Gary Hunt took an early lead and a giant leap toward wrapping up the title at the penultimate stop of the 2016 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in Shirahama, Japan. The Brit holds a five point lead over Orlando Duque and Steven LoBue who are tied in second place, while the reigning champion's main rival for the King Kahekili trophy, Jonathan Paredes, sits back in sixth place after round one. In the women's competition, Australian wildcard Rhiannan Iffland treated the Japanese fans to another couple of beautiful dives from her repertoire, flying into top spot ahead of Sunday's final and landing the first blow in the title fight between her and Lysanne Richard, who could only make fifth place.
Hunt, going in search of a record sixth World Series win, knows that victory here will catapult him to the title with one event to spare, and there were no signs of nerves from the Brit as he soared into an overnight lead at the spectacular Sandanbeki cliffs with a precise first round dive.
"I would love to go to Dubai having the title under my belt," said Hunt. "But it's one competition like any other and I just want to do the best dives I can and get back on that first place on the podium."
Mexican Jonathan Paredes, who needs to finish above Hunt this weekend to keep his title hopes alive, was not at his magical best from 28m on Saturday and must now pull out three immaculate dives to fire himself back into contention.
"It's a little bit of pressure being in second place," said 27-year-old Paredes, "but I'm trying to do my best and I hope it's going to work."
Cliff diving legend Orlando Duque, who has struggled with injury this season, delighted the adoring locals with a glimpse of the quality that has earned him 13 world titles as he leaped into joint second place with American Steven LoBue. Michal Navratil, targeting a stunning hat-trick after his back-to-back wins in Wales and Mostar, is perched nicely in fourth and will be primed to pounce in Sunday's final rounds.
In the fight for the women's title, it was rookie sensation Iffland who impressed the judges most in the first two rounds, picking up a pair of 9s with her first dive from 21.5m and cruising to the top of the standings ahead of Sunday's final. Richard, who has been breathing down the Aussie's neck all season, could only make it into fifth place after a poor first dive, but will feel that the nine point gap to Iffland can be closed if she delivers something special in the final round.
"It's not over yet," explained Iffland. "To have all this pressure on me about winning the World Series is not going to help my performance, so I'm still just going out there doing what I know and what I love, and I think that really helps."
Adriana Jimenez will be aiming for her first podium finish of the season after rising into second place with two delighful dives, and with just 1.8 points separating her from Iffland the Mexican may well even be dreaming of a first ever win.
Ginger Huber of the USA sits in third place, while her compatriot and two-time women's champion, Rachelle Simpson, was forced to pull out of the competition due to injury and illness.
The stage is set in Shirahama for a spectacular Sunday showdown, and in the Land of the Rising Sun two champions could rise out of the Pacific waters.
Men's Standings (after round one) :
1-Gary Hunt (GBR) - 115.00 pts
2-Orlando Duque (COL) - 110.40
2-Steven LoBue (USA) - 110.40
4-Michal Navratil (CZE) - 105.80
5-Sergio Guzman (MEX) - 101.05
6-Jonathan Paredes (MEX) - 98.90
7-Christian Arayon (W) (COL) - 96.75
8-Artem Silchenko (RUS) - 96.60
8-Kris Kolanus (W) (POL) - 96.60
10-Blake Aldridge (GBR) - 94.30
11-Andy Jones (USA) - 92.00
12-Alessandro De Rose (W) (ITA) - 80.50
13-Viktar Maslouski (W) (BLR) - 79.55
14-Alain Kohl (W) (LUX) - 73.10
Women's Standings (after round two) :
1-Rhiannan Iffland (W) (AUS) - 153.90 pts
2-Adriana Jimenez (MEX) - 152.10
3-Ginger Huber (USA) - 146.55
4-Cesilie Carlton (USA) - 146.50
5-Lysanne Richard (CAN) - 144.30
6-Tara Hyer-Tira (W) (USA) - 120.60
7-Helena Merten (AUS) - 118.45
Watch it Live
This event will be LIVE on October 16 from 4.50 AM GMT on www.redbullcliffdiving.com and Red Bull TV. Red Bull TV is available on connected TVs, gaming consoles, mobile devices and more. Find out more at about.redbull.tv
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.
Note that the live webcast and replay is geo-blocked in the US due to an exclusive broadcast deal with FOX Sports. The event will air on FS1 at 8am (ET) on November 20.