Tom Roberts: Diver & Gymnast

He’s competed at the ESPN World Champion Series for gymnastics, is the manager, director and coach at the finest diving facility in the world, lives on the 65thfloor and drives a fast car, all at the age of 20! We catch up with Tom Roberts, the only board diving coach in the UAE and talk about his achievements, his plans for the UAE at the 2024 Olympic Games, feeling like a 50-year old and… banana sandwiches!

You’ve been a gymnast for about 17 years now, how 
did it all start?
I started doing a bit of gymnastics when I was three years old, so I was pretty young. I guess it officially started at an event in school and I was asked by my teacher to jump over something and I didn’t quite understand. So I just went crazy and did a jump over the box by accident and the teacher was like “Whoa! What’s going on?” and from there he introduced me to gymnastics in a professional club and things just spiralled from there. I was about 11, I think when all this happened. 

How did things take off from gymnastics to diving?

Well, I was getting to a point in gymnastics where I was training so much that I had a lot of injuries and I felt I wasn’t going to get any better than I already was. And I went on holiday one day and I saw a diving board and thought, “Let’s see how many somersaults I can do before I hit the water.” I did about 4 and I thought maybe I could be good at diving. So I went home and as I was talking to one of my student’s mum and I mentioned it, she said to me, “You do realize who my husband is?” and I said, “No” and she goes, “He’s Bob Morgan.” And Bob Morgan is a four time Olympian – two-time World, and two-time Common World Champion in diving. He was the Tom Daley 20 years ago and as soon as she said Bob Morgan, I obviously knew his name. So I met him and he introduced me to a man called Ben who’s in charge of diving in Wales and I started training with him. Soon Ben realized that I could teach as well as train and so I started teaching too. He taught me everything I know about diving now.

And how did your move to Dubai happen?
Well, my sister lives here so I’m a bit fortunate. I had come on holiday with no intention of moving here and then realized the many opportunities that were out here. I did have a bit of a reality check as well because I knew that I was coming to the end of my gymnastics career. I knew I was no longer able to keep up with the boys competing so I thought I could do with a bit of sunshine and tax-free (laughs). So I asked my sister if I could live with her for a bit till I found something and within 24 hours I went out, looked for a job, got a job with Du Gymnastics and then looked at the potential of opening up a diving club out here. And it just spiralled from there. Now I’m doing stunts with a company for Sandance, I’ve just done the Amwar drinking water TV advert and now this interview with one8one – all in the span of two months!

 

That’s incredible! But you mentioned you had to quit gymnastics because of your injuries. Was that hard for you?
It was hard, yes. I was going to quit when I was about 17 since I had a full knee construction surgery. And after that, everyone was sort of like, “Yeah, he’s not going to ever come back to gymnastics.” And people telling me I’m not going to be able to do it again inspired me to get up and do it. Although my rehab took a long time, I did get up and do another three years. But then I realized I really cannot anymore and that I’m ruining my body. I feel like a 50 year old man at the moment. 

So you like to play by your own rules? 
Yeah, I think you’ve got to, to be honest with you. You’re as good as you are and as good as you want to be. 

“A lot of people say gymnastics is a talented sport. I don’t believe it is. I don’t believe i was very talented. I believe i worked hard.”


That’s a great way to look at it. You’re currently working in Dubai to train gymnasts for the 2024 Olympics. Is that right?
Yeah, but it’s not as big as that yet. The diving club has only been open for a month now. If all goes well, in 2024 Dubai will have the Olympics, and that gives me 12 years. I mean, you’ve got to have a long-term plan, and my long-term dream would be to get one of my divers to the Olympic Games or on a world circuit by then. I mean 12 years is a long time away. A lot can happen in 12 years; this may not be happening in 12 years’ time, the Olympics might not come. But the long-term goal is diving. We’ve got the world’s best facility, we’ve got the potential to do it, with a bit of knowledge, a few more coaches, I think there’s no reason why Dubai cannot make it to the Olympic Games; same with gymnastics as well. Dubai has loads of potential! So I’m very excited.

 

What age would you recommend other gymnasts to start at?
It actually depends on each one. A lot of people say gymnastics is a talented sport. I don’t believe it is. I don’t believe I was very talented. I believe I worked hard. And I believe if you work hard no matter what age you are, you’re going to achieve. If you see my adult classes for diving for example, 18-40 years of age, they are actually progressing much better than my younger ones. I think it’s because they’re older so they understand things a lot better so they can push themselves a little more.

Is being so young a challenge for you when you teach, especially teaching older students?
Yes, it is. It is very difficult. You’ve got to know how to deal with people. It’s a lot of hard work but I enjoy sharing my knowledge, and working with other people. But it is difficult to communicate with people that are older than me. It’s a very different environment here compared to teaching in schools. Over here students come to me because they want to and not because they have to. And that makes a huge difference. But in Dubai, the biggest challenge would be the language barrier. There are people from everywhere here and I like that, because it’s a challenge! I have people who don’t know a word of English and they still come for diving lessons. So the way I teach them? I get into the pool and do it with them! There’s loads of different ways of coaching and you just need to adapt based on whom you’re teaching.

You’ve recently competed in Orlando, Florida for the ESPN World Championship series. What was that like?
It was different. I enjoyed it. But I think I enjoyed it more because I knew it was my last competition, I wasn’t there to win it, I was there because I wanted to do it and I just wanted to enjoy the last time of being in a competition. So I had a great holiday with all the boys of the Welsh National Squad and we had a great time for 10 days. 

“You’ve got to play by your own rules. You’re as good as you are and as good as you want to be.”


Was there any pressure, it being your last competition?
Yeah, there’s always pressure because you don’t want to finish on a bad note. I wanted to go out on a good one and be proud of myself that on the last competition, I landed on my feet! I did quite well, I got 7th on high bar, which I was happy with.

And what about the banana sandwiches?
(laughs out loud) Ohhh! Banana sandwiches are amazing! A good friend Clinton, who was our World Series gymnast, introduced me to them and this was his mum’s special. We were at a competition one day, a long time ago, and I was very nervous. He handed me one and told me to try it and it was fantastic! All of a sudden my mental attitude changed and I had some energy! And since then it’s been a little ritual of mine. Clinton would bring me my banana sandwiches and in return during training sessions, my mum would always make him sandwiches! People have teddy bears and do some things before competitions, but banana sandwiches seem to have worked for me, doesn’t matter where you are in the world!

What’s in the pipeline for this year?
Well, I may be going back to the UK to do a world record – we’re going to dive a marathon! So you’ve got to get up a pool, run up the stairs to the top of the 10m and dive off it. There’s a team of 10 of us doing it and we will attempt to do 4,600 dives in 26 hours across 10 different facilities in the UK. So that’s 46 dives an hour per person! We’re going to try and do it for charity as well.

What’s a regular day like in Tom Roberts’ life?
Right now, it’s a lot of paper work! I wake up at 9 am and then I’m mostly doing paperwork and accounts since it’s a new club. Then I try to do some promotion as well and also work with a company called DuDive and teach for 4-5 hours a day. Then I come home and eat and train for 2-3 hours a day but sometimes it’s really hard since I don’t get to hit the gym till about midnight! I usually go to bed around 1:30 – 2:00 am.

Do you think working so much will burn you out soon?
I don’t know. I hope this excitement never ends! I’m living in my dream world right now. I mean, I’m living in one of the best countries in the world, I am the manager and director of the world’s best diving facility, I’m driving a really fast car, I live on the 65th floor – life doesn’t get better. And the most important thing is I enjoy my work!

How do you keep grounded ?
(Pauses for a few seconds pondering) I don’t know… I just… I really don’t know.

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