Catalina Duque sits poised and calm at the side of the water, smartphone in front of her face, ready to capture her husband Orlando’s 27m plunge into the water below. She doesn’t flinch as he throws himself off the platform, performs three somersaults and three twists, before getting himself into the pike position for entry. She says she doesn’t get scared any more. He thinks this is because she knows he’s prepared, that he trains every day for this. Cliff diving, says the Colombian, is “not just a bunch of crazy dudes jumping off things.”
“Ireland is a little more scary though,” Catalina concedes. “All you can see here is rock.” The pool Catalina is sitting next to is known as the Serpent’s Lair, or Poll na bPéist in the native language. It’s on Inis Mór, a small, sparsely populated island off the west coast of Ireland, which is hosting the third stop of the 2014 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. It’s an exhilarating contest that entices a certain breed of athlete who train to an elite standard, in order to launch themselves from diving platforms nearly three times the height of the highest Olympic dive, clocking speeds of 85kph.
In Ireland, these men will have to use their considerable mental strength and physical skills to land precisely within the four walls of the Serpent’s Lair, a perfect natural rectangle of briny blue among the dark rock. This stunning landscape was hidden, known only to 800 locals, until a first cliff diving event put it on the map in 2012. Described as a blowhole by local fishermen, the Serpent’s Lair developed naturally over millions of years. Today it’s a spectacular but terrifying sporting location. “It’s weighing down on a lot of people’s minds,” says US diver Steve LoBue, a compact 29-year-old personal trainer with big ambitions of winning the World Series title. The UK’s Gary Hunt agrees: “Looking down, you’re used to seeing water, but here it’s jagged rock and a small pool,” he says. “It looks like you could easily jump too far and end up on the rocks.”
As three-time champion, the slender 30-year-old will have to focus his mind for the big, difficult dives he has planned. He admits he will have to be braver in order to take back the title he won in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Despite their fears, the divers are aware that things could be worse on the tiny Irish island. Two years ago here, strong winds and heavy rain battered their bodies. “It was four seasons in an hour,” a member of the Red Bull crew remembers. This time, it’s blue skies, sunshine and still waters.
“I was honestly terrified to come back here,” says David Colturi, a diver from the US, as he climbs out of the freezing cold Atlantic water after a practice dive in just his Speedos, then begins to dry himself off. “When I first stepped up there two years ago, I couldn’t believe we were going to dive into that little wormhole. Plus, the weather last time was just miserable. Now it’s like a whole new venue. I’d come here to train every day if it was like this.”
The striking natural environment is something event production manager Nigel Cleary and his team were keen to keep as raw as possible. Watching 1,000 people move from the base camp to the dive site on foot, without barriers or intrusive signage, they’ve achieved their objective. “It’s a natural amphitheatre, a geographical freak,” says Cleary. “As a spectacle, it’s unique.” The landscape is rough, but beautiful and unspoiled. There are no paths, just rocks with flowering plants peeping through; hay bales for spectator seating. A yurt with a peat-fuelled hot tub is hidden behind the platform, providing comfort for the divers after they come out of the freezing-cold ocean.
Arranging a public event somewhere as rugged and remote as Inis Mór was a feat of logistical mastery. “It looks much simpler than it was,” laughs Cleary. “Forgetting something wasn’t an option.” The six-week build involved 400 helicopter drops. Every piece of equipment had to be transported from Dublin to Galway, loaded onto a ferry and then taken by chopper to the site. The diving platform was even more time consuming: an engineering crew worked for six months to ensure it was solid and in exactly the right position, “We had to get the height and angle of the platform to the water exactly right. Plus, we’ve only got a 45-minute window for delays, otherwise the tide will be too high for the 27m dives planned.”
Thankfully, things start on time for the final of the two-day competition. The fight for podium positions is close, with only two dives for each competitor deciding the winner. Dives from Blake Aldridge and Michal Navratil include difficult handstand starts from the platform. There’s a collective drawing in of breath from the 1,000-strong crowd as British diver Aldridge gets ready for his first jump of the final. His full bodyweight transfers to the palms of his hands, which rest on the very edge of the platform.
Total silence falls as he forms a perfectly still handstand, leg muscles taut with impeccable control. His body strains as he musters the power to hurl himself off the edge of the platform, then the former Olympic diver completes two-and-a-half somersaults and four twists before entering the water below to incredulous cheers from the onlookers. It’s undeniably impressive, but it’s not perfect. In a sport this tough, it means a podium place has slipped out of his reach.
Navratil, who can often be seen doing press-ups poolside, employs his arm strength for a similar dive; his “weapon” he says. It’s enough to leave the Czech in fifth place, behind the veteran Duque. Mexican diver Jonathan Paredes, the youngest and newest competitor on tour, tries to forget everything he was told about Poll na bPéist as he prepares for his last dive of the final. It’s a low grade of difficulty, but executed almost perfectly for scores that include nines. “I heard many bad things, it was very scary,” the 25-year-old says after finishing in third place, grinning and clutching his trophy, “but this place is awesome.”
Scores of 10 remain elusive throughout the day. The five judges are looking for technical prowess at the takeoff, excellent body position during the flight, and an entry that doesn’t make a splash. “If you give a 10, everything has to be perfect,” says judging panel member Marion Reiff, another former Olympic diver. “We love giving 10s, but just because the audience is waving and screaming, it doesn’t mean you can go along with it.”
Steven LoBue gets closest to a perfect score with his almost faultless final dive. The Florida native, who won the 2013 series stop in Wales, is rewarded with nines and 9.5s for his tight pike entrance with almost no splash, and moves up from sixth to second position. Now the crowd is screaming for 10s, and former champion Hunt is a diver who is able to deliver them. Situated around the water’s edge, the spectators get the closest possible view of his high-difficulty dive and streaking entry into the water. There’s no 10 for Hunt, but he pulls off solid 8.5s across the board, enough to take the win when combined with his earlier score. Victory here is especially sweet for him.
“Last time, I had chickenpox and I really didn’t enjoy the competition at all,” he says, after nailing a brave dive, which included three somersaults and four twists in under three seconds. “So this is great. I’ve still got adrenalin running through my system.” This win makes Hunt a serious contender for the overall 2014 title, but for now he’s enjoying his victory here, in this hidden corner of Ireland. “This is the most challenging of all the competitions,” he says, “so when it’s over, you get a real sense of achievement.”