Agony of fourth was a motivation for me
LEON Taylor was already something of an Olympic veteran by the time he and synchronised diving partner Pete Waterfield stood ten metres above the Athens Olympic pool.
But this time it was different, the former Bournside School pupil knew that this was likely to be his last shot at claiming glory on the greatest stage of all.
Cheltenham-born Taylor had sampled the eye-opening events of the Atlanta games as a fresh-faced 18-year-old back in 1996, before an agonising experience at the Sydney Games four years later.
Denied a bronze medal by the narrowest of margins, Taylor, then 22, resolved to spend the next four years doing everything in his power to claim an elusive Olympic medal.
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And his dreams came true as along with Waterfield he somersaulted, twisted and splashed his way to a silver medal, earning him immediate celebrity status – especially back on home turf in the town of his birth.
Recalling his Athens experience, Taylor was quick to point out that his journey to claiming that silver medal started with those wide-eyed experiences of the Atlanta games eight years before.
"Athens was my third Olympics so it was an especially special thing to win a medal there," he said.
"I went to Atlanta in 1996 and that was extraordinary thing for an 18-year-old lad to experience – that in itself used to be impressive until Tom Daley came along.
"I had my eyes opened by that experience and then sport in general changed massively in the next few years after that.
"In 1998 I moved to Sheffield to join the high-performance centre there and funding through the National Lottery began to come through and that changed things massively.
"I went in to Sydney where the synchronised diving came in for the first time and Peter Waterfield and I were certainly in with a medal chance – we had won bronze in the qualifying event.
"But we came fourth. Now that is the worst place to finish in any event, especially in a subjective sport where it's people's opinions deciding on whether you have won or not.
"It was pretty hard to swallow.
"I don't use the word lightly, but having trained so hard for so long we were absolutely devastated not to win a medal.
"We had sacrificed so much to stand on the podium and we missed out by such a narrow margin and that became a massive motivator for the next four years.
"And it was a good job that I had that motivation because I really needed it, as in 2002 I had reconstructive shoulder surgery, and was only given a 40 per cent chance of recovering.
"It was a wear and tear thing from hitting the water at 40mph so many times.
"I made it back into the pool from that surgery to be told that I needed another surgery and without doubt that was the lowest point in my career.
"So to even get to Athens, let alone give it another shot at a medal, was pretty amazing in the first place.
"And then to pull it off, with those five dives in front of 15,000 people, it was almost perfect.
"What would have been perfect was if we could have beaten the Chinese pair and claimed gold, but silver was better than bronze and it was certainly better than fourth – I knew how that felt."
The joy of winning silver was heightened on his return home to Cheltenham when Taylor was given the honour of parading around the town in an open top bus showing off his shiny silver medal.
A confident and exuberant guy in any other situation, Taylor said the bus tour was one of the most bizarre experiences of his life.
He explained: "It was a lovely experience, lovely but uncomfortable.
"When you are part of a rugby team or a football team and you go on an open top bus tour, you're there with your teammates.
"But I was on my own waving at the crowd in my tracksuit and waving my medal – I felt like a bit of a prat.
"It was unusual and lovely. I was so honoured that the people of the town came out to support me, it was a great thing for Mum, Dad and my sister too, but it was bizarre in a way."
Taylor now works as a motivational speaker in the business community as well as touring schools delivering the message of the importance of a healthy lifestyle.
He has also published a book entitled Mentor based on his experiences as a mentor within the British Diving team and with teenage star Tom Daley.
For more information on Taylor and his books visit his website www.leontaylor.co.uk.