Can the Challengers Topple the Champions?

Athletes in El Nido
Titleholders Hunt and Iffland face toughest test yet against hungry chasing pack

It's a question that's discussed and debated every season; whether or not anyone can overpower England's Gary Hunt and Australian Rhiannan Iffland, the seemingly unbeatable favourites, in the fight for the King Kahekili trophy. Hunt has won an astonishing seven titles in the ten Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series seasons so far, while Iffland has reigned over the women for the past three seasons since making her debut in 2016. But in recent years the quality and consistency of the chasing pack has rocketed, and a number of new faces and more experienced contenders are now ready to lay down a real challenge, starting this weekend in El Nido, Philippines.

The first name that springs to mind when assessing potential threats to Hunt's crown is Steven LoBue. The 33-year-old American enjoyed a sensational season last year, spinning his way to glory at two stops and pushing Hunt all the way to the very last dives in Polignano a Mare. Now that he's seemingly mastered his high DD quint dives, he will no doubt be a major force again in 2019.

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Spinning in paradise - Steven LoBue warms up for the first stop of the season in El Nido. Photo: Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool.

Another American, David Colturi, was in flying form last summer until a ruptured spleen abruptly ended his season. At one point it looked like it could be a battle between him and compatriot LoBue for the title, but his mid-season withdrawal left everyone thinking what could have been. If he rediscovers that form he'll certainly be in contention.

"The hope and goal going through the recovery process was to pick up where I left off," says Colturi. "But it took a little longer than what I had hoped for. I was at such a good level, and maybe I don't pick up where I left off but start anew and it'll be really good. This season I'm starting with some easier dives. It's really just getting some experience under my belt, and then I can bump it up and start battling for those podiums."

One diver who already knows what it feels like to wrestle the title from Hunt is Mexico's Jonathan Paredes. The 29-year-old proved himself in 2017 by snatching the trophy at the final stop in Chile, but it was a failed final dive from the Brit which gifted it to his rival. In a way, Paredes feels he still has something to prove. and the stylish diver known for consistently ripping his entries could have another tilt at the trophy this year.

What about the new faces? Well, Romania's Constantin Popovici exploded onto the cliff diving scene mid-way through last season and his eye-catching performances as a wildcard earned him a permanent place on the tour. Still competing as an Olympic diver, he has bags of potential and with a full season to play with this year he could be a contender.

"Being a permanent diver means that I get to go to all seven stops," says Popovici. "That's an early preparation for me. I knew exactly when to start my training, which I began in November right after the FINA World Cup. I went to the pool, the gym. Now I came directly from England, where I did the first high dives of the year. I want to raise my DD hopefully in the near future and why not get some medals and challenge the winner from last year."

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Constantin Popovici is ready to challenge during his first season as a permanent diver. Photo: Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool.

Oleksiy Prygorov of the Ukraine is another former wildcard who has made the step up this season, and the only Olympic medal holder in the World Series. Like Popovici, he certainly has the talent to make his mark over seven stops, and in Hunt's words he's the 'one to watch' this season.

Hunt, however, has his own plans for continuing his reign: "Last year I made the decision that this year would be the same dives. With these four dives I'm unbeaten in the World Series. If it's not broken, don't fix it. It's for the rest of the guys to try something new and I'm going to sit back; I'm very comfortable with these dives."

In the women's, Iffland has been champion for the past three years, but the challengers might just make this season her toughest test yet.  

Lysanne Richard, the 37-year-old Canadian, fought Iffland all the way in 2016, but her progression was halted by a neck injury that forced her to miss the whole of 2017. A brilliant comeback last season was capped with a win in Switzerland, and it would be no surprise to see the mum-of-three top a few podiums this summer.

In a clear display of progression, Mexico's Adriana Jimenez has finished 6th, 5th, 3rd and 2nd in the last four years, and in both of the last two seasons she has entered the final dives with a shot at the title. There's no reason why the super-talented Mexican can't put everything together this season and improve her final standing once again to take the ultimate prize.

If you're looking for a fresh challenger in the women's though, then look no further than Brit Jessica Macaulay. The 26-year-old enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2018, coming within just 0.1 pts of winning the first stop in Texas, and producing a series of eye-catching displays that at one point thrust her into the title fight. She has all the tools to step up this season and be a major threat to Iffland's crown.

"This is the first winter I've dedicated myself to training," says Macaulay. "Usually I'd be working on a ship or on a high diving contract. My mentality hasn't changed, I'm still just going with the flow and having fun. I actually created a vision board with me as the winner and that really helps to attract the life you want to have. I'd love to win but like I said just having fun is how I do well and that's my strategy."

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Jessica Macaulay looks in good shape physically and mentally to challenge for the title in 2019. Photo: Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool.

As for Iffland, she's trying not to focus on anyone but herself when it comes to defending the title: "All the girls are coming up and everybody is diving amazing; but honestly, I try not to think about that. I have no control over what the other girls are going to do up on the platform and during competition, but when I go up there it's my game and I'm going to dive to the best of my ability."

Watch LIVE from El Nido

This event will be LIVE on April 13 at 4.45 PM local time (8.45 AM GMT) on www.redbullcliffdiving.com, Red Bull TV, Facebook & YouTube.

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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.

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