Alan Hubbard: Why the one-time bête noire of British diving is now bullish about his exotic and extreme new life
Tuesday, 03 July 2012
Or so it was portrayed after he and Tom Daley publicly fell out of synch in the diving competition, finishing eighth when it was hoped they would get a medal, with the 12 years older Aldridge (pictured below) accused of heaping the blame on his young partner and plaintively phoning his mum in the crowd during the 10 metres final. Subsequently he was vilified, critics attacking him for "spewing out a stream of bile" and "an act of betrayal" against Tiny Tom.
Aldridge has always insisted that this wasn't true. But now that the Water Cube waves have abated they have gone their separate ways, Daley onwards to 2012 with a new partner and Aldridge into waters new where, quite literally, he has landed on his feet after a few turbulent tumbles in his private life.
He is in his first full season as a pro on the Red Bull world cliff diving circuit, a somewhat perilous occupation which involves hurling himself from three times the height of his former 10-metre board into lakes, rivers or the sea, always hitting the water feet-first "Otherwise," he says," the impact from that height would be too dangerous.
"It is like jumping from the equivalent of a 10-story building, hitting the water at up to 90kph. If it goes wrong it can be like hitting concrete, you'd probably split you head open." Which actually he once did when practising as a youngster in his home pool of Southampton.
Aldridge also hit rock bottom amid the formal split with Daley which finally came two years after Bejiing. He was twice accused of shoplifting, once from a local B&Q – the same store where he used to work part-time – after putting 30 pence worth of copper fittings in his pocket and walking out forgetfully.
Then he was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting and causing actually bodily harm in Tesco, although the case was dismissed. There was also a nightclub fracas in which he duly proved he was the innocent – and injured – party (pictured below).
"It wasn't the best period of my life," he acknowledges. "I was struggling and I was unlucky."
It was also clear that the Ant and Dec of diving's double act was over when Alexei Evangulov, the Russian performance director of British Diving, told Aldridge he would be selected for neither the World Championships nor the Commonwealth Games. One of the reasons was that he felt Daley needed a younger partner. Ironically Daley's current synchro sidekick, Pete Waterfield, is 31 – a year older than Aldridge.
"I wondered then how I was going to get out of this dark hole," he confesses. "I wasn't in a good place. I needed to do something different."
He worked on a Caribbean cruise ship for five months in a diving show and was persuaded by a friend to enter the European Cliff Diving Championships, which he won. The following year he won again, and last year was invited as a guest diver for two stops on the Red Bull tour; this year he has qualified as a full-time member of the 11-man circuit which carries four-figure prize money.
His first event was plunging into the harbour at La Rochelle in France before a crowd of 70,000. "The routine consists of multiple somersaults and twists marked on a ten points system as in orthodox diving," Aldridge explains.
Diving from a 28-metre clifftop, he says, is both frightening and mentally challenging. "You stand there thinking, 'Wow, should I be doing this? I shouldn't be here. Why am I here?' To do it you must be prepared to push the boundaries at all costs."
When we spoke he was preparing to dive off a Corsican cliff. As it happened, he sustained an injury which has put him out of action for a spell, tearing an adductor muscle when he hit the water unevenly on a wave.
"There's always a risk," Aldridge says. "You have to be a lot mentally stronger and tougher to cope with the fear, the danger and excitement that comes with it. It's not so much a physical thing; because the impact is so hard you are always really liable for an injury."
He adds: "I believe everything happens for a reason, and if what happened in Beijing hadn't happened then I wouldn't be here doing this where I am having a much better life and a much better time. It's the old cliché: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I am in a better frame of mind and a better shape physically than I have ever been in my life."
The tour (pictured below) also embraces Naples, Norway, Dubai, the Azores, Ukraine, Oman, the Hawkesbury river in Australia and diving from an art gallery in Boston, USA. It visits the United Kingdom for the first time in Pembrokeshire, Wales, on September 7 and 8. And Aldridge will be diving at Serpent's Lair in Ireland on August 4 – his 30th birthday.
But wouldn't he prefer to be diving in the Olympics? "Of course I would," he insists. "But would that be any good for me? Probably not, because the media would pick up on everything: 'That's Blake Aldridge, the one that's famous for falling out with Tom Daley in 2008'. I am now in a place where I don't have that in the background. And I am doing well and enjoying it."
His long-time sponsors, the Apogee Corporation, have stuck by him and Aldridge adds: "To be honest, I feel I have been there, done that. I am out of that side of things now. I feel I am doing something bigger and better. I no longer have to commit myself six days a week, training six to eight hours a day and seeing only the four walls inside a swimming pool."
Aldridge's new life affords him a comfortable, all-expenses paid living: "I am now going to some of the most exotic and beautiful locations in the world. It is a fantastic way of life. There are medals and trophies, and I've got money in my pocket.
"It's extreme and dangerous, every ingredient that makes me mentally and physically the person I am. It pushes me further than I ever did."
He says he will be keeping an eye on the Olympic diving events, possibly as a TV commentator. "Of course I wish Tom well. I think he and Pete are both capable of getting individual and synchro medals.
"Pete and I are good mates; I was best man at his wedding. But he is now having to deal with what I had. However, don't get me wrong, we all know what we are entering into. You may be a partnership but Tom is always going to be the one in the spotlight.
"I am not jealous of Tom," he insists. "There's no bitterness, no animosity, and certainly no envy. He has done a fantastic thing for British diving. There is now funding in this sport and it is because of him. I wish him the best of luck."
While their partnership (pictured above) in Beijing appeared less than harmonious Aldridge claims it was never that bad. "People wrote and said some nasty things and it really started to get to me," he tells me. "While I was out there I got quite a few tasty emails. I was made out to be an a*sehole and a mummy's boy.
"The point is, neither Tom nor myself dived anywhere near as well as we could. People said I was blaming him for our performance, but the fact is I admitted I didn't dive well either, although I did score more than Tom and that never normally happened. I never said it was his fault that we didn't perform, but I know what this phenomenal kid is capable of.
"Obviously there will be a lot of media pressure and expectations for Tom but I would say he is better equipped for it than anyone else in the British team. He has been under pressure since he was 13."
Aldridge still occasionally sends Daley, now 18, messages of congratulations although he admits communication is pretty much one way. Not that it bothers him. "I had a tough time," he maintains, "but I got out of it. And I am proud of that."
For further news about Aldridge click here and for the Red Bull tour click here.
Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.