Take the plunge: A ringside seat at the world cliff-diving championships in Italy

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It's thrilling, graceful and nothing at all like the Olympics

"I'm happy."

"I'm not."

The phlegmatic assessments by the Ukrainian twins Gennadiy and Sacha Kutsencho of their day's cliff diving are typical of this spectacular but laid-back sport.

Their mother, had she been watching, would no doubt have been delighted that both young men were still in one piece after repeatedly flinging themselves off a cliff at a height of almost 30 metres into the waters of Lake Garda in northern Italy. Sacha was hoping for better than 11th place. Wild-card Gennadiy was pleased to finish fourth. But both smile easily and wander off to join the other 11 contenders for the after-party.

Cliff diving is a marginal sport, perhaps, but a thrilling and contradictory one, blending artistry and precision with informal surfer chic, and great camaraderie alongside the competitiveness.

"We all want to win," says diver Gary Hunt, the softly-spoken Briton ranked number one in the world. "But we know how risky it can be if things go wrong. We don't have coaches, so we look out for each other – and give each other advice and tips, for example, on new dives."

The camaraderie is evident when Czech competitor, Michal Navratil, delighted with his second-round dive, climbs aboard the moored yacht below the cliff and performs a jig as his rivals applaud. He then watches the remaining second-round efforts.

The beauty of Garda provides the fifth stop in the seven-stage Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. A mix of curious locals and hard-core cliff diving fans provide the young, party atmosphere, as 15,000 people crowd into Malcesine's tiny bay to watch the young men leap from a platform on the lakeside castle.

Earlier on the castle cliff I had peeked nervously over a ledge – one slightly lower that the nearby competition platform. I tried to imagine diving off, head first, and immediately experienced shock, awe and nausea.

Viewed in slow motion on a TV screen, the overriding impression of cliff diving is of the balletic grace with which the competitors twist and somersault. But watching them dive close up, it's the violent physicality, and the speed, that is most striking.

Plummeting from 27 metres, the competitors have three seconds to impress the five judges with their technical skill and artistry before hitting the water at 55mph. For safety, they must always enter the water feet-first and rescue divers greet each competitor as he enters the water.

The unthinkable event – a belly flop from 27 metres – would be like hitting concrete after falling from the second floor of a building. There have already been several accidents this season. Gary Hunt readily admits he's still nervous ahead of every dive he does. "It's always scary when you think what could happen if it goes wrong," he says.

The sport has a degree of ritual. Before each dive the competitor will throw his ultra-absorbent chamois cloth into the water, to see it bobbing on the surface as a familiar link with the world below. The cloth can be wrung out when the competitor leaves the water and used to dry him and keep his muscles warm.

Cliff diving is about nerves – and controlling them. But it's also about physics. Each of the world's top 12 divers present at Garda possesses exceptional acrobatic skill, leg and core strength, and flexibility.

Hunt exhibits all these attributes in what would prove to be one of his winning dives; the 27-year-old begins it with his back to the water, perched on tiptoes for several long seconds before launching himself up and backwards in a stunning arc.

According to former competitor Joey Zuba, Hunt's current pre-eminence is due to his lighter, more wiry build. "That's why he's winning," says Zuba. "He can spin faster." And this allows an extra turn at the start of his third-round dive, which gives him the edge over his closest competitor, the more brawny and extrovert, Navratil.

The perils are the same for all the divers, though. Zuba reveals why he stopped diving in 2005 despite being the reigning world champion. He pulls his shorts up to show a two-inch-wide scar that runs from his hip to his knee. "I had to stop when I hit the bottom," he says matter-of-factly.

Despite the German surname and Australian accent, Gary reveals that he is in fact English, but emigrated to Australia when he was young. Bearing in mind the Gold-medal winning displays of Tom Daley (although he dives a mere 10 metres in his best event), I start to wonder if there's something in the water.

"Why are you British so good at diving?" says an Italian journalist, echoing my thoughts. "I didn't think there were many cliffs in Brighton."

Gary rejoins his competitor-pals at the after-party, where he receives the prize of £3,500 for his victory, just one-third of the £11,500 prize money awarded to his compatriots who lost this year in the first round at Wimbledon.

"After one of these competitions, where I dive three or four times, I feel sore," he says. When I wake up, my back or legs will hurt. But I love diving – the feeling when it all goes right. That's why I keep doing it."

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