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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?