Deep Dive Episode 5: Degree of Difficulty

Michal Navratil
Success in cliff diving is reliant on complex dives now more than ever before

The basic ingredients of any cliff dive are there for all to see; the take-off, the mid-air twists and somersaults and the entry. But, perhaps not so obvious for the average spectator, is the Degree of Difficulty, or DD of the dive. To put it very simply, the way in which a cliff diver chooses to combine those basic ingredients and execute them, determines the difficulty of the dive. In other words, it's a cliff diving recipe, and each one has its own individual rating. And the greater the DD of the dive, the more points on offer for the successful completion of it.

"In a competition, we do 4 different dives," explains the recently retired Colombian Orlando Duque. "One required dive that has a set degree of difficulty for the men of 2.8, and for the women 2.6. Then we have an intermediate dive and then we have 2 optional dives. And the optional dives are when you do the most difficult dives possible. That's when you try to gain as much points as possible. It ranges from 5.4 for the men and for the women the highest is 4.3."

Technically, the more twists and spins that are added to the dive, the greater the DD. But other techniques and factors come into play when calculating the difficulty, as expert commentator and former cliff diver Joey Zuber explains:

"You have the tuck position, which is like a ball shape and that puts you into a really small position and allows you to spin really fast, giving you a lower degree of difficulty," says Zuber. "But, for example, when you have the pike position, which is more like an L-shape, that means you are bigger and longer and it's harder to spin as fast, and that increases the degree of difficulty. And if you start with a handstand, instantly you have a higher degree of difficulty."

Each diver has their own strengths. For instance, Steven LoBue's small stature helps him to pack five somersaults into his most difficult dives. Photo: Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool.

Five judges rate the dive based on the execution of it, each giving scores up to 10. The highest and lowest of these are discarded, and the remaining three are added together and multiplied by the DD to give a final score for each dive.

Over the last decade since the World Series began, the complexity of the dives has grown, and it's no surprise that those athletes who have led this drive are some of the most successful in the sport's history. Gary Hunt, the 8-time champion, was the first man to add an eye-popping 3 somersaults and 4½ twists into a single dive, while 4-time women's champion Rhiannan Iffland is currently one of just a few women attempting the 4.3-rated back 3 somersaults with 2 twists. 

"The back triple with one twist was one of the most difficult dives a couple of years ago and that's 3.8 degree of difficulty," says Australian Iffland. "And now it's common to see the girls up in the 4.0, 4.1 and even 4.3. The divers are definitely growing as the sport is growing."

Along with Iffland, Germany's Iris Schmidbauer is one of the other women with a 4.3 DD in her dive list. Photo: Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool.

The signs are also looking good for the next generation of cliff divers. England's Aidan Heslop, at just 17 years old, became the youngest man ever to make it onto the podium at the 2019 season finale in Bilbao. Spurred on by the knowledge that success in this sport is reliant on complexity, the budding star chose a back 3 somersaults with 4 twists, with a huge 5.2 DD, for his final dive in Spain. 

"When I first performed this dive, it was ground-breaking," says France's Gary Hunt. "Now, we're watching Aidan doing this in just his second competition, and doing it like it's the easiest thing in the world. Doing this dive, one of the hardest dives in the world, Aidan was 17 years old. It's really something we've never seen before in cliff diving, so it's exciting to watch what could happen in this sport."

Lift-off for the next generation as Aidan Heslop leaps into his back 3 somersaults with 4 twists in Bilbao. Photo: Romina Amato/Red Bull Content Pool.

No doubt we'll continue to see the complexity of dives continue to develop in the future, and as Hunt says, with bold young athletes like Heslop coming through, it's exciting to see what cliff diving recipes the new generation will cook up for us.