Through the eyes of a cliff diver

Orlando Duque cliff diving in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday, May 10, 2014.
Look as you leap! Find out how important visuals are for a cliff dive...

"The eyes", says cliff diver Jonathan Paredes, "are your GPS."

What is the most important thing to see and check before a dive? Can you 'train' your eyes to find reference points quicker? What do you see in the air? "Visually, each location is unique, and that's one of the most important things. When you show up to a new location, a lot of guys just like to get up on the platform and sort of set their visuals," explains America's Steven LoBue, a professional cliff diver since 2011.

Aerial orientation is a skill that's just practiced over time. And the athletes work towards their preferred rotation as a diver. A lot of them do more flips, some do more twists and it's something that they've established over years and years of practice. They can use visual cues, but it's all about a feeling with your body. Most acrobatic athletes, whether on snow as a snowboarder or a skier and in the gymnastics arena or on the trampoline, they have honed their aerial awareness over years and years of practice. "I am used to diving in a pool and so I'm very used to things being close around me and if I can come out and I've got lots of reference points around me, I feel safe and enclosed," states former Olympian Blake Aldridge, "When there's lots of things to focus on when you are looking down, you can still have your peripheral vision and see what's either side; that makes it a lot easier to kind of focus on these things than look out in the wilderness and see nothing."

Feeling and seeing are closely connected in this sport. As things happen really fast – the flight only lasts for three seconds – you can't always see everything, you also have to dive 'on feeling'. Especially, when you are a twisting type of diver, you often just see a blur and thus act on feeling. "Spotting the water is the most effective, so as you're spinning you see water after the first somersault, again you see the water after the second flip and so on. You are basically counting," describes 2014 World Series rookie Andy Jones. The most prominent example for diving on feeling is 10-time world champion Orlando Duque, from Colombia: "I am the special case here. I close my eyes for most of the dives. I am the older guy, I learned the "old style" kind of thing, my coaches never taught me how to spot. So I close my eyes and I feel everything, which works fine for me. I open them of course just before I hit the water to prepare for entry, so the eyes are – for me at least – just for looking for the water, making sure that I can find the spot that's in my head and prepare for the vertical entry."

Twister or spinner, as soon as you see the water, you know immediately if the entry is going to be a good one or a bad one. The water is always the biggest landmark, because the water is always there. "Sometimes you might be diving under trees, sometimes you might be diving with a cliff right in front of you and sometimes not, so the water is the one thing that's always there and so when you're spinning around you try to catch a glimpse of the water as often as possible, so you have the best idea of how much time you have left," Gary Hunt, the four-time World Series champion, clarifies. One thing is evident: you have to set your visual references. The water is your best friend; you need to know where it is at all times and how to get your feet on it. Next time you go diving: switch on your GPS!