sport

Fans flock to get Daley fix

Tom Daley will return to competitive diving in England for the first time since his Olympic bronze at the British Gas Diving Championships.

Daley will compete in the 10metre platform, the event he won his London medal in, in Plymouth on Sunday in front of a full house after tickets for his event sold out in just 10 minutes.

It is a measure of diving's growing popularity that it took 20 minutes to sell out the entire three-day meet at the Everyone Active Plymouth Life Centre - Daley's home pool.

The 18-year-old former world champion has, of course, been a major factor in diving's ascent into the mainstream, highlighted by his emotional Olympic success last summer.

That spawned yet new interest in Daley outside the pool and diving has hit prime time over the past month when he co-presented the ITV programme 'Splash!'.

The show was not universally welcomed inside the halls of power at British Swimming, however, with chief David Sparkes publicly critical of Daley's role on the programme.

Sparkes claimed, not for the first time, Daley was putting his media commitments before his diving career.

It prompted an angry public letter from Daley's mum, Debbie, in which she defended her son and questioned Sparkes' position at the helm of British Swimming following a below-target Olympic medal haul.

It was the latest round of controversy to follow Daley as he begins the start of a season that will see him attempt to reclaim his platform world title in Barcelona during the summer.

The teenager will, therefore, again take centre stage again when he returns to action on Sunday.

Until then, Daley will be left to take a back seat as two of his Plymouth team-mates - and golden girls of the Devon city - Sarah Barrow and Tonia Couch woo the limelight.

Plymouth has become the hub of diving talent in this country, aided by the world-class facilities at the Everyone Active Plymouth Life Centre, and the duo shot to fame in their home city last year after clinching the European platform synchro crown before narrowly missing out on an Olympic medal.

Couch has since enjoyed her own popularity after appearing in a double-page photo shoot in a national newspaper and partnered Daley on the final two shows of 'Splash!'.

The 23-year-old may not yet attract the attention of her long-time friend, but admits she has enjoyed revelling in the new-found fame for a sport previously largely overlooked beyond an Olympic year.

"It is amazing how much the profile of diving has changed," Couch said.

"When I first told people I was a diver a few years ago they thought I was a deep-sea diver. They used to ask how I got all that gear on the plane. I said all I need is my costume.

"I still wouldn't say I get well noticed a lot outside of Plymouth - unless I'm with Tom and people then realise who I am.

"The first question people ask is still, 'Do you know Tom Daley?'

"But it is crazy to think that our national championships have sold out in 20 minutes. That shows there is real interest in the sport outside the things like 'Splash!'."

The rush for tickets caught out Barrow who was left asking British Swimming for extras to ensure her family could attend this weekend.

"It wasn't that long ago that only family and a couple of friends would turn up," she said.

"It's great the support is continuing outside the Olympics. We'll need bigger venues soon."

While the public attention has been welcomed both Couch and Barrow have been hard at work, training for six days a weeks since September as they look to build on a breakthrough 2012.

Their partnership has been boosted by Barrow returning to live in Plymouth, after studying in Leeds for the past couple of years, to allow them to train regularly alongside each other.

"Previously we have had to get on a plane and train once every now and then," Barrow said.

"Now it is more relaxed. We can work on our dives without those extra stresses. Our coach Andy (Banks) has everything set out and we just crack on.

"At the moment it is sleep, eat, dive, eat, dive and sleep. There's not much else to do."

Couch believes the pair, who have known each other since joining the same gymnastics class as primary school kids, have already begun to show signs they are improving.

"I definitely feel better about what we're doing," said Couch, who is sponsored by Everyone Active.

"I think in the past we were a little bit scared when we were training together because we knew we had a certain amount of time to work on things.

"I feel a lot stronger in the way we're doing things. The goal is obviously to go that extra step and get on the world championships podium and we are doing all we can to do that."