Family life has been treating Tom Daley very well these days.
The morning we speak, Daley looks relaxed and confident with his trademark bubbly persona and effervescent smile on persistent display. The better part of a year has elapsed since he took home an Olympic gold medal in the men’s synchronized 10-meter platform diving event with partner Matty Lee at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The mood on display in the Daley home in London this morning can best be described as organized chill.
Dressed in a white T-shirt with a stitched rainbow heart that looks like it might even be the handiwork of Daley himself, the 27-year-old exudes the confidence of a champion who, while not slowing down as a father, husband, athlete, and activist, has still found time to appreciate the fruits of his lifelong efforts.
“Funny thing is that I don’t think a champion even needs to win. I think [being] a champion is an attitude,” Daley says. “It’s an attitude towards doing the best that you can but not sacrificing your integrity and not sacrificing your morals and you as a person.”
Daley adds that while being a champion is “not about the gold medals,” he still relishes everything about his recent gold medal win.
“Initially, going to the Olympics was my dream, and representing Team [Great Britain]. Once I started to believe that I could one day win an Olympic gold medal, that was my aim,” Daley says of his decades-long quest to be the best at his sport.
He came away with Olympic bronze medals in 2012 and 2016, but Olympic gold remained elusive until last year. Daley famously wiped away tears as he and Lee collected their medals. The emotional impact of the moment remains with him, as Daley at times struggles to describe the intensity of the moment.
“It was like one of those things that you just put your life and your soul and everything into that sport for so long that when you finally do it, it just feels like…” he trails off momentarily. “Yeah, it feels like nothing else can ever compare, honestly.”
Winning that medal was a stressful process, and one of the ways Daley dealt with the anxiety of competition was with his newfound passion for knitting and crocheting, an avocation that made viral headlines in the days following his Olympic win.
He pulled off a classic April Fool’s Day prank this year when he posted to social media a new line of crocheted willy warmers for sale. While his brief foray into the world of designer dickwear was a joke, it turns out Daley has been inundated with requests for the schlong sock. He now routinely creates a cock cozy as a birthday present for his friends.
“I’ve literally got orders here,” Daley laughs, holding up a handful of multicolored missile mittens. “Whenever it’s a friend’s birthday, they always get a willy warmer.”
All this talk inevitably leads to the question of just how one obtains the correct measurements of length and girth for the garment. Does Daley ask for stats? Does he guess? Does he break out his ruler and find out for himself? Inquiring gays want to know.
“Funnily enough, there is a pattern online that I follow,” Daley says, calling it a “one-size-fits-most” pattern.
“But yeah, it’s quite a funny thing. I mean, I don’t think anybody ever wears them,” Daley naively says. “They’re just a little novelty gift.”
After winning in Tokyo, Daley took his gold medal and new knitting prowess and returned home to his Oscar-winning screenwriter (Milk) husband, Dustin Lance Black, and their son, Robert “Robbie” Ray Black-Daley. Despite all he had going on in his personal and professional life, it didn’t take long for Daley to use his newfound global platform to shine some disinfecting light on state-sponsored anti-LGBTQ+ hate and violence.
At the Attitude Awards last year, he called out countries that criminalize same-sex sexual relations, often with death sentences, and yet were still allowed to compete in the Olympics. He advocated banning those countries from future Olympics, although he admits it would be a difficult policy to implement.
“It’s a very nuanced subject because you don’t want to punish the athletes because it’s not the athletes that are making up the laws. But I do think there…should be a certain standard that the [International Olympic Committee] holds the countries to in terms of just basic protections for queer athletes and for the people that are in [those countries].”
Daley’s activism will not ebb anytime soon. He sees real progress achieved when sports figures use their visibility to advocate for the greater good, even if it means stepping outside the sports bubble to confront political and social issues of the day.
“I think it’s important that sports people use their platform to confront political things, because, at the end of the day, when you are successful in sport, you have a platform,” he says. “And you have a platform to share the voices of people that may not have [one].”
He also sees winning as an out athlete as perhaps the most effective tool against bigots like the Russian anchors who mocked Daley and New Zealand’s trans woman weight lifter Laurel Hubbard during the games last year. As Daley sees it, the fact they are talking about him is proof he’s already changing the narrative in those countries, forcing thought leaders in the media and elsewhere to admit that LGBTQ+ athletes exist and that one of them just won an Olympic gold medal. While others may see hatred, Daley sees grudging affirmation for all LGBTQ+ athletes. And that happened partly because he was willing to compete — and was able to win — as an out gay athlete.
“I think there’s something really powerful about going to the Olympic games and being there as part of the LGBT community and not only just being there but also doing well so that it actually creates some kind of visibility in all parts of the world. Because let’s say if we had come in last place, would the Russian television even be talking about LGBT anything in the first place?” Daley says.
Daley burst onto the international scene at age 14 when he competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. A lesson Daley did not realize he had learned until more recently is how the innocence of his youth benefited him in those early international competitions.
“I could go into those competitions, and I didn’t really know the grandeur of it,” he observes in retrospect. “I didn’t know the scale of it. I could just go there and be like, Oh, I’m just here diving and doing my thing and enjoying it. So I didn’t have any of the pressure or the expectations because I didn’t know about any of that stuff yet.”
In his new memoir, Coming Up for Air, Daley details some of the challenges he faced in becoming a champion. He does so not to garner sympathy but to show how he overcame those road bumps to continue moving forward. Coming Up for Air also serves as an instruction manual for living a purposeful life. Chapter titles include “Courage,” “Endurance,” and “Resilience” along with “Purpose,” “Kindness,” and “Perspective.”
“Each chapter is a story about a lesson that I’ve learned,” Daley says, adding, “I hope that people will be able to take what I’ve experienced in sport and be able to apply that to other areas of their life too.”
In the memoir, Daley also discloses his battle with eating disorders.
“I was told before the 2012 Olympics I was fat and I had to lose weight,” Daley explains. “And especially when you’re in diving, everything’s on show. You have nowhere to hide, and it was the first time that I ever thought that anybody had looked at my body in a way that it wasn’t just a performance tool but looked at it as ‘Is he fat or not?’”
Daley said he became “extremely self-conscious” about his body and “took some pretty extreme measures in order to lose weight.” He says part of his body insecurity is a direct result of the training necessary to be an elite athlete.
“In the off-season, you tend to put on weight and muscle, and then you cut through the performance season,” Daley explains. “So your body is constantly changing all the time, and what’s really difficult is that you know what your body can look like when you’re at the Olympics or the World Championships. So you know what you want it to look like, and you know you’re going to get there, but it’s really hard sometimes to look at yourself and feel like Oh, I’m not there, and I feel like I’ve got a long way to go, and it’s just this constant battle in your head.”
Given his experience, Daley empathizes with others struggling with body image.
“I think no matter who you ask, people will always have something about their body that they don’t like,” he says, noting that even those who appear to have the perfect body admit “they will have something that they want to be better.”
One area of Daley’s life that couldn’t be better is his family. Robbie turns 4 in June. Daley leans forward excitedly. He’s clearly pleased with the opportunity to gush about his son and the quality family time with Robbie and Black he’s recently enjoyed.
“He goes to start school in September, which is just insane,” he says of his child.
Daley laments something all too relatable for parents of young kids. “It’s just all going very quickly with Robbie” and “it feels like yesterday he was just a baby” while “it feels like he’s a full-blown adult” already, he says. Still, he’s certainly loving his life as a father.
“The best part is just that love that you feel and that love that they give to you and…[how] they just melt your heart in every single way, which is just so, it’s the best thing ever,” Daley says. “It helps put things into perspective of what really matters most. The hardest part is just that constant feeling that you’re going to mess it up and that you’re going to say one thing that’s going to then take them in a certain direction. You just want what’s best for your kids, and I think that’s the hard thing — just making sure that you are always doing the best that you can.”
Daley credits Black with contributing to his growth and continued success, helping him put the highs and lows of life in perspective.
“It’s been nine years now, and we’re coming up for our fifth wedding anniversary, which again seems like that’s gone incredibly quickly,” Daley says, adding he has a special connection with Black.
“I was able to speak to Lance about those things in a way that he understood,” Daley says of his post-medal emotional letdown in 2012. “Like when he won an Oscar and then he had a little bit of a downward slump, and he had lost his brother, and I had lost my dad, and we were able to connect on so many levels. We both had this similar level of ambition and wanted to put our lives [in order], and we knew what it took to be at the top of your game in whatever field it was.”
While Daley might have been left momentarily speechless when asked about his emotions after winning a gold medal, it was apparent there weren’t enough words for Daley to describe the rewards of life as a father and husband.
“It’s been amazing,” Daley says blissfully. “It’s a really magical thing.”
Photography by Bartek Szmigulski
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2022 Champions of Pride issue, which is out on newsstands May 17, 2022. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.