A Black day at bad rock

Alan Hubbard watches a British-born world champion take a dive from a cliff to a hard place but still come up smiling

Remember The final scene from
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Redford and Newman link hands and leap off a cliff towards a river below screaming, "Oh, shhhit!"? Steve Black knows the feeling. He has been jumping off cliffs for years. Diving off them, actually, and he has become well acquainted with that same sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach.

Remember The final scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Redford and Newman link hands and leap off a cliff towards a river below screaming, "Oh, shhhit!"? Steve Black knows the feeling. He has been jumping off cliffs for years. Diving off them, actually, and he has become well acquainted with that same sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach.

The world cliff-diving champion has perfected the art of making a splash - or rather, trying not to make too much of one - from a considerable height. He smiles as he does so, looking oh so relaxed and making it all seem easy. He's the ultimate showman, but confesses to severe stage-fright. "Every time I dive, I'm afraid for my life. It's scary. But that's the buzz about it, how you get off on a high. If you don't get butterflies, get out of the business."

The butterflies were flying all right last week, in our stomachs as well as the British-born Black's as we watched him and his fellow divers plunge from 28 metres off a clifftop in a mountain glade high above the Swiss village of Brontallo, close to Locarno. With the backdrop of a roaring waterfall, the second leg of this year's Red Bull Cliff-Diving World Championships attracted an eclectic bunch of Butch and Sundance-like characters, all prepared to hurl themselves off a platform built into the cliff face and plunge down into a rock-ringed pool in the name of sport. You have probably seen those TV clips of the high-divers in Acapulco, but these guys say that's showbiz stuff for the tourists. In Brontallo, watched by a picnicking crowd and marked by judges who had to wade through the water to reach their perches on the sloping rocks, 18 of the world's most intrepid divers performed aerial gymnastics for three seconds of freefall before emerging from the steel-blue water, fists punchingExcalibur-like through the surface.

Most of the contestants, like Black, were professionals, some of them stuntmen, but there was a fireman from Yugoslavia and an engineer from Denmark. At the end of the day in Brontallo, Black was lying second to a 25-year-old Colombian, Orlando Duque.

Cliff-diving comprises all the Olympic disciplines, the somersaults, pikes, twists, turns and tucks performed with a high degree of difficulty and packed into those three seconds before the divers hit the water feet first. That's the main difference. From this height, three times that of the top 10-metre board in orthodox diving, it is deemed too dangerous to go headfirst.

They used to do it that way until a few necks got broken. Only one man, Frederic Weil, the Swiss president of the World High-Diving Federation, still chooses to enter headfirst, as he demonstrated in Brontallo. "Crazy guy," murmurs Black. A brave one, too.

There are a few other differences. At Ponds Forge you don't have to watch out for razor-sharp pieces of jutting rock on the way down. And frogmen patrol the apparently bottomless pool, ready to fish out the divers, while boys in dinghies smack and flick the water to break the surface tension and scare away the fish. It isn't so much the pike on the way down that causes problems as the perch in the pool. Hitting one can be a painful experience, for both fish and diver. Most of the divers wear several pairs of trunks too - it is called "double bagging" - because thudding into the water at around 60mph from such a dizzying height can mean, as one diver delicately described it, instant colonic irrigation.

Before his dive, which can start forwards, backwards or from a handstand, you will see a performer do two things. First he inserts a gumshield, because the instinct on impact is to bite your tongue. America Todd Michael forgot his last year and ended up having his tongue stitched back together. Then he will toss a piece of cloth into the pool to see which way the wind is blowing. A sudden gust could sweep him into the rockface. Although there are relatively few accidents to the ratio of risk, most divers have sustained fractures, muscle tears, and painful thwacks to knees and groin. "It's all part of the sport," shrugs Black. Sport? "Mostdefinitely. An extreme sport, but one with all the elements."

It is also Black's profession. When not picking up world championship points, he dives for a living in shows around the world. Should cliff-diving ever become an Olympic sport, the 34-year-old Black could take the Rusedski-Lewis route to wave the flag for Britain. Although brought up in Canada and now living on the Gold Coast, in Australia, with his wife, Jeanine, an Australian synchronised swimmer and diver, he has a British passport because he was born in Woodford Green, Essex, living there for seven years with his parents, who were Canadian diplomats. He was training to represent Canada as a diver in the 1988 Olympics when a friend enticed him into joining adiving show in the United States.

Although there are a few female high-divers, it is largely a male domain because of the battering taken by the body. Even so, there are only a few dozen regulars on the circuit. These are Black's fourth world championships and while he acknowledges you require the suppleness of a gymnast and the strength of an athlete the vital ingredient, he says, is experience. Most divers are over 30.

"It takes years to perfect the balance and technique," he says. "You need a wise head on your shoulders to make sure that once you commit yourself to a dive, you don't do anything daft." Otherwise, as those swishing through the mountain air at Brontallo were only too aware, you could end up with more than just raindrops falling on your head.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little