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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
life
News
news

The party's potential nominations read like a high school race for student body president

Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballI have never seen the point of lambasting the fourth official, writes Paul Scholes
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: External Relations Executive

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An External Relations Executive is requi...

Ashdown Group: Web Developer (PHP & Wordpress) - Central London

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Web Dev...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative - Unskilled & Skilled

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen to jo...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Law Firm - Bromley

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Market...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee