When you expose two dozen of the world's best cliff divers to a volcanic islet in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, they have to deal with a lot more than what diving from great heights already brings. It's not just the 3 seconds of acrobatic free fall that you have to manage before you hit the water at speeds in excess of 85kmh, but you've also got the waves pounding at your entry spot or an uneven footing for your take off straight from the rocks. It's an added stress to say the least; and it's all the more rewarding say the athletes, once you've accomplished your dives in this all-natural setting.
Let's start at the beginning with cliff diving's most gifted athlete, Gary Hunt, who labels himself a real cliff diver only now that he's won from the phenomenal cliffs on the Portuguese Azores for the 4th time in 8 years: "Coming from ten meter diving, it's a real struggle diving with your feet on a rocky surface, not even a level surface, you are leaning forward. In your head it feels so wrong, and you have to avoid rocks on the way down. All these things are just added stress, so that's a lot to deal with."
What is more is that some of the tried and trusted takeoff positions are just not possible. Like, for example, an inward takeoff because your feet are just at the wrong angle, and the athletes have to adapt. It's really a case of playing with the terrain and finding a dive that suits your abilities.
So coming to the tiny islet of volcanic stone somewhere between Europe and America, it makes a big difference if you're a freshman in this sport or a veteran. "We have been coming here for several years now", explains Andy Jones, "I feel like I know everything about this little spot, all these different little details, that I think I can play to my advantage." With a 3rd place finish in last week's off-the-cliff competition the American made successful use of his experience and the trained ability of constant adjustment and keeping cool in different situations.
It's not just the takeoffs that are not always even, they can slant a little bit downhill; there are the ocean swells that can erase hundreds of hours of practice in a matter of seconds and there is nothing you can do about it. "Sometimes you can get lucky, sometimes you can get unlucky. It just depends on how big the swell is, and whether the waves are coming in or not," recalls Britain's Jessica Macaulay. "Last year when I was going into my final dive, I went and did my back triple and lined it up perfectly and then the waves started leaving and I flew over. You can still perform the very best you can and not end up on top, because of the situations here."
Jumping far out, clearing rock ledges and not getting distracted by the magical surroundings of this natural playground and its unpredictable elements where cliff divers feel at home with what they're doing – what's the reward?
"I really hate to climb, I really hate the feeling and pressure to feel more scared of climbing than of diving. It plays with my mind, but it seems to be helping somehow, because most of the times, I had a good competition here," says Jonathan Paredes, who finished 5 out of 8 off-the-cliffs competitions on the podium. "Once you do your dive and it goes almost perfect, of course it is rewarding, and it gives you a little bit more of confidence. It's super special, even if I hate it with all my heart, I also love it with all my heart, because this is part of cliff diving."
Challenging, stressful, but ultimately rewarding. Cliff diving in the Azores may be a love hate affair for many of the athletes, but however rocky the relationship is, it's one they just can't help rekindling for one weekend every summer.
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