In May of 2009 when the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series kicked off, in La Rochelle, France, no one really had any idea that the Series would still be running, and running strongly in 2019. The first year featured 12 enthusiastic and fun-loving cliff divers that couldn't believe their luck, and one photographer that felt much the same! The season ended with Orlando Duque narrowly edging the win ahead of a hungry and fresh-faced Gary Hunt. Fast forward 12 years (ok, indulge me and pretend 2020 is a real year...) and we have a slightly less fresh faced but still hungry Gary as defending champion, with eight overall World Series wins from the 10 years since 2009.
This achievement alone is quite staggering to consider, but testament to the skill, physicality and mental strength of the Brilliant Brit, no wait, Flying Fro... hmmm, how do we attach a national identity to this Englishman turned Frenchman? Gary is French, you ask?! Well, yes and this is what happens over the course of 12 years, things change. 56 men have competed since the Series kicked off, or dove off...? Gary Hunt is now Gervais Chasse and the oldest permanent diver on the series, one time World Series winner Artem Silchenko is long gone, Orlando has retired, and Mexican jumping and twisting bean, Jonathan Paredes, current number 2 and the only other World Series winner, is being tested by the fast and furious Romanian, Costantin Popovici and USA's handy, hardy and quite hilarious Andy Jones. Did I mention that women also compete now... Shock, horror... back to your mops and brooms, women!
Anyway, I digress, it's the original divers I'm on a rant about, as it wasn't until 2014 that the ladies joined the party. From the first 12 men that competed in 2009, only three remain permanently involved in the World Series, the afore mentioned Gary Hunt, Michal Navratil and Hassan Mouti. Orlando, while only recently retired, will no doubt never leave the environment entirely, but as we have a lack of clarity in the current global environment, I'll leave that for another day.
Back, way back, in 2009, Gary was quiet. He still is. He speaks when he needs to, I suspect he listens a lot, and he certainly spends a lot of time with his own thoughts. In the early days I think I somehow freaked him out a bit, as he often looked at me with a suspicious, side-long glance, and quickly shuffled away. When you engage him, he is a skilled and intelligent conversationalist and enjoys a laugh and a joke and takes a ribbing with good-natured ease. This is more typical recently, than in the early years, when it required a bit more to get him involved, and back then he had a couple of devices to hide behind when required.
The way Gary pushed the envelope with his triple-quad dive and later, the double in, double out, has paved a way for those younger, aspirational divers following and watching the progression and possibilities. That he de-constructed a dive and re-assembled it as the same dive but with a different order shows how he is never 100% satisfied and is constantly looking to challenge himself. Ultimately, in 12 years, Gary has matured and accepted his innate ability to be at the coalface of cliff diving, and I am extremely unlikely to photograph, or even witness, another eight-time overall winner in this Series.
Arriving in La Rochelle for the very first stop in 2009, one thing stood out other than the historic harbour towers and famous ponytail of Orlando 'the Duke' Duque. A high energy dude, stretching, smiling, screaming and generally making himself visible. When he saw my camera, he responded, enthusiastically! As a photographer that likes to try and remain as inconspicuous as possible, this was somewhat unnerving. Clearly, a guy that has two green stripes dyed through his hair is not thinking "inconspicuous"... Welcome, to the world of Michal Navratil, AKA, Supratil, extrovert, crowd pleaser, and creator of the cliff diving expression "chilly windy" which is now well known as the weather conditions in which no one really wants to dive, but generally will anyway.
Michal, hailing from the Czech Republic, is unique. He needs the hype and applause; it gives him energy. He loves to stand on the 27-metre platform and rev up the crowd before diving, to get some noise going, clapping, all eyes up and let the show begin. At the end of the occasional competition, when he's feeling it, or just needs to burn off some excess energy, he will return to the platform, don a red cape and leap off in the classic "flying Superman" position. The crowd goes wild. The fans love it, the kids love it, he loves it. What has changed in 12 years? Not much. Michal has been consistent. He is one of the more Olympian physiques in the Series and his fitness regime and focus has kept him near the top of the field for 12 years, and he has podiumed multiple times and managed back-to-back wins in 2016. Since then he has married, and has a son, who hopefully for everyone's sake, has less energy than Michal! Somehow, I can one day see Michal as the oldest ever competing cliff diver.
Rather than consistency, transition has kept Hassan Mouti involved with the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. As one of the original class of 2009, Hassan competed for four years before hanging up his underwear, although he always told people they were experimental swimwear... and returned as Competition Director for the Series. His depth of knowledge of the sport and athletes focus on safety, and easy going but professional nature has allowed him to step back from competition, but still stay involved with the evolution and development of the sport.
One last mention, while not one of the starters in 2009, Steven LoBue was amongst the first group of wildcards in 2011 to bring a mix to the World Series and remains a permanent diver to this day. No wildcard entry has shown the resilience and consistency of Steve, who at 162cm tall, dives further on a percentage of height basis (yeah, I'm grasping here) than any other competitor, but also managed to be the first to spin his compact form through five somersaults, with an added half twist, and that dive has been a jaw-dropper to watch time and time again. Steve will freely admit that his first year with the Series was rather tense, but he has shown time and again that fear and discomfort can be mastered.
Michal misses out here, probably happily, but Steve, Hassan and Gary have a connection which is not one that anyone necessarily wants, but shows that over the years, trials and tribulations are a part of the process to succeed in a sport which attracts a very small percentage of athletes - see below -