High divers keep rebel spirit in bid to join establishment
KAZAN, Russia (AP) — In the world of diving, they’re the rebels and free spirits.
Instead of using a board over a pool, high divers compete outdoors, leaping from 27 meters (88.5 feet) in a sport that developed from daredevil jumps off cliffs. Twisting and somersaulting in the air, they fall so fast that the water can cause serious injury if the landing goes wrong.
High diving’s popularity is growing, but with that comes challenges. As they bid for a place in the Olympic spotlight, the rebels are becoming part of the establishment, but they say they won’t lose their identity.
“We’re definitely the divers who want to play around and do their own thing,” says Britain’s Gary Hunt, who started off in the more regimented world of the pool before becoming one of high diving’s biggest names. “If you just listen to what your coach tells you to do, you will never learn the skills to become a cliff diver or a high diver. You have to want to play around on your own, so you get playful personalities.”
Hunt is the favorite to win a gold medal Wednesday in high diving’s second appearance at the world aquatics championships, where it rubs shoulders with swimming and traditional diving on the program.
With a huge dive boasting three somersaults and four twists, Hunt has a solid lead after the first three rounds of competition Monday, in which he scored 381.10 points from the judges. With two rounds to go Wednesday, that puts him 22.70 ahead of second-place American David Colturi. Third is Jonathan Paredes of Mexico on 350.40.
Recent years have seen a flood of extreme sports join the Olympic program, and high divers hope to be next. High diving is constantly evolving and Hunt has been at the forefront of the change, introducing new dives in much the same way as snowboarders like U.S. star Shaun White demonstrate new and bigger tricks.
“There is a massive potential for high diving because we have so much space in the air,” Hunt says. “We’ve only started to have so many events so you’re seeing bigger and bigger dives every competition and we still haven’t even come close to the limits.”
High diving won’t be on the program for next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but the 2020 games in Tokyo are the target for Hunt and others. At a time when the International Olympic Committee is keener than ever on gender equality, one key hurdle is to attract more women into the sport. At the world championships this week, there are 20 competitors in the men’s event, but only 10 competing for women’s gold. At high diving’s world championship debut in Barcelona two years ago, there were 13 men and just six women.
“We were hoping for Rio next year, so we keep pushing each year, putting the word out for all the ladies out there,” Los Angeles-based Colturi says. “We need more girls from more countries, so hopefully that happens and we can get it in the Olympics in Tokyo.”
Commercially, high diving has developed away from the sports establishment. Instead of international aquatics federation FINA, which oversees traditional diving, high divers’ main backer is the energy drink company Red Bull, whose Cliff Diving World Series has brought the sport to a new audience in typically spectacular locations. It has also allowed some divers to turn fully professional, dropping side jobs in circus shows or as stuntmen.
“We’re a small group of divers for the moment and so we see each other all the time,” says Hunt, who has moved to Paris to train. “I see most of these guys more than I do my girlfriend, so we’re just good friends.”
A lot of the rebel spirit still remains.
Ukrainian high diver Anatoly Shabotenko, who sits 12th after the first three rounds, says his parents are still “in shock” at his career choice — especially his mother.
“I didn’t tell her to start with so she didn’t stress out,” he says. “Someone called her on the phone and said ‘put the TV on, your son’s jumping.’ She saw what kind of height it was and called me up: ‘You’ve gone crazy. What are you doing?’”