The atmosphere is tense and quiet before the first training session off the pure rocks in São Miguel in the Portuguese Azores; the athletes are scanning the rocky take-off areas, the bumpy entry spots some 27m below, observing the waves coming in and leaving again, taking all the water with them and lengthening the fall for several meters. The relief however, grows with each dive gone well, and as more and more divers come up trumps from the water, the cheering on the surrounding rocks gets livelier.
While leaping from great heights is bread and butter for cliff diving's elite, it's only once a year that their versatility gets tested in a high class cliff diving competition when the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series is hosted on the stunning volcanic location in the mid-Atlantic. It's a spectacular 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?
David Colturi, who was competing in the Azores for the 7th year in a row, explains that diving directly off the rocks is a true test of versatility:
"The three safety checks in cliff diving – the take-off, the flight path and the water entry all get tested here in the Azores," says the American. "From the off the rock take-offs you're at an angle, your feet aren't totally smooth and you've got to grip the rock. You've got to be really focused and aware of what you're doing with the take-off to do the dive safely and correctly.
"Versatility is so important in cliff diving, especially here. The strongest, most flexible and mentally tough divers are the ones that are going to come out on top. It's something that comes with experience, but it's a cool challenge."
Orlando Duque, the oldest and most experienced cliff diver in the World Series, backs up Colturi's words about the importance of having been here and done it before:
"It's exciting, it's a challenge, and it's real cliff diving," says the 43-year-old Colombian. "It's almost like three different events in one day, and you have to adapt to everything really quick. It certainly helps when you have experience."
But what about those divers who have never set foot on the volcanic rock of the tiny mid-Atlantic islet? Italy's Alessandro De Rose has been competing in the World Series since 2013, but only now in his first year as a permanent diver has he finally made his debut in this pure location.
"I always watched this competition from the TV and was jealous about the people competing here," says De Rose. "The biggest challenge is where you put your feet, because it's such an uneven surface. Also, the visualisation of the dive is different. When you come out from the dive you see the rock really close to you, which is different from diving from the platform.
"It's a big challenge for both the mind and the body. I prefer this kind of competition though because you are really in touch with nature. It's a real cliff dive."
American Ginger Huber pulled off a spectacular feat here in 2016 when she became the first 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 43-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."
Huber also adds that there is something special about the Azores, where the women were competing for the fourth 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."
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