In the moment when Tom Daley and Matty Lee saw that they had clinched an Olympic gold medal and Tom leaped into Matty’s arms in an ecstatic “life goal fulfilled” embrace, I started crying.
Which wouldn’t typically be noteworthy for an Olympic feel-good moment. Except I was watching it on DVR. Twelve hours later. And I’d already seen the spoiler that they’d won when I woke up that morning.
Usually, for a sporting event from the past to make me weep, it has to begin with “This is gonna be a tough play...Bryant...” and end with 108 years worth of demons being vanquished.
But like the Chicago Cubs, I feel an especially strong emotional connection to Tom Daley’s athletic career. Which might sound flippant at first glance but to anyone who knows me, that’s about as profound a comparison as I can make.
When Daley came out in December 2013, I was 34 years old and just starting the process of getting comfortable with being gay. I’d known who I really was for a couple decades but at that point, I’d only started to consciously accept and acknowledge it to myself for less than a year. And actually telling anyone about it seemed like it’d take at least another decade’s worth of courage to work up.
The best way I could describe where I was in the coming out process was the “reading Huffpost Queer Voices and wishing that someday I could maybe be that open about myself” phase. One day while doing so, I stumbled upon a headline that said something like “Olympic British diver comes out in emotional video.”
You had me at “clickbait.”
It was the first time I’d ever seen Tom Daley and at that time, I didn’t know anything at all about his life as a diving wünderkind. But what I saw was someone awkwardly and nervously attempting to allow himself to be vulnerable as he struggled to find the right words to reveal he was attracted to men.
I couldn’t relate to anything about his life except that last part. But it was the single most important thing I could possibly relate to.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that he had the kind of face that made you want to watch his vlog while holding up a boombox playing “In Your Eyes.” Which is what inspired me to look up more of his videos online. I’m not made of stone.
While watching his YouTube channel, I also recalled the many years where I’d check out pictures of attractive men online while at the same time refusing to let myself consciously acknowledge the obvious reason for doing so. The closet is a weird and uncomfortable place but its grip can also be frustratingly powerful.
As I viewed Daley’s vlogs, I realized this was the first time I was seeking out videos of a stunningly beautiful gay man while being just barely honest enough with myself to acknowledge that I found him attractive. There’s a lot of caveats in that sentence but believe me, this was a big step toward living my own truth.
So I kept coming back to Daley’s vlog week after week. As I saw him grow into becoming true to his authentic self and letting us see him as a gay man living proudly and enthusiastically, I realized an important distinction.
I had known for a while that at some point I would have to come out and acknowledge who I really was. But seeing Daley as an example of someone who was so free and happy, I began to understand that not only was I gay, but for the first time in my life, I wanted to be gay.
Even though Daley exists in a celebrity world and is someone I’ve never met, by helping me toward that epiphany, he ended up playing a significant role in my journey. I’m forever grateful for that and will always feel a fan’s connection to his athletic career because of it.
When he faltered at the Rio Olympics, it was tough to watch. Even though he’d become so successful by that point and had found personal happiness and a wonderful husband in Dustin Lance Black, I still felt so bad that he’d been professionally crushed in front of the entire world.
To see Daley respond to the pressure of waiting five years for his shot at redemption by stepping up with one of the most brilliant performances of his career was inspiring. To hear him say “I feel incredibly proud to say I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion” was doubly so.
But as I can attest, Tom Daley has proven to be a champion long before the Olympics finally acknowledged it.