when we have competed, especially on social media. Speaking with someone who has experienced that negativity and learning how they deal with it is invaluable. It's the reason I delete all my social accounts before a big competition, I want the only people giving me feedback to be the ones that matter. I've learned how one bad comment that took two seconds to write can ruin my day."
Laugher will go up against four-time world champion Xie Siyi and Chinese team-mate Cao Yuan in the 3m springboard, which many see as the most competitive diving event in Tokyo. He will partner Dan Goodfellow in the synchro, hoping for a repeat of the gold they won at the Olympic test event earlier this year with a personal best score.But this is a sport where the margins are razor-thin, one bad dive - executed in a blink of an eye - can end your hopes, as Laugher found earlier this year with a shock sixth place finish at the European Championships."I realise the mistake I make is constantly trying to pursue perfection - sometimes you need to give yourself a break," he adds.