The Tokyo Olympics will always be remembered for the moment when Tom Daley realized one of his life’s ambitions, capturing a gold medal with Matty Lee in men’s synchronized diving.
Yet once Daley began competing in the individual platform event, the narrative began to shift.
During the semifinals, NBC commentator and former Olympian Cynthia Potter voiced her belief that for most divers, an individual gold medal would mean more than a synchro gold. She expounded that this was because an individual gold would effectively crown the winner as the best diver on the planet.
I understand her argument. After all, who wouldn’t want to be recognized as the GOAT? And yet, I’d argue that what Daley and Lee accomplished in winning synchro gold was a more impressive feat than an individual title.
The individual event does provide an opportunity for a diver to put his own personal stamp on the Games. Silver medalist Yang Jian, for example, dropped jaws by executing a 4 1/2 somersault pike in the final with a 4.1 degree of difficulty.
But what separates Daley and Lee’s achievement is what’s at the heart of the synchro diving challenge: pulling off insanely complicated, gravity defying, and aesthetically pleasing choreography with the whole world watching ... and doing it in unison with another diver falling right next to you.
If you think that’s easy, try watching the fans in any stadium dance to “YMCA.” Now imagine them trying to do it while dropping at 35 miles per hour.
Simply put, a diving partnership requires incredible skill, coordination, timing, and trust. Doing it all in midair seems like it should be impossible. The fact that Daley and Lee were able to pull off such an exciting comeback win in the final was that rarest of athletic moments where skill and chemistry blended so superbly that it felt like a genuine athletic miracle.
Furthermore, the synchro event adds an additional “wow” factor, especially when the divers enter the water in unison. When an athlete nails an individual dive, it’s exhilarating. When two partners land a syncho dive simultaneously, it turns me into an audience member at the Apollo watching Chris Rock.
Daley, the only out LGBTQ Olympian to win two medals in Tokyo, has won many individual victories, including a FINA World Championship in 2017. Yet none of them compared in recognition or personal fulfillment to winning an Olympic synchro gold. That says all that needs to be said.
Nothing from this year’s Olympics is going to top the sight of Daley leaping into Lee’s arms. And the difficulty and brilliance inherent in synchronized diving means their win is every bit as impressive and valued as any individual medal.