Rhiannan Iffland: Living The High Life
Just how do you dive off a 21-metre platform into the sea below? We speak to high diver Rhiannan Iffland about feeling the fear - and doing it anyway
By Emma Taylor
Photography supplied by Red Bull
Looking down the icy black run, the ant-like dots of the rest of my ski party below have been staring up for the last 15 minutes, patiently waiting for me to move. As much as I’m commanding my brain to get my body going again, I can’t. The hot, cloying tendrils of fear at the midway height I’ve stupidly stopped on to take a (non-important) work phone call have me in a vice-grip and turned every fibre of my being to stone. With muscles temporarily paralysed and the ‘swoosh, swoosh, swoosh’ sound of blood crashing through my ears, I try to get a handle on the internal panic of how high up I had dug the edge of my skis on this monstrous mountain face.
“What are you scared of?” is a common question asked by people trying to get to know one another. “Heights”, I always reply with an embarrassed laugh. Even a few feet off the ground, never mind the average swimming-pool diving board, is enough for my legs to jellify and to feel that woozy wash-over of terror.
Which is why I’m in utter awe of those who make a career out of heights, even more so extreme heights like 31-year old Australian cliff diver Rhiannan Iffland. The six-time consecutive Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series champion has never shied away from pushing her professional life higher and higher, quite literally. However, even a ruler of the skies like Rhiannan can feel fear of what she does as a day job. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared every single time I stand on the platform. I don’t know if there’s many divers who don’t feel that fear. I think it’s really common,” Rhiannan shares.
“For me, in a way, it gives you a bit of power if you learn to deal with it. It becomes more of an energy thing. I think it gets easier the more you do it, the more you learn to silence that voice in the back of your head. One thing that I’ve learned is that the way to overcome it is by positive reinforcement. By telling yourself and reminding yourself that you’ve done the work, done the training and you know what to do. And imagining the dive is going to go perfectly. I guess that is the best way I can say I deal with it,” says Rhiannan.
Growing up in New South Wales, surrounded by water, Rhiannan had an active, outdoor childhood, surfing and trampolining. She says: “At a young age I was quite outgoing. I think it was only natural that I was going to end up in a sport like cliff diving just based on my childhood. So I do think it had a lot of influence on what I do today.” She began diving from the age of nine, and says her progression to being where she is now wasn’t something she fell into. Climbing the ranks to try and make Olympic teams and open national teams burned her out from the repetitiveness of going to the pool and being in the same atmosphere every single day for 11 sessions a week. “When I stopped competing I was offered a job on a cruise ship, being part of a diving show. On board that cruise ship, they had a 17-metre diving platform and that was my first introduction to it. Having the skills from my trampoline and diving background combined, it was kind of a perfect recipe.
“As soon as I saw the high dive and saw some of my colleagues using it, I thought, ‘Yeah, ok. That’s for me, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to get up there and hopefully start competing with other women.’” Rhiannan beams at the memory. Despite building on her senior diving experience and adapting to the bigger height over a couple of transition years, Rhiannan’s first competition didn’t go too well and she nearly threw in the towel. But an invitation to the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series 2016 in Texas saw her take out her rookie competition and solidify her trajectory upwards as the best of best.
“That was the moment I went like: ‘Oh my god, that’s a feeling like no other’. Having a great comp and being involved in a sport where the atmosphere was just electrifying, that was definitely the moment where I was hooked,” she recalls.
As for how she prepares for a seamless-looking 21-metre dive on the worldwide stage, Rhiannan puts it down to part experience and focusing her mind into a calm headspace. She says: “One of the rituals I have before I stand on the platform, only when competing, I close my eyes and I think about my niece. When she was five, she used to have this swimsuit with a tutu. I imagine her running down the beach in that tutu, and hanging out with my nephews and my family and then I just take myself to a happy place, escaping for a minute. Then I open my eyes and go, ‘Ok, I’m back here,’ feeling a good energy and then I dive. So I guess that’s my main ritual. Sometimes I don’t like to admit that one!” Like anyone propelling through a nail-biting task ahead of them, Rhiannan says she taps into a switch.
“I definitely feel more fear when I’m doing the training dives rather than the competition dives. When it’s competition time, that switch is there and the only thing you’re focusing on is doing the dive and doing it well. This is the moment, it’s time to do it – and you’re a little more committed as well,” she says.
Using commitment as part of encouraging yourself to go through with something your body is saying no to, resonated with me. I realised it was how I prised myself out of fear’s sticky clutches on the mountain that day. Was I going to live on an Austrian piste forever? No. Did I want to bum-shuffle down a near vertical gradient holding onto my poles and planks? Absolutely not. Could I ever get over the humiliation of being ski patrolled out of the situation? I’d rather eat yellow snow. I was committed now, no going back.
Secret of Success
When asked, Rhiannan says she’s an adrenaline junkie and is also familiar with chasing that high which comes right after overcoming a great physical feat, even at the possibility of very serious injury. “Maybe I do have a screw loose,” she laughs.
“There’s risks you take in any profession and you may feel fear in any industry. There’s only one thing that scares me more than high diving, and that’s speaking in front of a room of people. But for somebody in a different industry, that feels normal to them,” she says. But it takes more than a daring personality and mastering your mind to be at the top of the high-diving game like Rhiannan. She believes the key to her secret sauce in the last few years has been her consistency.
She confides: “I am always trying to up my game, it’s the nature of sport. At the moment there are younger divers nipping at my toes. I felt that in 2022 and it is really awesome. “Whether I want to admit it to myself or not, I am a competitive person. I do want to keep pushing myself, pushing the limits of my capabilities and pushing the limits within the sport of high diving for females, because it’s a young activity. At the moment, I feel like we’re at a point in time where the line to the next level is about to be crossed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome, but it’s a scary thought to know you could be the first person or the pioneer. Nobody else has walked that road. That’s what makes me hungrier for success,” she says.
The next level Rhiannan is referring to is the degree of difficulty of the dives and driving forward towards the Olympics for the sport. Outside of that growing professional pressure, she describes herself as a typical Aussie girl and spends her off season chilling out with family and being around the ocean. Her goals after diving are pegged on a lot of factors as she tells me the longevity of a diver’s career is down to how you treat your body and how long you actually want to stay in the game.
“I know high divers that have stayed until they’re around 45. It depends how the sport progresses as well. At 31, I have a goal of staying in another five to seven years at least. I couldn’t see myself doing anything that I love more than this. However, I always wanted to join the police force before I got back into diving. There’s still a part of me that wants to fulfil that, but who knows?” says Rhiannan.
Although impeded by a fear of heights, I would still label myself as a medium-level thrillseeker. I’ve convinced myself to jump from the back of boats into the sea, been on one of the world’s highest ziplines, love a rollercoaster, can’t get enough of skiing, ran a marathon just to see if I could and have constantly toyed with the idea of doing a skydive since I was teenager. Talking to Rhiannan, her relaxed confidence has me thinking perhaps I’d have the bravery to work up to a high dive eventually. Although on second thoughts, as I peer out of the window of my flat, about 15 metres off the ground, give me a spider to hold any day.