Making Olympic divers look soft the professional lunatics of the Cliff Diving World Championship think nothing of plunging 27 metres while busting moves that would make Michael Jackson weep

Words: Warren Pole

Photos: Richie Hopson

LITTLE MORE THAN a quarter of a Premier League football pitch and just over halfway in an Olympic pool, 27 metres isn’t far. It’s such a short distance that Usain Bolt could cover it in less than three seconds.

But these things are all relative because when you put those once insignificant 27 metres and leave them dangling in thin air between the diving board from hell and the cold, hard waters of the Atlantic Ocean they suddenly look very different. In short, they look bloody terrifying. Yet for the divers of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series these 27 meters are where they go to work.

“Being up there is never normal,” says diver Matt Cowen, winning the award of the day for understatement. “It’s a place where you have to learn to control your fears”.


Now that's a diving board...

While five and ten metre boards all look regular enough, especially in the wake of recent Olympic excitement, the diving board for the UK round of the World Championship could not be more different.

Taking two weeks to prepare, it had to be flown into place by helicopter and is attached using bolts over four metres long. Surprisingly narrow and with no guardrail, it juts out from the Welsh rock face over the unseasonably azure waters far below. The only creature comfort of any sort is the sandpaper griptape wrapped around the board’s edge, giving the divers the traction needed to launch the intensely physical moves they’re going to be throwing down all weekend.

Unlike Olympic diving, cliff diving is no stadium sport. This an event that lives, breathes and thrives in the open air, usually in the remoter corners of the countries the tour visits. For this round an old slate quarry on the Pembrokeshire coast made the perfect venue, its natural amphitheatre lending proceedings a suitably gladiatorial edge.

Arriving at the ‘venue’ was something of a culture shock. Driving from London the roads shrunk progressively from the broad sweep of the M4 to single carriageways into the countryside, then to single lane, until finally the tarmac ran out and I was rattling down a dirt track, through a farm. Incompatible as this may sound with one of the most extreme sports you’ll find anywhere, it was in fact perfect and cresting the grassy knoll beyond said farm the Cliff Diving World Championship was layed out before me, bright, shiny and jaw-dropping, like something from another world that had popped in for the weekend to fry a few minds before jetting off elsewhere. Which is precisely what it was.

Wandering to the water’s edge I was just in time for the end of the qualifying round. Craning my neck painfully I saw the tiny stick man silhouetted high above flick himself out of the handstand he had been holding on the very edge of the board before spinning, pirouetting and cannoning towards the water below. The silence in this moment as everyone present held their breath was mesmerizing, and the boom as our man hit the water at nigh on 50mph was astonishing. More astonishing was the fact he then surfaced, waved, smiled and left the water under his own steam rather than on a spinal board.


Get it wrong from this height in those trunks and you're in for the wedgie of a lifetime

Bumping into an impeccably tanned Greg Louganis, the multiple world diving champion, quadruple Olympic gold medalist and now one of the judges on this tour, I ask how hard the hit is landing a dive from this height.

“Significant,” he replies smiling and rivaling Cowen in the understatement stakes. I later learn that a spot of top bombing from this board would be much like hitting concrete from 13 metres. ‘Significant’ indeed.

And the consequences of a mistake?

“There is a timing issue,” Louganis explains. “You have to hit the water right. At one event a diver was a little short [not quite vertical] on entry and was knocked unconscious. The rescue divers got him out and he didn’t remember any of it. That’s probably a good thing.”

Said rescue divers have a busy job. On permanent standby treading water beneath the platform whenever diving is going on they spray water across the landing zone to break the water’s surface which eases the impact for divers fractionally as well as making it easier for them to spot as they rocket towards it at mach three. Two of them plunge below the surface every dive before a diver hits, ready to haul him out should injury leave him unable to do it himself.

Wondering why every diver I see is hammering into the water feet first I spot nine time cliff diving world champ Orlando Duque having just wrapped up his own qualifying dives and ask what that’s all about.

You can go headfirst from this height, but you’ll get hurt sooner or later,” he says. “Feet first still isn’t safe, but it’s safer – your lower body is much tougher, all the muscles, ligaments, bones, everything, it’s all stronger. You still feel the impact though, even on a really good dive”.

Talking with former British Olympic diver turned cliff diving ace Blake Aldridge I learn that there’s more to the impact than feeling it. As he explains things, it’s more about not feeling it.

“When you hit the water from one of these dives you’re actually numb from the impact,” he tells me as we relax in the divers’ hot tub, thoughtfully provided on the cliffs beneath the diving board for competitors to stay warm between dives.

And what, precisely, was I doing in this hot tub reserved for some of the most unhinged athletes on this planet? Well naturally I was keeping warm between my dives because, under Aldridge’s tuition, I was about to get a firsthand introduction to cliff diving.

My version however would be rather less heroic than the real deal, although this didn’t mean I couldn’t look the part. ‘Banana hammock’ style Speedos were out because I was already about to make quite enough of a fool of myself as it was, but I had noticed all divers were equipped with a small towel at all times so had brought my own. Not that I had any idea what it was for. Fortunately Aldridge enlightened me and it turned out the tiny towel was much more than the adult comfort blanket it appeared.

First it allows divers to arrive on the platform bone dry, an essential when you need to grab your limbs and hold exact stress poses while also spinning like a top. Then it serves as basic range finder to the water below when tossed in, and finally it can also be helpful for sighting the water level as you dive towards it.

So step one in my cliff dive initiation was a basic feet first leap from a five metre ledge, half the height of the tallest Olympic board. Dwarfed by the main event platform in the sky above, it felt more than real enough thank you and was still akin to hopping off the roof of a bungalow.

“Look down with your eyes but keep your head level,” Aldridge explained. This was to keep me from pitching forwards. “Keep your legs together too,” he added, for obvious reasons just before I went.

A jump, a silent blur, a crystal clear splashdown in the chilly waters below and I was done. Next, ten metres.

Now we were getting somewhere. Rather more like being on the roof of a regular two-storey house, this was indeed high. Having unnecessarily toweled off (there would be no acrobatics for me) and even more unnecessarily thrown my small towel to the water below as a sighting aid, it was time to repeat the same drill. Aldridge counted down, I leapt, and was in the water before I knew it.


Giant trunks, feet first, pasty white - it's clearly amateur hour

Now the big one. No, not the 27 metre platform as that would likely have killed me, but a proper head first dive from the five metre, a true step into the unknown as I’d never dived off anything higher than a swimming pool edge. But with a cliff diving legend in my corner, what could go wrong?

Nothing as it turned out, although it was with abject clarity that the pure wrongness of being completely upside down and falling through the air hit me on the way down and I had to fight the urge to try and right myself, sticking with Aldridge’s plan of just following my hands which was a much better one and saw me surfacing triumphant moments later before ruining the moment by being unable to find my towel which was floating nearby.

Back in the hot tub, Aldridge explained what it was about cliff diving that makes him and the rest of this small band of professional lunatics do what they do.

“Before every dive your body is screaming ‘it’s too high’, ‘it’s too dangerous’ and you’re battling with every energy that’s in your brain, but the feeling of achievement when you do it? That’s something else. When you come up from your dive and break the surface, as the numbness fades and you realise you’re okay there’s no time you’ll ever feel more alive”.

As for the closing shot of this piece, that belongs to Aldridge because as the sun went down on a cooker of a day on the Welsh coast he summed his sport up to perfection.

“It’s like surviving suicide, and doing it with style and grace”.


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