A thrilling 2018 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series reaches its conclusion in Polignano a Mare, Italy this weekend and in the closest ever title fight both the men's and women's titles are still up for grabs at the final stop. A season billed as a landmark year with increasing competition at the top has certainly lived up to its promise, with three men and three women finding themselves in a final showdown in a place where the houses rise from the rocks to decide who will take home the coveted King Kahekili Trophy.
Current leaders, Gary Hunt of England and Mexico's Adriana Jimenez, leapfrogged their closest rivals Steven LoBue (USA) and Rhiannan Iffland (AUS) with victory at the penultimate stop in Mostar two weeks ago to carry a 20 point lead into the final, while Jonathan Paredes (MEX) and Lysanne Richard (CAN) still hold hopes in third place. So, who will rule the Adriatic waters and be crowned champion in front of thousands of passionate fans this weekend?
The 37-year-old Canadian endured a nightmare 12 months in 2017 after a neck injury ruled her out for the whole season, but has bounced back in style this year. She opened with a fifth-place finish in Texas, improved in Azores to take her first podium of the season, before completing a sensational return to form with victory in Sisikon. Missing out on the podium at the last stop in Mostar by just four points means the path to the top is now very difficult - she must win in Italy and hope Jimenez and Iffland finish low - but the mum-of-three is just glad to be back on the 21m platform:
"Did I expect to be in contention for the title? – Yes, because we always aim high," says Richard, "but I'm just happy that I could do the whole season and my body still feels good; that was the main objective of the season. Polignano is the place of my first ever World Series victory. I have good memories and good feelings about this place and it's great to be in the fight for that title."
The two-time World Series champion began the season as favourite to make it a hat-trick of titles and become the most decorated female in the sport's history, but just one victory in the four women's stops so far means she now has a fight on her hands at the finale. For the first time in her career she has gone two events without victory, although second place in each of those stops is hardly a sign that the Aussie has lost her powers. A repeat of her victory here last season would see the 27-year-old raising the King Kahekili trophy for the third year in a row.
"I am here in Polignano this weekend to, I don't want to say redeem myself this season, but just super excited to compete well and to finish off strong the last competition of the 2018 season," explains Iffland. "I'm changing the order of my dives this weekend just because I feel like I need more power in one of my dives more than others, so I changed the order of my dives to have more energy on the first day. I have the easy dive last, so it's less pressure and less stress."
The Mexican is enjoying her best season to date, and with two wins and a second place to her name this year she has been the epitome of consistency. Now into her fifth season on the World Series, it seems the 33-year-old is getting better with age. Having scored her maiden victory last season, but ultimately seeing rival Iffland surge to a second title, Jimenez knew she needed to step things up in 2018. She has certainly done that, even posting the highest ever women's total score in Mostar, and a 20 point lead in the standings means that another win here will seal the deal and earn her a first title.
"Winning the title would mean one goal done," says Jimenez, "one dream realized and to put the colours of my country on top of the high diving world is one of the dreams I'd love to realize. I try to not think about being the leader. I don't want to push myself too much. I don't want to put too much pressure on me. I just want to do another good competition, think dive by dive."
It's been a patchy season for the reigning champion, whose three podium finishes have been dampened by a 10th and 6th place. That's not to say he has gone backwards this year; in fact his points tally in those three podium finishes would have been enough to score three victories last season. The problem is, when the Mexican has found his form in 2018, he has unfortunately ran into the juggernauts Hunt and LoBue, who have been smashing records left, right and centre. Paredes needs to win in Italy and hope those two fail badly, but any doubters need only look back at last year's finale to know that anything can happen.
"Honestly, I'm very calm," says Paredes. "At this point I feel like I have nothing to lose and I have a lot to win. It's been a hard year for me; I started with a very bad result in Texas. That's a lot of weight on my back since then. Now I'm trying to enjoy the competition like I did last year in Chile. I know it's not going to be the same."
A first win since 2015, a second straight after it, two 10s, a record-high score for a single dive...it's been a monumental season for the 33-year-old American. If it hadn't been for the sensational comeback of a certain rival, the 'spinmaster' would as good as have the title wrapped up by now. Even still, sitting in second place 20 points off the lead with one stop to go is something even he would have hardly believed after finishing 2017 in 7th place. It's already LoBue's most successful season ever, and if he can pull one more victory out of the bag, he'll be taking the men's King Kahekii trophy back to the USA for the first time.
The eagles were circling, and the news was spreading that Gary Hunt, the great and powerful, was finished. After a failed final dive lost him the title in Chile last year, the Brit lost faith in his famous twisting powers and opened his account this season with 8th and 10th place finishes in Texas and Bilbao. But it seems rumours of Hunt's demise were greatly exaggerated, and after a tentative return to twisting earned him a first podium in Azores, the 34-year-old rediscovered the magic that has brought him six World Series titles to reel off three wins in a row. That stunning return to form has thrust him into a 20 point lead at the top and means that another win here, or even just staying ahead of LoBue and Paredes, will earn him title number 7.
And judging by his words after winning in Mostar two weeks ago, the Brit is confident of getting his hands back on the King Kahekili trophy: "I love breaking statistics. Last year they told me I've never won on a bridge, this year that no one has ever won twice at Stari Most. The third one is that whoever wins in Mostar has never won the title, so that one's going to be broken in Polignano."
Whatever happens, it's sure to be an exciting and unforgettable climax to this 10th anniversary season.
Watch Live from Polignano a Mare
This event will be LIVE on September 23 at 13:10 PM CEST (11:10 AM GMT) on www.redbullcliffdiving.com, Red Bull TV, Facebook & Youtube. Red Bull TV is available on connected TVs, gaming consoles, mobile devices and more. Find out more at about.redbull.tv
If you miss the event or simply want to watch all the action again, the replay will be available on demand a few minutes after the event.