Adapting to an Unusual Terrain

Steven LoBue
How the world's best cliff divers prepare for the switch from platform to rocks

Leaping from great heights is bread and butter for cliff diving's elite, but when it comes to competitive action it's not so often that they get to dive in directly off the rocks. In fact, São Miguel in the Portuguese Azores is the only stop in the Red Bull Cliff Diving calendar where these exceptionally talented and courageous athletes really get back to the roots of true cliff diving, steadying their feet on the raw rocks before launching off for two out of their four competition dives. It's a stunning sight for those watching, but what does it take for the divers to transfer their skills from the comfort and familiarity of a solid platform to the natural bumps, ruts and general inconsistency of bare cliffs?

Jonathan Paredes is making his fifth appearance at the stunning volcanic location in the mid-Atlantic, and the Mexican 'stylemaster' is quick to point out the importance of mental preparation in a place like this:

"Coming here to the island is always a challenge," explains the 26-year-old, who began this season with a sixth-place finish in Ireland. "Everything that you know; the right posture, all the right take-offs, you have to change everything here. It's more mental than physical. You have to be mentally strong to put it all together and do what you're used to doing from the platform."

It's not just the natural take-off point that poses a tricky challenge. A fair bit of rock climbing is involved in order to reach some of the spots, and it's this which really puts the fear into last season's overall runner-up Paredes: "That's the main challenge, the climbing. For me, that's worse than anything. Yesterday I had a chance to dive off the monolith, which I last did three years ago and I remember it was really scary. It was a little bit better this time, but I still used a harness."

Jonathan Paredes faces his fears with a bit of rock climbing up to the take-off spot. Photo: Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool.

While for some it's all about the mental preparation and overcoming fears, for others the key factor is adaptability.

"Once you step out of the pool, the possibilities are endless," describes the sport's legendary Colombian Orlando Duque, "Every time I get a chance to jump off a rock, it's probably the best part of my sport to be honest. It's the place that is there, nature created it and we're making it work to do what we do, we're changing the angle of the take-off, we're trying to change positions in the air, trying to avoid rocks and that makes it that much more interesting. We are taking our technique, which we learned for so many years and adapting it to that one specific situation. And then the spot next to it might be completely different, so we have to change again."

Compared to Duque, one of the most experienced cliff divers on the planet, World Series rookie Jessica Macaulay is making her debut at the magical islet, known locally as "Princess Ring". Judging by her reaction after training, it seems that newbie enthusiasm can be a powerful asset too: "When I was standing on the rock I was really nervous," said the 24-year-old Brit, who now lives in Texas, "but I just told myself 'this is the moment, it's time, I'm just gonna go.' When I hit the water it felt amazing, just like a real sense of relief. When I've dived off rocks in other places it's been more sketchy – with a lot of clearance and really uneven ground - but this cliff is really nice. After today's practise I feel a lot more confident for competition."

Rookie Jessica Macaulay arrows her way down the past the impressive cliff face. Photo: Romina Amato/Red Bull Content Pool.

American Ginger Huber pulled off a spectacular feat here last season when she became the first ever woman to score a 10, the highest note possible from the judges, especially as it came from a dive directly off the cliffs. So, what's the secret to her success?

"I just try and find the zone," reveals the 42-year-old. "I don't really know how to find it, but sometimes you just get in the zone. It's the best place to be because you know you can do the dive no matter what happens. Once I'm there I just feel like I can conquer anything."

"This island just feels like home," says American Ginger Huber. Photo: Romina Amato/Red Bull Content Pool.

Huber also adds that there is something special about this location, where the women are competing for the third time: "This island itself just feels like home. Some of the other divers say the same, it just feels like we're supposed to be here. The thing that helps me most is to just try and really enjoy the environment. We are diving off natural cliffs and that's really unique and special for us."

On Saturday morning the men and women will complete the first two rounds of competition from the magnificent cliffs, and whatever tools each individual diver calls upon to help them succeed, it's sure to be an exciting and dramatic opening on the pure Azores rocks.

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