On Sunday, the 2011 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series wraps up at the Swallow’s Nest castle in southern Ukraine. Since the series began in March, divers have wowed crowds in the Easter Islands, Mexico, Greece, France, Italy and Boston, Mass., where the U.K.’s Gary Hunt clinched his second consecutive series title.
Niki Stajkovic, the sport director for the Red Bull Cliff Diving series, is out to prove the theory that cliff divers collect more stamps on their passports than anyone else. When he was in Boston two weeks ago, Stajkovic said he’s already traveled around the world at least eight times this year.
An Urban Monster
Stajkovic was on hand to supervise the installation of a diving platform atop the tour’s only urban stop, the Institute of Contemporary Art. It’s not a cliff but a large glass building with a cantilevered roof perched on the edge of the water.
“This is our urban cliff and it is a monster,” diver Steven LoBue said. ”I love it.”
When the museum opened in late 2006, the Boston Globe opined, “With the possible exception of a lighthouse, there’s probably never been a building more intensely involved with the sea.”
This event would test the ICA’s connection to the sea, but first, Stajkovic said, workers needed to find a way to get the platform stable enough without touching one of Boston’s newest architectural landmarks.
“[They're] trying to get that platform to be a platform and not a springboard,” Stajkovic said. “If it’s a springboard it’s much more dangerous and not really doable.”
A Dangerous Profession
Danger seems to be the only thing cliff divers face more often than customs agents. The highest Olympic dives are from 10 meters, or roughly 33 feet. From that height, divers hit the water at about 35 mph. The platform at the ICA is at about 88 feet, or nearly three times the height of Olympic platform diving. From that height, divers hit the water at 65 mph. Belly-flops are not an option.
“Even if you land perfectly straight, it’s still a huge impact,” Stajkovic said. “The big key is being able to control four somersaults and 1 1/2 twists and then be able to land perfectly straight up and down, because no matter how good in shape you are, if you land flat, it’s really gonna hurt. Put you in the hospital.”
It’s fitting that the most well-known judge for the weekend’s event was a diver known for landing flat.
A Legendary Judge
At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, American Greg Louganis famously smacked his head on the 3 meter springboard, but went on to become the first man to retain Olympic gold in both the springboard and platform events.
Louganis has never dived from this height, but this wasn’t his first exposure to cliff diving. He worked as a color commentator for ESPN during the Acapulco Cliff Diving World Championship in the late eighties.
“But at that time it didn’t have the credibility and respect,” Louganis said. ” Now there’s a lot of safety precautions that they take with the cliff diving events that Red Bull is doing.”
Red Bull has also published rules and judging criteria, two things the sport had been lacking, and standardized the height of the platforms to between 26 1/2 – 28 meters, so that athletes can better plan their dives.
The Rookie from New Jersey
An hour before the start of the competition, Steven LoBue stopped by to say hello to the Bue Crew, a group friends from his hometown in New Jersey. They were all wearing black t-shirts with “Living the Dream” in big, yellow letters across the back. Mike Lovett said the shirts are accurate.
“Most people would say they’re nuts, but that’s Steve,” Mike said. “Steve is the person who, if it snowed really hard in the winter, he would say, ‘Hey, let’s pile up some snow, jump off our roof into the pile of snow and let’s do a flip while we’re doing it. We might break a leg, but cool.’ So him diving off 90 feet, it’s amazing, but it doesn’t surprise me when he does it, because he’s an adrenaline junkie.”
During Friday’s preliminary round, LoBue performed a dive he had only tried once before. It’s a quirk of this sport. These divers’ bodies can’t take the impact of many repetitions. Besides, there are no 27 meter platforms on which to practice.
“So we’re forced to practice on 10 meter and sometimes 17, 22, that’s about as high as it goes, really,” LoBue said. “We’ll do maybe one repetition and you’re ready to go where I couldn’t throw one pitch and say that I’m ready to pitch in the majors.”
Mike Lovett has watched his friend dive from this height only a few times, but he’s not worried.
“I hold my breath when he hits the water because he’s told me stories about if you hit the water too shallow or too far, what happens to you,” Lovett said. “But when he hits in and he gets in the water and he rips that entry, you can’t do anything but cheer.”
The Champion Repeats
After two exceptional dives, Steven LoBue botched his final attempt and finished in fifth place overall. Fellow American Kent DeMond’s efforts were good enough for third. But the big news of the day came as Gary Hunt took the platform for his last dive. By virtue of simply making the finals in Boston, Hunt had defended his title as Red Bull Cliff Diving Champion.
Gary Hunt laughed at the idea that he didn’t even need to travel to the Ukraine for the final event.
“I could just have a holiday and relax,” Hunt said. “But I love this sport so I’ll be there.”
Hunt said the event will still be fun and exciting. After all, from these heights he’s always risking injury…and even death. And, just because he’s got the series all wrapped up, don’t expect him to be taking it easy.
“It always takes a while to relax our bodies because even doing perfect dives your body feels the strain,” Hunt said. “So I’m gonna have a week off and relax and then get back into training.”
Gary Hunt says he might even try out a new dive at Sunday’s event. Regardless, he will collect $20,000 dollars for winning the 2011 Cliff Diving World Series to add to the prize money he earned along the way. But, like the rest of these athletes, Gary Hunt has a day job. After this weekend, the two time world champion will go back to diving for tourists at a French amusement park called Walygator.