Smiling the way to diving success

3 Jun 2020

We are turning back the clock to relive the careers of some of Britain's aquatics sport heroes of recent times in our Splashbacks feature - with the help of the stars themselves. 

Leon Taylor and synchro partner Peter Waterfield helped secure a first British Olympic diving medal for 44 years as the pair clinched silver in the Men's 10m Synchro in Athens in 2004.

Sixteen years on, Leon reflects on just what went in to that historic Olympic moment, what it has been like to see Tom Daley, Jack Laugher and their colleagues take British Diving on to the next level - and the importance of smiling in elite sport...

What is going through a diver's mind as they prepare to complete their final dive in an Olympic final, knowing a medal may only be 10m and less than two seconds away from their grasp? 

Are they taking in the importance and atmosphere of the moment, sensing the breath being held by every spectator in the stand? Are they recalling all the hard work and dedication that went in to getting them to this point? Are they worrying about buckling under the pressure? 

In fact, Leon Taylor says even one of those thoughts could be a problem in that key moment. The secret? Thinking of nothing.

"That's the question, isn't it: what are you thinking about on the diving board?" he says when recalling the final seconds of that Men's 10m Synchro showpiece in 2004.

"The thing is, if you are thinking about anything then you are in trouble, because it's about clearing your mind, it's being able to just let it happen.

"That's what Peter and I worked so hard to do, to be able to perform under pressure, to be able to follow the process, our pre-dive routine, using the same process each time.

"We did a lot of smiling, which you hear athletes say all the time now - and it's something I share when I'm mentoring any athletes.

Leon Taylor Pete Waterfield Athens 2004 silver [GettyImagesChrisMcGrath].jpg
Peter Waterfield and Leon Taylor (right) with their Olympic silver medals in 2004

"If you're smiling, you're running a certain pattern through your mind, it's about maintaining your emotional state. If you get over-nervous or over-excited in a sport as precise as diving, it can have an impact.

"There are certain things you can do in those moments of pressure, and breathing and smiling are two things that are always under your control. So smiling at the back of the diving board was a key skill." 

Those smiles were there for all to see when Taylor and Waterfield took to the Athens podium to receive their silver medals, ending a near four-and-a-half-decade wait for a British medal in the diving pool.

But Cheltenham-born Leon admits his first love came in a different pool, kickstarting a busy sporting childhood.

"Truth be told, I was a swimmer from day one. My mum and dad had no idea what to do with me because I wouldn't sleep and had so much energy, so my backstory is they channelled me into physical activities and sport, mainly to try to get a bit of rest!" he explains.

"Swimming was my first love. I remember winning my first medal - well, it was a rosette - when I was six, for Cheltenham Swimming Club. I didn't start diving until I was eight, at the same club. 

"I'd also competed and trained in gymnastics from a very early age, so when I started diving, I was already able to do a lot of the stuff that was required, like body control, aerial awareness. It just combined the two things I loved the most.

"For a couple of years, I did all three and at about 11 or 12, I competed at national level in all three of those sports."

Shortly after that point, Taylor decided to focus on diving - a decision that would ultimately result in him winning medals at world, European and Commonwealth level, as well as that silver in Athens and a spot on TeamGB at three consecutive Olympic Games.

Indeed, it was during another Olympics - Barcelona 1992 - that Leon first realised he might have a chance to compete at those highest of levels.

"I remember at the British Diving Championships when I was diving in group B, winning each of the 1m, 3m and 10m contests convincingly at the age of 14," he recalls.

"That was at the same time as the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. You're watching the world's greatest do their thing, and at the same time you are a teenager going after the very same dream.

Leon Taylor Action
Leon Taylor in action

"That was a big moment. Then at 16 I made the men's team, which actually used to be impressive back then - not so much now because of Tom Daley and everyone else!"

In Taylor's own words, each of the three Olympics he went on to compete in "was incredible in its own way". 

At his first, Atlanta 1996, the then-18-year-old was the youngest member of the British Diving team. 

He reached the semi-finals of the Men's 10m Platform - with synchro categories yet to be introduced - and still looks back with vivid memories of the Olympic Village experience, seeing sporting giants of the time wandering around.

In fact, in the middle of the preliminary round of his event, Leon remembers hearing 110,000 people break into raucous noise from the nearby athletics stadium as Michael Johnson broke the Men's 200m record on the track. 

Four years down the line, synchronised diving had been introduced in time for Sydney 2000.

"The second time around, what a brilliant place, a perfect location - but the results were heartbreaking," says Taylor.

"Peter and I were fourth in the synchro and then I was 13th in the individual. My outcome goals were to win a medal in the synchro and make the top 12 individually - and I ended up fourth and 13th, which was devastating."

Did that, though, make the silver medal moment in Athens four years later even more special?

"I actually had the toughest four-year cycle of my career going in to Athens, because I had two reconstructive shoulder surgeries in 2001," he adds.

"It looked like it was all over for me, and during that period of time in 2002, I was underperforming, I was going through my own mental health issues, and it didn't look like I was going to be able to make it.

"But things turned around, and then to do what Peter and I did in Athens, a first diving medal for Britain for 44 years, breaking the mould, that was made even sweeter by missing out in heartbreaking fashion four years before." 

Leon Taylor Pete Waterfield Athens dive [GettyImagesShaunBotterill].jpg
Taylor and Waterfield in sync

A bronze at the World Aquatics Championships in Montreal followed a year later for Taylor and Waterfield. But by the time Beijing 2008 rolled around, Taylor had moved to the BBC commentary box after retiring shortly before the Games. 

He had already begun mentoring Tom Daley by the time the Plymouth-based star announced himself to the world as a 14-year-old finalist in the Men's 10m Platform at those Games.

Daley has since won three world titles and reached the Olympic podium at successive Games, while teammates Jack Laugher and Chris Mears won TeamGB's first ever diving gold at Rio 2016. 

So what has it been like for Taylor to watch that next generation thrive?

"It's been incredible, hasn't it? I was lucky enough to step into the commentary role after retiring, and by the time we got to London 2012, I was bedded in - and that's when the next generation were doing their thing," he says.

"That's when Tom won his first Olympic bronze, and to be commentating on that, on Tom, with 15 million people tuned in, it's just unbelievable.

Tom Daley London 2012 celebration
Tom Daley at London 2012

"A year later, we are doing a live Saturday night TV show that involves diving - Splash! - it's just incredible to be a part of. I think back to my early days in the sport, you'd have never thought that would be the popularity of it. 

"We have got a great reputation in British Diving now. Back in the day, we didn't have such a favourable reputation. Peter and I did our bit to change that, then Tom carried it on and changed the perception, and now backed up by all the other great names that we have in the sport - the likes of Jack, with he and Chris winning Olympic gold, then you've got Grace Reid, and Tonia Couch and Sarah Barrow before that."

It is not just as a commentator and interested spectator that Taylor continues to play his part in the future of diving and Olympic sport in the UK, though.

The 42-year-old is now a performance and wellness coach, working closely with SportsAid in supporting the next generation of athletes. 

"When you sit down with the young athletes, whether they are archers, swimmers, divers, boccia players or wheelchair basketballers, you ask them what their challenges are, they are all exactly the same: finances, balancing things, time management, injury, illness, underperformance, pressure, finding time with friends etc.

"So what I learned very quickly is that you are not alone when you're on your sporting journey, even though it feels like it at times. 

"You can really learn a lot from other people's experiences, even if they do a sport that is completely different from yours that requires different attributes. A lot of the challenges are pretty much identical - and that gave me confidence as a mentor to be able to make a difference, and it's thrilling for me to learn so much about different sports as well." 

Another aspect of sport and life that Taylor involves himself with is discussions of mental health, a subject that has taken on even greater significance during the unprecedented times of recent months.

"Mental health is essential, and in times of challenge, people are exposed. We are all weathering a storm at the moment, but we are all in different boats. Some people are having a tougher times than others," he says.

Leon Taylor SportsAid jersey.jpeg
Leon Taylor is an ambassador for SportsAid

"Collectively, we have a responsibility for ourselves and those around us to look out for each other. The focus on mental wellness is important, especially in times of challenge and crisis.

"We've got to talk to each other to look out for each other. That is a big reason why I am involved and speak so passionately and openly about it."

The importance of having good people around you has never been lost on Taylor.

It remains the overarching highlight of his diving career, and something he still looks back on fondly now.

"People always ask me what I miss from it. Of course you can always go back to those moments where you stood on the podium or you hit a dive for 10s - and they are incredible moments," he adds. 

"But honestly, the thing I miss the most is the banter with my teammates. The thing that stayed true was the teammates, the banter and working hard. We trained so hard for so many hours, putting it all in, and having a laugh while you are doing that. 

"That was the constant. Your performances go up and down, you're injured and you're tired and you're ill and all those other things you have to manage. But your teammates, they are always there and they make up the most special part of my memories.

"If I could go back and do it all again, I'd probably spend a bit more time enjoying it. I would still train six or seven hours a day and put all my effort in, but now that I'm retired, I'm so appreciative to have that career as an athlete, and I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I could've done.

"I'd say a few more 'thank yous' along the way as well, for all those around me that were working hard and making those sacrifices."

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