Just over two months after winning gold at the Tokyo Games, British diving star Tom Daley revealed that he survived a scary battle with COVID-19 earlier this year. This weekend, The Times published an excerpt from the Olympian’s upcoming book, Coming Up for Air. In it, Daley provides a detailed account of his harrowing experience—including the very first signs something was off, the false negative tests, and the scary escalation of symptoms that landed him in the hospital just months before the Olympics.
It started with a headache and dizziness during a Monday-morning training session in January 2021. First, Daley chalked it up to a mild concussion he had experienced while diving several weeks earlier. But with his headache still present the next day, he took a rapid test for COVID-19 just in case. The test came back negative, and after a precautionary MRI scan checking for any brain abnormalities came back clear, Daley returned to training “with a bit of a dull, weird headache,” he writes.
On Friday, five days after his headache first appeared, Daley woke up feeling “like razor blades were in the back of my throat.” He took another rapid test, and again it came back negative. Although the sore throat faded within a couple of hours, worrying new symptoms began that night. “After putting our son Robbie to bed, I quickly started to feel that something was very wrong,” Daley writes.
Daley had a very high fever, and alternated between severe chills and burning up. “My teeth chattered so hard and my skull ached. I hadn’t felt that bad since I had pneumonia.” He also had debilitating dizzy spells. “Every time I stood up, I felt the room spinning and a blinding white light, as if I was going to faint, and as if I couldn’t get enough oxygen into my body,” recalls Daley, who needed help from his husband, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, just making it around the house.
“As I went to bed that night, I was nervous,” Daley recalls. “I even checked that Lance would know what he needed to do if I stopped breathing. I honestly felt like I might die.” He took painkillers and planned to see a doctor the following day. “After a fitful night’s sleep, I woke up drenched in sweat and could barely do anything apart from lie on the sofa,” Daley says.
At this point, Daley still didn’t believe it was COVID-19. For the third time, he took a rapid test that came back negative. He also thought it was unlikely he had been exposed to the virus, given how careful he was. “Like everyone else, my life was completely stripped back—I went to the pool and came home,” he writes. “I wore my mask and washed my hands religiously. I had not been anywhere else.”
Daley felt so feverish and breathless that he called the National Health Service’s (NHS) emergency medical help line, and was instructed to take a PCR test. The nearest testing center was only 1.5 miles away, but Daley was so weak and winded that walking there “seemed impossible,” he writes. “I couldn’t even say two words without coughing my guts up.” (The couple did not have a car.)
Daley ordered an at-home test kit, but his condition only deteriorated further while he waited. “By then my bones were aching all over and I had a hacking cough. My lungs felt pressurized, as if they had sacks of rice around them,” he writes. “COVID suddenly seemed a very real possibility.” Daley got himself to the testing center, and the exertion of walking there and back left him feeling like he’d “been run over by a steamroller.” Within eight hours, Daley’s PCR test results came back positive.
By then, Daley’s husband—who had a history of lung problems—started feeling unwell, too, and the couple began to worry for their son. “We were really worried about what would happen if we were both ill and couldn’t look after Robbie,” he writes. Though Daley’s condition actually seemed to improve for a few days, his cough and other symptoms soon returned. “My head felt like I had a [vise] tightening around it and my oxygen levels were dropping,” Daley continues. This time, the NHS sent a paramedic to evaluate him. Given his history of pneumonia and concerns about a secondary chest infection, they put Daley in an ambulance to the hospital.
Daley says he felt a mix of emotions during the “scary” ambulance ride, including guilt about burdening London’s already-overwhelmed hospital system and fear about what might happen to him. “I knew I was really sick, and it was Saturday night, so I wouldn’t be able to speak to a consultant until Monday. I understood how quickly things could potentially go downhill,” Daley writes. He was afraid he might die. “I had flashes of fear about whether I would be put on a ventilator, and my time being up. I was really terrified.”
A chest X-ray revealed “loads of blotches” on Daley’s lungs. Doctors gave him supplemental oxygen and monitored his vitals. After about 10 hours, Daley’s oxygen levels stabilized, and he was discharged. Three days after getting home from the hospital, Daley finally started feeling some relief. “The overwhelming feeling was a sense of relief that it was finally over.”
As is often the case with COVID-19 (especially with severe cases), the effects of the virus on the diver’s body lingered for some time after. The diver’s recovery period sidelined him from Olympics training for the entire first quarter of 2021. “I spent the first three months of this year not diving, only using the power of visualization—just imagining myself doing the dives day in, day out,” he said in an interview with The Times.
Even still today, nine months after his first symptoms came on, Daley feels the long-term impact of the virus on his body. He estimates he is working with about a 5% reduction in his cardiovascular fitness. “I would consider myself to be quite a healthy person,” he told the Times, “but COVID doesn’t discriminate at all.”
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