Deep Dive Episode 7: Becoming a Champion

Gary Hunt and Rhiannan Iffland
What it takes to be a cliff diving champion

Whether you're new to Red Bull Cliff Diving or a seasoned fan, this 7-part Deep Dive series, with Gary Hunt, Orlando Duque and Rhiannan Iffland will immerse you into every aspect of one of the world's most fascinating sports. Over these two weeks, all episodes will be released here along with a story related to each title.

Watch Episode 7: Becoming a Champion above, and read on below to find out more.

Technique, bravery, fitness, aerial awareness, mental strength; the art of cliff diving requires the type of diverse skillset not seen in many other sports. Each and every diver who steps up onto the Red Bull Cliff World Series platform possesses the necessary tools of their trade, but only a select few have fashioned themselves into champions over the last 11 years. In a sport where the finest of margins can be the difference between success and failure, what is it that sets apart the champions from the challengers?

Naturally, the search for an answer to this question leads us to Gary Hunt and Rhiannan Iffland, two of the sport's heavyweights, who have dominated in their respective divisions over the years. Hunt, the 'Brilliant Brit' Frenchman, has scooped eight King Kahekili trophies out of a possible 11 since the World Series began in 2009, while Australia's Iffland has reigned in each of the four seasons she has competed in since her debut in 2016. Considering the pedigree of their rivals, along with the mental and physical pressures associated with cliff diving, these are quite mind-boggling numbers indeed.

"My plan to be a champion has changed a lot over the years," admits Hunt. "Back 10 years ago I was relying on the training I did as a child, learning all these new dives to win. I was relying on my difficulty to stay ahead of the pack. Now it's a lot different. I don't have the most difficult dives of the pack and there are so many strong divers out there. I have to change my focus, to do everything basically to avoid injuries and to be able to keep up a solid block of training when I am not competing."

Gary Hunt has built his career and successes around the big dives. Photo: Balazs Gardi/Red Bull Content Pool.

The 35-year-old truly was a trailblazer when it came to complex dives. He was the first athlete to cram 3 somersaults and 4½ twists into 3-seconds of freefall, and consistently opted for a higher DD (degree of difficulty) than most of his rivals. It was a brave tactic, but one which delivered trophy after trophy. More recently, as Hunt himself concedes, he no longer owns the most difficult dive list. But what he does possess in abundance is a steely determination and mental strength that, coupled with his unwavering natural ability, continues to keep him ahead of the pack.

"I just try to keep my training diverse and to keep it interesting," says Hunt. "If I am doing the same thing over and over again, after a while my motivation is going to fade, but if I am inventing new ways of training, ways of keeping my brain focused and learning new things, that's what's going to get me out of bed in the morning."

Iffland, who exploded onto the cliff diving scene as a wildcard champion in 2016, often credits her trampolining background with giving her a leg up in the sport. Like Hunt, she also talks of the power of creativity, keeping things interesting and being bold.

"I've been playing around with ideas, and it does take time to develop those new dives and those big dives but it all starts with that thought process and putting in the work in the pool, in the pre-season," says the 28-year-old. "There are ideas, but you actually never know until you step up there on that day because everything has got to be right for you to try something big and to risk everything."

Iffland's ability to compete under pressure is perhaps her standout quality. During her first three seasons she was pushed hard by the likes of Mexico's Adriana Jimenez and Canadian Lysanne Richard, both more experienced than the Aussie. Yet in the crucial moments, she held her nerve and delivered what was needed. In 2019, with the pressure of completing the first-ever perfect season weighing more heavily on her with each passing victory, she defied the doubters and wrote herself into cliff diving legend.

Composure and nerves of steel - Rhiannan Iffland has consistently performed at the highest level under pressure. Photo: Romina Amato/Red Bull Content Pool.

"The fact that I am so hungry to keep improving and to keep pushing myself kind of outweighs the feeling of pressure," explains the record-breaker. "And, in a way, having those pressures pushes me. It's what makes me to want to succeed. It's kind of an addiction to keep improving and to keep developing."

Orlando Duque, who recently retired from a stellar cliff diving career, knows better than most what a sensational achievement it is to record a perfect season:

"If you talk about technique, style, all the divers have a little bit of that," says the Colombian. "But to have that perfect season you need attitude, you need to really want it, you need to show it. When Rhiannan is standing on the platform you know you can't compete against her. You know she is going to throw the dives, you know she is going to show the way it is supposed to be done. Most of us only dream of that. We dream of putting together one good competition, so just imagine pushing to a full season. Pretty cool to live that."

The two record-breaking champions show no sign of giving up their crowns just yet. Photo: Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool.

The diverse skillset required to be a cliff diver inevitably means that many athletes will be strong in some areas and weaker in others. Some may have the technique, the skill, but not the consistency or mental strength to be at their best every time. Others will have the coping mechanisms, the bravery and the desire, but maybe not quite the ability to challenge at the very top.

But every so often in sport, an athlete comes along who ticks every box; someone who shows no weakness in any area, and whose physical and mental prowess thrusts them ahead of the pack. In cliff diving, we are fortunate to have had two in the same era.