From battling Tom Daley to starring in China’s ‘Cirque du Soleil’: how Tom Chambers is diving into unknown waters
Former Scottish national diving champion swaps the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ of an elite athlete’s career to be an elite performer in a cultural acrobatic show
He competed against Tom Daley as a teenager, but while the English diving prodigy was busy scooping up another medal at the Commonwealth Games, former Scottish national champion Tom Chambers’ path in life has taken a slightly different turn.
Chambers is still jumping from great heights into water – but now the 31-year-old is wowing Chinese audiences as an elite performer rather than an elite athlete.
“Honestly I would never be able to make it the way he’s made it,” said Chambers, who even collaborated on British diving television game show Splash! with the Olympian.
“It’s probably more fun doing what I do than all the blood, sweat and tears he has to go through to be as good as he is.”
Watch The Han Show by Dragone (Chambers at 2 minutes)
Chambers is now a star in his own right in the Far East, where he performs breathtaking stunts off a 25-metre high board in Wuhan for The Han Show, a cultural acrobatic show directed by world-renowned Cirque du Soleil mastermind Franco Dragone.
“It’s a huge circus-style show – the same kind of thing as Cirque du Soleil, but here in Wuhan,” said Chambers.
“I’m lucky to be here,” he added. “[Dragone] is a very famous director in our industry – it’s kind of like the pinnacle for everyone who works in the small shows like I used to.”
Chambers had represented the Scotland national diving team until he was 18, but decided to take his talents abroad as his chances of qualifying for the Commonwealth Games slimmed.
“I did a couple of summer diving shows in Europe but I heard there were shows going all year round in Asia,” he said.
The Scot was thrown into the deep end as his first Asian gig brought him to Taiwan in 2007, where he and a few expats worked in a family-run dolphin park. While he was prepared for the move, Chambers conceded it took some time to blend in with the locals.
“You could say it was a shock at first but I’ve always been an open-minded person,” he said.
“It was crazy because we lived in a tiny little village – proper rural fishing village – and there were about four or five of us living and working together.
“We were probably weirdos to all the locals because they used to see us from their windows as we climbed up ladders and jumped off them. It was fun.”
Chambers then took his talents around the continent, stopping off in China, Singapore and even Hong Kong.
“I was down in Shenzhen for about three years and I’d come to Hong Kong to training at the diving pool in Kowloon Park,” he said.
Following years of performance diving at theme parks, fishing villages and rural towns, Chambers made it to The Han Show theatre and has been with them since its inception in 2014. He shares the stage with equally gifted acrobats and performers, Chinese and international.
“There are lots of flips and acrobatics into the water, but there are other performances like hand-balancing acts and [traditional opera] … I can’t even think to do the stuff other people do on the show,” said Chambers, who has been in Asia on and off for over 10 years.
The Scot is now living like a local would in the mainland, but there is one aspect of its theatre culture distinctly different from the West.
“I think the [Chinese audience] do enjoy it because – without blowing my own trumpet – we do pretty cool things on stage and the stage itself is unbelievable.
“But sometimes we get the feeling that the Chinese audience is a little bit scared to stand up and clap, but it just takes a couple of people to do it and they all join in.
“Sometimes they’re not sure if it’s appropriate to clap, but us being on stage, that’s all we want … it just makes it more rewarding when they actually do it.”
However, Chambers sees potential in the industry, especially for young Chinese divers who opt not to take the athlete’s path.
“China has been the best in the world [for diving] for 30 years now and we’ve got a few amazing Chinese divers in our cast,” he said.
“I think Chinese divers are more concerned with winning competitions so don’t hear so much about our side, but there’s going to be a lot more shows like ours opening up in China. Once they can figure out what we do, they’ll be way better than us and we’ll be out of a job.
“I will probably go home at some point but I might end up staying in China and taking the coaching route.
“We can’t do what we’re doing forever because it takes its toll on our bodies, so I’m just trying to take advantage of it while I can.”