Looking at the bravehearts competing in the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, which kicked off at the weekend on Inis Mór, the phrase ‘balls of steel’ comes to mind. Whatever the female equivalent of that phrase, it’s here in spades too.
These are the gutsiest competitors you’re likely to see anywhere. Early in the event, its presence serving a potent reminder of what’s at stake, a rescue helicopter hovers.
It flies to the divers’ area to pick up an air ambulance transfer to hospital.
Adriana Jimenez, a Mexican diver, has sustained an injury. Injuries are commonplace and sometimes fatal. It takes nerve, training and luck for these special talents to bring all the elements together on the day and make it safely from platform to water via highly-skilled moves en route.
The divers get from A to B in a mesmerising variety of gravity and imagination- defying contortions. On display Saturday was everything from triple somersaults to twists and half twists, to flying back somersaults and Gary Hunt’s personal favourite – the back 1½ piked from 10 metres.
If that sounds difficult and complicated, it is. But British athlete, Gary, handles it with the ease and proficiency that has made him six-time champion.
He walked away with the title on his last visit to Inis Mór, but today will be a challenge for him. He has sustained an injury in warm-up and will be diving with rib problems.
I ask what goes through his mind before a dive, if it’s scary up there?
“Nerves are the biggest factor. I have to block out everything that’s going on, trust in my experience and training, and convince myself every time, that I know what I’m doing.”
Hunt, a diminutive, pale young man with the knock-kneed aura of a foal, looks an unlikely candidate for the string of titles he possesses. He plays the piano in his spare time, and as I look around at the string of beach-fit, suntanned dudes he’s competing against, I think he has the look of a piano player alright.
Back in the days when I was a young nutter, I was fond of the odd bit of cliff diving myself. Off I’d trek, rolled up towel under arm, to indulge in my own Wild Atlantic waywardness.
It’d be straight off the cliff edge with me, no concept of danger, as two fields away, my parents were at home sipping tea, thinking their little girl had gone for her daily paddle at the cove. It was all going grand until I was caught and dragged home by the scruff.
Looking at the competing lads and lassies this weekend, the air was quickly let out of the balloon of my puffed up memories of a heroic childhood. Obviously the tea was stronger wherever these guys’ mammies and daddies raised them.
Reigning champion, Australian diver Rhiannan Iffland, gets the bit about mammies and daddies. Her own parents, she tells me, were certainly worried when she decided to make a career out of this alarming activity.
“They always knew I was a bit crazy, but I’m passionate about this and they support that.”
I tell her the mammy in me was tempted to shout up at her, teetering there on the edge of the diving platform: “Would you get back from the edge you might fall, you eejit!”
Did her Mammy ever feel that way? She laughs. “Oh yes. Definitely. But I’ve been diving since I was nine years old. I’m 25 now, so I suppose she’s getting used to it.”
You’d have to wonder at the limits the human body and mind can endure. You might be forgiven for wondering what’s the big deal here though – jump off a diving board, land in a nice bit of soft water, Bob’s yer uncle. Let me explain how it works.
These strapping and lithe little nutters…and little they are, mostly (maybe you can get more flips and tumbles in if there’s less feet and inches to your make up) take themselves up to heights of 27 metres (men) or 21 metres (women) and send themselves hurtling off at breakneck speeds that produce G-force that would pop the eyes from your head.
Bear in mind the Olympic diving you’ve watched from the comfort of your own home is, frankly, namby-pamby compared to international cliff diving.
For a start, those fair-weather divers strutting their stuff on the Olympic diving platforms are launching from a measly 10m height. And then there’s the conditions.
Conditions on the Aran Islands are challenging at the best of times. Put yourself on a platform overlooking the Atlantic, directly above the naturally formed rectangular rock pool below and you’ll get some concept of the added complications.
Red Bull have dubbed the pool The Serpent’s Lair. It’s a good name, which makes for more interesting imagery on the imposing banners flanking the diving platform, than the local’s moniker for the spot – The Wormhole.
On Saturday, mother nature is making her presence felt at The Serpents Lair, as the world’s best cliff divers take her on. The pool is a natural blowhole, which has been thousands of years in the making.
The ocean surges in and out through tunnels and caverns under treacherous rock surfaces, creating a moving target effect. Today the sea is having a strop, storming in and out of the pool like a toddler looking for attention.
Add to this the unpredictably gusty wind and you’ve got to admire the divers who deliver in such adversity with mesmerising style.
If you’d like a practical demonstration of what this all means, stand on your kitchen table. Look at the floor below and try to imagine it moving in an unpredictable undulating manner. Then take yourself up onto your roof.
Now try to imagine how it would be to jump off five average bungalows, stacked one on top of the other. Yes. It’s a staggering height these superhumans dive from.
“I bet I can guess which ones will win!” my young son says, as I show him the brochure before the competition.
He points to the likely contenders amongst the men. He’s close enough as he points to Orlando Duque, the popular Colombian who is certainly in the running, but doesn’t make it to the podium.
Saturday is not to be Duque’s day, but it is a good day for our skinny, piano-playing wonderboy who walks with the trophy.
“It was very tough,” says Hunt. “My rib injury made each dive harder and more painful than the last, but I’m really happy with the result.”
In the women’s event my son is spot on with his bet. It’s the plucky Australian who runs away with a well deserved win, when she takes her chances on a risky final dive.
“Usually you have to nominate your dive 24 hours beforehand, but because conditions were so challenging here, we were told we could decide on the spot. I decided to go for it, and did a new, hard dive.
“It was an inward three somersaults with a half twist.