Life on Location as a Cliff Diving Commentator

Trace Worthington and Joey Zuber
Date: 25/02/2021

Their voices are intrinsically interwoven with the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series as the US-Australian pair who lead through the live show on Red Bull TV. They educate the viewers; they witness records and bad landings while always having a funny line and fresh facts on their lips. In a recent video chat across Austria, Australia and the US, the duo didn't need a lot of tickling to get the conversation about their work going.

Who are behind the voices?

Lead commentator Trace Worthington remains the most decorated male freestyle skier in U.S. history since his retirement in 1997 and has an impressive 37 World Cup victories, 7 world titles, 11 national titles and a total of 79 podium finishes on the FIS World Cup Freestyle circuit to his name. His professional commentary work has secured him assignments for a variety of global broadcasts, among them four Olympic Games.

Former cliff diver Joey Zuber, who retired from his competitive career shortly before the World Series was introduced and following a crash in South American waters, is the color commentator with an Aussie accent. He adds his knowledge of the sport, the facts and figures as well as the highly valuable insider information to each live show.

Here is what they told us...

How did a US Ski Hall of Famer turned TV host and a former cliff diver come together as the eloquent commentator duo for the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series?

Trace: When we started to go live, they told me: 'We need somebody to do commentating full time and you're the first in the list, and we have to find you a color commentator.' I said: 'What about the dude who knows everything?' They said: 'Joey's never been in that role before.' That's my job, get him next to me and I will pull so much information from him that it will be ridiculous. I just need him seated next to me. I will teach him how to do it.

The first time out of the gate he hit it out of the park. For me he is the ultimate guy to sit next to me because of all that knowledge and information. Not only the storyline of the athletes, but he has also done that, gone off the cliff from those heights. That's when I think everything connected. His dedication is off the chart. Of all the sports that I do, this is the most rewarding, to have somebody like him next to you... It's not the same when they put somebody next to you who says: 'I was a very good athlete' with a piece of paper and a pencil and he's done.

Joey: Trace has more experience than me and he's the lead commentator. I have a lot of confidence in him steering the ship. Sometimes we have technical problems, and Trace has to handle that stuff. The producer is hammering in your ear, and you are trying to process all the information and continue with the show. Sometimes Trace just messes with me. We throw some funny lines there just to light up things a bit, we don't want to be too serious but also not too funny either.

Education is an important thing. We have to explain the things to people who don't know anything about the sport. We try to hit as many topics as possible, stats, personal notes. We have a check list of 10 things to cover: impact, g-forces, using some analogies to explain things. How does it feel to make a somersault? In some shows, we don't use it much, and in others we go to every bit of information. We always have that stuff ready.

How do you prepare for your commentary? You're live on air for about 90 minutes - so a lot of time to fill with valid information.

Trace: We are two or three days on-site going over every athlete who is there. Every single storyline, what's relevant. Information you get online, on social media... Our goal is to tell the most relevant story about that athlete that week.

Joey: We all contribute to the overall product in the show, but the buck stops with us and we do feel the pressure. We want to humanize the athletes so that the people can connect with them. I love watching tennis, but I want to know what makes Roger Federer tick. To show that they are normal people who do extraordinary things. We try to shine a positive light on everybody. At the same time, we also have to critique people, although what they are doing is absolutely amazing.

We try to cover everything, from the technique and the personal side, their background, their history, what helped them develop their character. We also have directions from the producers. We try to keep track of what has happened in previous competitions. What has happened two or three years ago. You must use different adjectives not to repeat yourself. You must have fifteen different adjectives to say the same thing.

Do you have a book of synonyms, dictionary or something like that?

Trace: We have a lot of papers, but we don't use everything, it's just backup. Up there (points to his head), I have a lot of emergency stuff. When you're struggling for a thought, for words, struggling for a storyline, between both of us we have so much information that we don't ever have to use it all. My sheets will have 10 or 15 different things on one athlete. Gary Hunt will have 10 or 15 items, and I probably only use two. I use what is more relevant for that week. Joey and I go through those sheets every single week.

Information overload...

The goal must be to offer unheard stories, fresh facts and news during every show; how much do the stunning locations influence your onsite preparations?

Trace: That's the other part, the location. I dive into every location. When I get there I'll jog five, six, seven miles around the area, just to get a feel of the culture. I think that's super important. It's not a direction or expectation. I think grabbing the culture of the area and having some little nuggets of information to bring to the broadcast is really important as well. I think the history of Bosnia is amazing, knowing how many people come there every year. Bring the viewer into that world for one hour and a half.

Joey: We spend a lot of time together, whether going to restaurants, walking or going for a run. We talk about what we are going to do, what we've seen. In terms of commentating, Trace and I communicate very well. We are constantly talking about what we want to do, bringing in new ideas.

Trace: We run a lot together when we get to locations, that's pretty cool. We go for a jog, hang out, stretch. That reflects in the broadcast for sure. You go to new places such as Beirut. We had dinner with a friend of Joey's two nights in a row before the broadcast. I absorbed so much great information, more information than I can even handle. At the end of the show, directors and producers say: 'Wow, these guys do their work. They have thought about this.'

Talking about the team and all the people behind a broadcast, how many people are involved in your work process? How many people do talk into your ears during the show?

Trace: The producer must be the eyes and ears but, in some circumstances, people pop in every now and then. I don't mind that. In cliff diving, there is not as much traffic in your ears as other sports that I do. Obviously, there is a team in the OB truck that trusts what Joey and I are doing. During the whole show the producer or the executive producer speaks to my ear only a few times, because they like what they are hearing, they don't want to interrupt you. I don't mind it at all, the more information, the better.  I love the fact that the team trusts us, and we just roll. 

Do you bring your own commentating booth to each location or where do you work from usually?

Joey: Every location is different. In Bosnia, for example, we were sitting in a bar on a balcony, we could see the bridge and the whole atmosphere. Commentating in those kinds of places is just amazing. We can hear the splash when the athletes hit the water, the chatter on top of the platform, the noise from the crowd. We want to feel what is happening in the event.

Trace: There are not many places in which we had that view, where we are sitting right there. In Beirut we were the boys in the bubble... during a pandemic that is actually cool. You don't get that feeling though, you don't have that ambient noise. You want to be there, in the scene, in the mix. You want to feel like part of the crowd. We want to deliver the best show from our part.

How do you deal with technical issues in remote places?

Trace: The system is awesome; the system never goes down because of the system itself but because of the internet. When we go live what happens is typically everybody is sucking from the routers in the area. You are hoping that the internet connection is strong and holds strong, otherwise the system is no good. If things are happening quicker than the information is popping up, that gets scary for sure. But you roll with it.

Tell us about the famous power cut in Polignano a Mare, Italy a couple seasons back.

Trace: It happened when the preshow had already rolled in. I decided to continue just in case it was only my monitor in dark. You don't know because you're not close to the team, we are a few hundred yards away. The production team is not in a room next to you, like in a regular broadcast. We didn't have any direct communication. All my communication went out. I couldn't just say: 'My monitor just went out on air'. I could hear them, but they couldn't hear me. They were yelling at me like: 'What are you doing?'. 'Are you kidding?' 'Look at the picture!'. I didn't have a way to tell them I couldn't see anything. Something in that area was unplugged. It was a relief that we went off air because I don't know whether it was just only our equipment, but it was everything that went out. After that, all the nerves were gone.

How did you learn to improvise? As you said, the technical side might break down. Sometimes you don't find the right sheet in the right moment. Do you have a code word when one is lost so the other can jump in?

Trace: If there is anything missing, the rule of broadcasting is that you don't really need to improvise. You are going to provide the information. If everything blows up, we are talking about Gary Hunt and we are talking about cliff diving. The viewers are not going to notice the difference. At the end of the day the public is watching a guy doing crazy stuff off a cliff. You can do the whole show and not really worry about a statistic; and you still can get away with an incredible show. I just suck information out of Joey and what he knows, and you're fine, you're totally fine.

Joey: Another thing that I think is important, I don't know whether to call it a rule or not, is 'don't forget to talk about what you see on the screen'. The locations in cliff diving lends itself to amazing shots. You're never left without anything to say. There is always something to talk about. The location is incredible, or the action is incredible.

Did you ever get lost for words during a live show? What would you say was the most difficult moment to find the words? We did have some bad landings like for instance Sergio Guzman in Mostar?

Joey: That was a tough one; luckily, I had a few things in my head. You've to be prepared. In downhill skiing, in the Tour de France people fall off their bikes, things go wrong sometimes. Unfortunately, from time to time, these things do happen. We have a team of experts, rescue divers, doctors... Sergio had a big cut, and he did try to hide it. He knew how concerned the other athletes were. This shows the camaraderie that there is among the athletes. The respect they have for one another. All the athletes were deeply concerned for Sergio. All were wishing him all the best. That was a tough one. You have to kill quite a bit of dead time. Everything had to be reset, the medical team needs to be in place so the competition can continue. For me personally that was a tough one.

The worst feeling is probably when something happened, and you don't know how bad it really is. I remember many years ago Hassan Mouti in Greece, when he had that crash during training.

Joey: I think you have to get analytical and explain, but you have to remove yourself at one point. You're still shocked but you have to look at it objectively, but you don't want to be cold about it either. You're right, it's worse when you don't know. It can be worse or maybe not too much, but you cannot speculate.

Trace: Yes, the rule is that you cannot speculate. You can analyze but you cannot speculate, that's the rule in broadcasting I grew up with.

What was the craziest set-up that you worked in?

Trace: Philippines was insane, everything was done on kayaks... that was the most unique setting for me.

Joey: Just to get to the venue and the swimming set-up was an adventure. Then the commentary was awesome. There were cables everywhere. It was raining very hard. You just shake your head and think if that is possible. You think: 'how are we going to pull this off?'.

Trace: Due to the special set-up the show was recorded and played out with a one-and-a-half-hour delay. We had a waterproof case in a boat that held the entire show. This was like gold. You had the whole team there, all this money spent, to go on air in an hour. Steam was coming out of our boat going at two miles per hour towards the beach. The case was so heavy, and we had to run with it along the beach. Running as fast as you could handle it until you blew up, before you ran out of breath. We finally made it to the hotel. That was like the funniest moment and the most gratifying of any event!

Would you say that all these variety of locations are what makes commentating cliff diving so special? Of course, there is the sport, and the athletes are out of this world, but is it the location and the challenges that come with it what makes it special?

Trace: It all adds to the story. How the divers access the location, how they access the platform. It's fascinating for me; again, Joey grew up in this sport. For me it comes out very naturally when I tell the story because I am talking to the viewers that haven't seen it before.

Which venue struck you the most?

Trace: Copenhagen, where the Opera House is part of the venue. When I started, that one stood out. Where you with me Joey? I think it was the second or the third one that you and I worked together. That was pretty cool, at least for me, going on location for the first year.

Joey: I agree with Trace, I've been involved in cliff diving for a long time. I have seen some crazy stuff. When you see the logistics... You see the Opera House with that massive roof. The logistics behind these events is just bonkers. You cannot even describe it to people; you have to see the images. It's a hell of an achievement just to have the logistics done.

The pair pose for a photo on top of the Copenhagen Opera House.

After years on tour, you've certainly experienced a whole bunch of great moments – what's your personal highlight?

Trace: Alessandro De Rose's win in Polignano a Mare is a memorable one. It's one of the moments, when you're jumping out of your seat. You're not supposed to root for anybody. It's a rule in commentating, you're supposed to be leveled. But if there was a time when I was rooting for a guy to win and that last dive, we were on our feet, high-fiving each other. Joey and I were like hugging each other. It was pretty cool, it felt like you were part of it. That was the one for me.

Joey: I have to say the last one that we did in Spain in 2019 was a pretty cool broadcast. That was a special one, the last time we broadcasted. It was Orlando's last competition, that was special. He was the king.

Besides the adventurous settings on the water or in a tiny booth hidden behind some tents on the Lebanese rocks, are there any other challenges you face as commentators?

Trace: You travel with a tiny group of athletes. It's not like commentating a football game in the United States; there are plenty of teams out there. Here, you see the same people two weeks later. It's a tough balance between telling things as they are, the truth, Joey has to get critical with these guys and that is tough, sometimes you lose friends because of that. That's a fine line. Telling thing as they are, criticizing them in a way that is the truth without worrying about what the person is going to think about you the next week. It is what it is. Sometimes you don't make friends.

Trace, you commentate a lot of other sports. What makes the World Series stand out of all the others?

Trace: For sure the locations and the perseverance of the athletes is fascinating to me. In traditional diving I don't think there is much adjusting to go in, I might be wrong. Just from a viewer standpoint, a commentator standpoint, I see the athletes have to adjust to the circumstances, the weather and everything that goes with it. The climate, the fog, Mother Nature is really playing a factor. The footprint where that cliff is. They have to adjust in their head in just two days. To be able to overcome waves in Portugal, to see the waves crashing against the cliff. And then two weeks later it's super calm in Bosnia. For me it's fascinating what's going through their heads. To do that, week in and week out.

Joey: All these new dives these guys are doing are insanely difficult to do. And you have to add all those variables: wind, slight variation in height, water colour, the water could be muddied up.

Trace: That's exactly my job, to get this kind of information out of Joey. When you have a cliff, what's the difference between that and a bridge where there is air underneath. I think that's interesting for the viewer to know. When you're doing three or four flips off a cliff and then you go to the next location and it's a river with blue water, you can see the bottom. It's important that the viewer understand the difference between these locations.

Joey: I do like it when Trace throws me questions because nine out of ten are the questions the audience have in mind. I also think it's very important to try to answer questions from the general public. What's interesting from their point of view. With this question-and-answer approach, you give the viewers information that they haven't even thought about and they think: 'Oh, wow, it's true. How do they find their way? How do they reference where they are?' As you said, you have to educate your audience. Sometimes I turn on the TV simply for entertainment but then I get this additional information. It adds another layer to the whole thing. It makes it more interesting for me to tune in next time again because I feel I can take something away, not just images.

Trace: I go to a broadcast thinking that if there are 100,000 people watching, 20 of them are actually educated in diving, in cliff diving. I have to bring all the other people into the broadcast. That's a rule that I have. I don't really care about the 20 people; they already know how everything works. They know the stats and stories; but it's the other people that you want to bring into it. Like that guy in Italy watching the best cliff divers in the world walk through his house to get to the platform. This is not like somebody diving in a pool somewhere, this is different, this is cool.

In terms of story, if we can provide information that you cannot find on the internet, that you cannot google, then we have done a really good job. We provide some information that is not out there for the general public, insider information that we got while we were on site. That's why it's quite important for us to be on site.

So ahead of a new season, how much time do you need to get ready? Until you've freshened up all your memories and expertise and say like 'yes, let's go'.

Joey: I think the executive producer would call and inform us of any changes happening, maybe subtle differences in how we tell the story. That would be probably six weeks prior. I would personally prepare a month before. A week before I travel, I do a big scroll around everything. Get all my facts together. I do a lot of work before I even get there. I think Trace and I are pretty similar.

Trace: The first step is just getting back into it. It's going to be a little bit more work as far as gathering information. We probably request to get to the location two days earlier than we normally do, get there on Monday. See each other, drink coffee, have a couple of beers.Joey stays in the loop. I do the best I can, but he is in it.

Joey: Hopefully, fingers crossed, we can pull off a Series this year. Maybe the divers haven't been on a platform for months. How have they been training? You talk about the complexity of that stuff. I guarantee that would be part of the story when we come back.

Listen to Trace and Joey doing what they do best during a record-breaking 2019 season below.