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
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
peopleHere's what Stephen Fry would say
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Proust as Captain Laure Berthaud in 'Spiral'
tvReview: Gritty, engaging and well-acted - it’s a wonder France’s biggest TV export isn’t broadcast on a more mainstream channel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Carmichael in still from Madam Bovary trailer
film
News
i100
Sport
Serena Williams holds the Australian Open title
sportAustralia Open 2015 final report
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: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links