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
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada