You don't have to be crazy to do this
AS THE MIST gathered around a platform 27 metres above a section of Grimstad’s island-dotted coast in southern Norway, the extremity of what was being undertaken became clear.
Performing complicated dives, the competitors hit the water with a gun-crack splash, trying to avoid massive jellyfish, and upon surfacing, they give the safety scuba divers the okay sign. Landing on one’s chest or back can cause serious injury, and then there are the more common forcible enemas that can be a result of hitting the water at such velocity. It’s a sport that can only be described as crazy – along with highly skilled – and next month, the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series is coming to Ireland.
On August 4th, 11 divers will come to Inis Mór to make use of the remarkable setting of Poll na Péist, or as it’s known by its slightly more dramatic modern English translation, the Serpent’s Lair. A blowhole rock formation that has created an almost perfect rectangular pool lies below a platform 28 metres above it that is idea for cliff diving. The event is open to the public but ticketed and strictly limited to those who won tickets from a draw on redbullcliffdiving.com. The Inis Mór stop is halfway through the series, after the Azores and before Boston.
Remarkably, the divers don’t get a chance to practise their dives before heading off to competitions. On the day before the dives are scored, they get a few practice dives in, but outside of competition time, they practise in fragments, only piecing the dives together on tour. Gary Hunt, who won the Grimstad stage, is a relative newcomer to the sport but is the reigning Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series champion, and is the executor of the sport’s most difficult dive.
“We train mostly on the 10-metre platform, sometimes on the three-metre springboard,” he explains shortly after his winning dive in Norway. “You just cut the dive into parts and train each part; the take off, the somersaults and twists, and then the entering. Then we put them together when we come to the competitions.”
Hunt started cliff diving in 2006. He began his career as a swimmer, switching to diving aged nine, but it was only when he was 22 that he got a chance to dive higher than the 10-metre Olympic standard height.
Such is the rigour of their training – each section of the dive is practised thousands of times – cliff divers’ bodies go into autopilot when each somersault and twist is pieced together mid-air. “It’s pretty complicated, but it’s all ingrained in muscle memory,” says Kent De Mond, a diver from San Diego who took third place on the podium in Grimstad.
“If you practise something enough times, your muscles almost know how to react and do that motion without even concentrating on it or thinking about it . . . A lot of times, when you’re going, your body will take over because it knows the feeling of the motion. I’m sure a really great guitarist doesn’t think about where every finger is placed here and there while they’re playing, they know what they’re playing and their fingers know what to do.”
It’s mentally exhausting, De Mond says, and as he stands in a white robe waterside on a misty post-competition afternoon, he’s hoping that it’ll be sunnier in Inis Mór. Aren’t we all.
Orlando Duque from Colombia is a modern-day hero within the sport, with nine World Championship victories to his name. He’s also the guy who publicised the upcoming Irish cliff diving trip by jumping out of a helicopter near Ashford Castle into Lough Corrib. Duque has been to the Serpent’s Lair before too, and describes it as a unique place to dive. “It’s probably my favourite place for the season. I was there a few years ago and I think the location is fantastic,” he says, after a day of practise dives in Grimstad.
The Inis Mór stop differs from other places along the tour. “I think the main difference is that we’re going to be diving into a natural pool that’s pretty small compared to when we’re diving into the open sea or a big lake. I don’t think it’s going to bother anybody, but you just have to make some adjustments, pick different reference points. There’s a difference in level between the edge of the pool and the water so you have to be really aware that you’re looking at the water and not at the edge, so just a couple of things you have to make adjustments for. All the guys, I’m sure, will figure it out after a couple of dives.”
Duque is just how you’d expect a cliff diver to be: tanned, toned, relaxed, and with a mane of black hair that whips dramatically as he completes his famous reverse twists from almost 30 metres above the water.
But what makes these divers do something that seems so unnatural? Duque says they all need “a certain degree of maturity” because the consequences of diving irresponsibly at that height are so huge. “Maybe a little bit of crazy helps,” he adds, “because sometimes you know you’re prepared, but your head is just telling you ‘no way, don’t do this, be careful, be careful’. You have to just go over that and just do it.”
Hunt says he’s attracted to the adrenaline of the sport, but you wouldn’t know it from his softly spoken and almost unreasonably calm demeanour. “Part of the attraction is being able to do something that to people who haven’t seen it before looks crazy but that is possible with lots of training, ” he says. “The adrenaline rush attracts me. I’ve built up a love for the sport. I love throwing myself around doing twists and somersaults and finding my feet again.”
If the weather holds up, seeing these athletes throw themselves into Inis Mór’s rock pool should make for one of the most stunning sights on the World Series tour. Either way, they’ll definitely be making a big, loud, scary splash.