Orlando Duque is no stranger to the bruising Atlantic coast of Ireland. He's looking forward to returning in June to tackle the legendary Serpent's Lair of Inis Mór as the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series makes its opening stop on the Aran Islands. We caught up with him to find out more about the unique challenges of Inis Mór and the 2017 Cliff Diving World Series.
The Serpent's Lair is the World Series at its wildest. Situated 20km off of the Irish coast on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, it poses the world's best cliff divers a unique challenge. Known as Poll na bPeist to the locals, the Sepent's Lair is a naturally-formed seapool that is almost perfectly rectangular. Thanks to a network of underwater tunnels and caverns the ocean flows in and out of the pool meaning that the water rises and falls with every crashing wave. The result for Orlando and the guys is a moving target: "Because it's a blow hole you have water coming in and then the level is going up and down a little bit. It's really slow but you have to be aware of that, because at one point you can be diving at one metre more or less and if you miss that and you're miscalculating it can be pretty bad. But I know by day two everyone is going to be right at home and they'll get along without any problems."
The two-day event is a complete sell-out with over 1,000 spectators expected to clamber across Inis Mór to reach the Serpent's Lair. Whereas in some locations on the circuit crowds are kept at distance on boats, or further back on dry land, not so on Inis Mór where the divers pass within metres of the crowd as they take to the skies. "We're diving right in front of their eyes into the pool," says Duque. He believes it makes Inis Mór an intimate and visceral experience for both diver and spectator: "During the competition they're really close and they can really hear the impact, how loud it is, the speed. They get to appreciate more of the sport when they're that close. It's really great for us, the divers, we can pretty much make eye contact before diving. We're on top of the platform, we're looking down and the people are right there. I think it's an added element, we don't get it everywhere, and when we have it it makes the experience more exciting."
The fans are so close they can almost feel the rush of air as Duque swoops toward the pool in 2014. Photo: Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool.
The crowds at Inis Mór will witness the best cliff divers in the world taking to the air in pursuit of victory. For Orlando defending champion, Gary Hunt, will be the man to beat: "Gary is having a really good moment right now. He's diving really well, he's doing very difficult dives and he's doing them well. But he has to do them right for him to win. Nothing is decided until the last dive is done." Duque believes the Englishman's main competition will come in the shape of Jonathan Paredes. Hailing from Mexico, Paredes was runner-up to Hunt in 2016, but Duque believes he's ready to go one further: "He's really, really good. He's one of the young talents coming up. Technically he's very good. He's raising the difficulty of his dives which is going to put him in a really good spot too. It's the fourteen best divers in the world so you can pick any of them, but if you asked me I would say look for Gary and look for Jonathan, they're going to be up there."
As the divers settle into their starting position on the cliffs of Inis Mór they will be greeted by the endless grey maul of the Atlantic. 27 metres up they will be truly exposed to Mother Nature. Fighting against gravity is hard enough without having to worry about hostile weather conditions. Duque has his fingers crossed that the sun shines come June 24: "Each year we've been here - 2012 and 2014 – the weather has been on our side. So we're hoping we get the same kind of weather again. The only thing I hope we don't get is any wind. We can perform pretty good under any conditions, even if it's cold, but wind is what is tricky." Jumping from almost three times the height tackled in the Olympics, Duque and co reach speeds of nearly 85kph, and there's little margin for error. However, Orlando is confident that Inis Mór will provide the perfect stage to kick off this year's competition: "I know a lot of people are cautious about the weather but I can't wait to start. There's always that excitement that builds up before the season and for me it couldn't be better that we're starting in Ireland."
The Colombian legend is looking forward to reacquainting himself with the Serpent's Lair when the season kicks off on June 24. Photo: Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool.
2017 has the potential to be a huge year for the sport of cliff diving. The International Swimming Federation (FINA), is pushing to expand Olympic diving beyond its current 10m height and up to the 27m platform used in the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. Orlando says there's an extra buzz around this year's tour with IOC eyes looking on: "All the guys get really excited every time they hear the word Olympics. It'll be fantastic if they include it in the Olympics. I know the sport has a lot of potential, it's exciting. I think we're going in the right direction. The next natural step is the Olympic Games." For Orlando, who will celebrate his 43rd birthday during the 2017 season, diving in Tokyo would be the perfect way to sign off a career dedicated to the sport: "That would be awesome. If it happens I think it will be great. It means to so much to so many countries."
Watch Live from Inis Mór
This event will be LIVE on June 24 from 12.00 local time (11.00 GMT) on www.redbullcliffdiving.com, Red Bull TV and Facebook. 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.