The High Life
“There’s danger, but this doesn’t make us reckless.” The female radicals of the competitive diving world on learning to befriend their most poisonous fears
By Anna Hart
“I would never call myself an adrenaline junkie,” said Ellie Smart, a professional high diver and Red Bull cliff diver. The 25-year-old is the youngest professional high diver representing the United States. At the time of writing, she is in Turks and Caicos where she and her boyfriend, the 20-year-old high diver Owen Weymouth, are producing a travel docu-series.
“The idea that I’m some sort of fearless woman is totally wrong. I don’t bungee jump or skydive, and I’m scared of water if I can’t see the bottom, because I’m completely terrified of fish. I take calculated risks that the average person would not take. What makes a high diver is the ability to overcome fear; this is what we all share.”
Female competitive high divers are a tight-knit (albeit geographically distant) family, reunited at Red Bull Cliff Diving events throughout the year. “It’s a really supportive, friendly scene,” said Jess Macaulay, a 28-year-old high diver who won Great Britain’s first high diving medal at the 2019 FINA World Championships, securing bronze in the women’s 20 metre event. “When I used to do regular diving competitively, it felt much more serious, not particularly smiley or much fun. With high diving or cliff diving, we’re dancing on the platform, we’re waving at family and friends, and it just feels like a giant party to me.”
One of the things that immediately bonds female high divers, according to Jess, is the fact that the sport is so new, and relatively niche. Cliff diving is one of the oldest extreme sports in the world, but it’s also one of the newest official sports. The earliest record of cliff diving dates back to 1770, when the king of Maui, Hawaii, took a leap off the cliffs and decreed that all his warriors prove their courage by jumping off the cliff. But it was only in 2014 that the International Swimming Federation made High Diving an official sport, following the success of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, which began in 2009 for male divers, with the women’s division starting in 2014.
Jess, like Ellie, started out as a regular diver, diving competitively throughout school and college. “The difference between ‘diving’ and ‘high diving’ (aka ‘cliff diving’ if the event is off a cliff rather than a platform) is that high divers dive off platforms between 66-90 feet high, at least twice the height of Olympic platform diving, which is 33 feet – and we land feet first,” explained Jess, who now lives in Texas with her family, and works as a health and confidence coach alongside her diving profession. “Part of the thrill of high diving is that, because it’s such a new sport, we’re discovering things for the first time, so it feels much more like play than a regimented, formulaic, competitive sport.”
The newness of cliff diving as a profession also means it takes some explaining, and cliff divers are very used to being called ‘crazy.’ “At a party if I tell a guy that I’m a cliff diver, they generally don’t understand at the start – they think I’m talking about wingsuit flying or parachuting,” said 35-year-old Jaki Valente, who won Brazil the silver medal at the FINA High Diving World Cup in 2019. “I have to show them videos on my phone to make them believe what I do for a living. And that’s when the conversation gets fun – you receive instant respect and admiration, which is always cool.”
Unusually for such a demanding physical sport, there is no regular route into high diving. Jaki was a professional gymnast from the age of seven, before joining a Cirque du Soleil offshoot, The House of Dancing Water (the largest water sports event in the world) in Macau. “I had a lot of fun working in the circus, first of all in Brazil, then Europe, then China,” she said. “I travelled from the age of 18 but stopped a couple of years ago.” Because high diving is such a new sport – and less lucrative than most – many professional high divers at the Red Bull events have done their time performing at circuses, on cruise ships and at theme parks.
“It’s only now that high diving has official sport status that younger divers are training specifically for this sport at a young age,” said Ellie, who explained that Red Bull events have made it almost possible to make a living as a professional high diver. Even so, most divers still have other jobs or revenue streams on the side. Asked if there is such a thing as a ‘typical high diver,’ Jess paused. “We are a varied bunch – you’ve got your yogis, the partiers, the elite athletes; but there are definitely some elements that tie us all together,” she said. “I guess we’re all a little crazy. We all want to push ourselves, and do things that others haven’t done.”
Fun, freedom and friendliness may be the attraction, but the risks are very real. Divers falling from that height reach speeds of 60mph, and risk concussion, broken bones and internal bleeding upon impact with the water. “Yes, there’s danger, but this doesn’t make us reckless,” said Ellie. “I take calculated risks that others may not. But I never go somewhere where I haven’t checked the depth, measured the height, made sure I have a perfect take-off. And I never try a trick that I haven’t spent months practising in a pool. I never do anything that I haven’t done thousands of times.”
However, given the dangers, are injuries just part of every competition? “Well, sure, I’ve seen a lot of bad landings,” said Jess. “The worst injury I’ve seen was a ruptured spleen. We’re all aware of the dangers, but this is why we have scuba divers in the water to help if we get winded and can’t surface, with medics on-hand and helicopters on standby.”
The ‘fearless adrenaline junkie’ reputation couldn’t be further from reality, Jess explained: “Sometimes the fear is so intense that it feels like poison.” And the mark of a successful high diver isn’t an absence of fear; it’s about making friends with fear, learning from it, and overcoming it. “My strategy is to think about a long-term goal – say a quadruple somersault – and then tell myself that I can quit at any time. But until I do, I just have to take one small step at a time.” Jess will use this strategy right up until the moment she jumps. “I’ll tell myself that I just need to get to the top of the platform, that I just need to get to the edge, so I only have to face the big fear at the very last moment.”
For Ellie, one of her strategies is to make sure she connects with the natural surroundings. She founded the Clean Cliffs Project with her boyfriend to tackle plastic pollution and insists that taking some extra time to immerse herself in the destination makes a difference to how she competes. “Be a tourist as well as a competitor,” she said. “That’s my advice – really try to enjoy your surroundings.”
Jaki added that even with an extreme sport like cliff diving, it’s essential to strike a balance between discipline and acceptance. “If I expected perfection from myself, I’d never dive,” she said. I noticed a common thread among all the high divers I spoke to: they have all got their philosophy of life sorted. “Listen, the first time I tried to do a 20m dive, I couldn’t do it – I went home, defeated, and couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights,” said Ellie. “But then I came back to the platform. When you overcome your deepest fear, it opens the door to a new reality, where you know you can accomplish things you never thought you would. Even if I never dive again, I know that I can face anything. This feeling, well, this is why we highdive.”
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