Extreme sports: We dive at dawn

To the high divers of Mostar, the bridge over the Neretva river was an old friend. Then the war came. After 300 years of swan dives and somersaults, a local militia blew it to bits. So when it reopened last month locals remembered fallen friends their way - head first at 60mph

Zvezdan Grozdic remembers the old bridge at Mostar well. For centuries, the young men of the city in what is now Bosnia Herzegovena have risen early to test their mettle by diving from its walls into the swirling waters of the Neretva river, some 20 metres below.

Zvezdan Grozdic remembers the old bridge at Mostar well. For centuries, the young men of the city in what is now Bosnia Herzegovena have risen early to test their mettle by diving from its walls into the swirling waters of the Neretva river, some 20 metres below. In Mostar, they say, first you learn how to walk, then you learn how to dive. Today, in his chosen sport of cliff diving, Grozdic competes at international level, plummeting from heights of more than 30 metres into various oceans around the world. But it was on the bridge at Mostar that he earned his wings.

The original bridge was built in 1566 at the request of the Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent; records tell of diving competitions on it as far back as 1664. "In my home town of Arbelovjc [in Serbia]," recalls the 37-year-old fireman from Belgrade, "the highest point from which to dive into our local river was only two and a half metres. The bridge at Mostar was very famous and I went there to learn to high-dive."

That was in 1998; just two years later, in La Coruña in Spain, Grozdic competed in his first event on cliff diving's élite World Cup circuit. From a clifftop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Grozdic performed a "swan dive", the plunging arc perfected down the generations by the men of Mostar. The move was elegant but basic - and Grozdic had seen the future.

"In La Coruña," he says, "I saw what could be achieved in cliff diving; the twists and somersaults were amazing." During the early 1990s, Mostar's bridge featured on the World Cup circuit, the world's best "jumping" alongside the brave - if less technically proficient - local talent. Around the same time, simmering hostilities in the Balkan region began to spill over into all-out war.

The bridge itself is arguably one of the oldest sporting venues in Europe, at least one where the nature of sporting competition has remained unchanged. But by the end of 1993, the conflict in Bosnia had escalated and, in November of that year, a local militia leader named Slobodan Praljak, a former theatre director, trained his guns on the historic structure - and blew the bridge at Mostar to smithereens.

"I saw its destruction on television," says Grozdic. "I was competing in a cliff-diving competition in Italy and some friends showed me footage - there were voices in the background, people crying, it was terrible."

For more than a decade there was no diving in Mostar, but last month the bridge reopened. Using pieces of masonry salvaged from the riverbed - as well as funds from Unesco - the bridge was rebuilt to the original 16th-century specifications. Some in the region believe it will take more than a construction grant to heal wounds inflicted by years of conflict, but for the city's divers the resurrection of the bridge meant only one thing.

The symbolism involved in reuniting Mostar's Muslim community, on the Neretva's east bank, with the predominantly Croat population on the west, was not lost on the world's press; Britain saw fit to dispatch the Prince of Wales to join the serried ranks of dignitaries at the new bridge's inauguration ceremony.

A week after the media furore has subsided, the city's divers gather at dawn for Mostar's first competition in more than 10 years, the Red Bull Ikari Dive 2004. Present at the Ikari - named in honour of the local diving club, Mostarski Ikari - is the most famous diver of them all. Now 70, Emir Balic made the first of 1,000 dives aged just 15. As someone who knew each brick in the old bridge intimately, when it was destroyed, he says, "it was as if someone in my family had died".

Also present at the Ikari is the six-times world cliff-diving champion, Orlando Duque. Along with Grozdic and Australia's Joe Zuber, Duque, a Colombian known as the "king of the twists", will be demonstrating his art by diving out of competition. He believes the return of high diving to one of the sport's European strongholds is long overdue. "This is a really special day and it's a great honour to take part," he says.

For those in competition, dives are broken down into two categories; those entering the water feet first and those entering head first. The former may sound like a technique more commonly found at your local pool, but has been used by high divers for more than a century. In fact, in cliff diving, whose complex twists and somersaults can accelerate a diver's descent to speeds approaching 60mph, it is the standard method of entry.

As the divers of Mostar have done for generations, competitors at the Ikari leap from the bridge's apex. Historically a test of manhood, Mostar's diving culture has, down the years, established itself as a buttress of regional identity. This mix of tradition and machismo, however, can exact a heavy toll.

"The young divers begin by jumping off the rocks around the bridge," says Grozdic, "but when they get the courage, they jump off the bridge, usually feet first. The braver ones try head-first swan dives. Some of them land at 45 degrees to the water - it's very dangerous. The first year I dived here, a local guy hit the water badly and had to be pulled out by [scuba] divers. It looked like he was out of breath but when I stepped up to dive, word came he had broken his back."

The act of high diving is a triumph of technique over instinct; divers must keep their eyes open, relying on spatial awareness to execute manoeuvres. At Mostar, this is particularly important as the only pool deep enough to accommodate a speeding diver is just four metres across. Despite this, Grozdic insists that, at six or seven metres, the pool is, by cliff-diving standards, relatively deep: often the pool is only four metres deep. Approaching 60mph, that's like jumping into the bath from the roof of your house.

During a break in the action, flowers are thrown into the waters of the Neretva in memory of those who lost their lives in the war. Of the 2,000 who perished in and around Mostar, many were divers.

"I started my diving career on that bridge, and so coming back was very emotional," says Grozdic. "Preparing to dive, I was fighting back the tears. I may have looked tough on the television screen [erected for spectators] but I had a lot of friends in Mostar and now two-thirds of them are dead. We can rebuild the bridge any time, but not their lives."

For the men of Mostar, the desire to dive remains strong. Inspired by the young athletes whose efforts he is judging, Emir Balic requests permission to dive but is refused by the Ikari's organisers.

"Cliff diving is my life," Grozdic says. "I don't know what I will do when I have to retire. Most divers give up in their mid-forties but I think maybe Emir Balic has a dive left in him yet."

In the end, the prizes at the Ikari go to two local divers; Vanja Golos in the feet-first category and Haris Dzemat in the head-first section. "Coming back to Mostar was important for me," says Grozdic of the venue that kickstarted his international sporting career. "The official opening ceremony had too many politicians," he says. "It was more like a bodyguards' convention but I think we [the divers] gave some of the original spirit back to the bridge."

This year, the bridge helped Grozdic to another first. "With the help of the other divers, I did my first-ever handstand dive with two and a half somersaults," he says triumphantly.

And the difference between diving from the old and new bridge? "None," says Grozdic, "just the colour. In a few years, the stone will fade and everything will be the same. And then we can dive for another 300 years."

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