50 stops, 23 countries, 3 champions, an enormously high sportive standard and a lot of hungry athletes knocking on the World Series door – in the pure sport of cliff diving it's never just the mere numbers that astonish, it is also the huge amount of evolvement, emotions and pride.
It was a huge moment: back in May 2009, when the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series kicked-off in a French city called La Rochelle, which literally translates as 'little cliff'. It was not only the name that fit perfectly, it was just the right place and moment to introduce this awe-inspiring sport to the world. Many thousands of spectators welcomed the starting-dozen with enthusiasm, respect and passion – three things intrinsically tied to cliff diving. When you dive from the equivalent of eight stories and reach speeds exceeding 85kph in less than three seconds with no protection except concentration, skill and physical control, this is what you need.
Since then, 44 athletes from 20 nationalities between 19 and 46 years of age have competed, 22 of them as permanent World Series divers. The first-ever winner, Andrey Ignatenko, was the first of six Ukrainian athletes who would compete within in the next seven years – the strongest nation; followed by the US (5), Colombia and Mexico (both 4). When it comes to the World Series' most outstanding athletes, three names immediately come to mind – Orlando Duque, the legend from Colombia, who was the first ever Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series champion, has collected 13 cliff diving world titles to date and still fights for victory at the age of 41. Proud and ambitious Artem Silchenko, the Russian heavyweight, who won the 2013 title, finished five seasons in the overall top-3 and performs the sport's most hazardous dive. And then there's the 'brilliant Brit', Gary Hunt, the only athlete competing in all 50 stops: 25 victories to his name – a grand total of 50%, 5 overall wins and 44 podium finishes in seven years. "Legend of this era", "people like him are very rare in sports", "the character in the computer game who does the tricks just as you want", "the athlete we're all striving to be" – this is how his competitors characterise the 31-year-old, who himself says that it really hasn't sunk in he's at the top of this sport, who wants to stay grounded and just do his job. Winning an individual stop has been reserved to eight athletes and Steven LoBue, three-time winner following the 50th stop in Bilbao, speaks for all of them when he says: "When I got that first win, I was taken aback. Totally! To be with the guys competing is incredible. So to be even in a smaller circle of winners is really something special."
The American is a perfect example of the sport's development in the past 7 years. LoBue has two dives with a degree of difficulty higher than 6.0 on his list and is therefore one of five athletes who compete at this high level, whereas in 2009 it was only Gary Hunt who introduced the 6.2-heavy 'Triple Quad' during the competition in Antalya, Turkey. These five athletes – completing the list are Blake Aldridge, Artem Silchenko, David Colturi – helped in raising the difficulty from an average 5.2 to 5.56 since 2009. The level of progression is just off the charts.
What has massively increased since 2009, besides the sportive level, is the mileage account of the World Series. Within 50 stops in 28 different locations and 23 countries on four continents, the sport's most prestigious series of competitions has travelled 133.261,809 mi ≈ 214.454,15 km or 5.35 times around the world. From the phenomenal Azores Islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, to all-time classics like La Rochelle, France, to faraway Phi Phi Island in Thailand and the magical Cenote Ik Kil in Yucatán, Mexico. Hilo, Hawaii, final stop in 2010, and Chile's Rapa Nui, season kick-off in 2011, have been the remotest venues in seven years of Red Bull Cliff Diving. Artem Silchenko thinks about starting to celebrate space day in Russia, "because the guys who fly to the space have less kilometres than we."
However remote, the World Series has had a great reception all over the world, with the record crowd number of 75,000 spectators in France in 2015. Over the course of seven seasons, the World Series has drawn over a million people in. "To have so many people come out from their homes and visit us is a lot of respect that you feel and to have put a smile on so many people's faces it's a great thing. One million people is a massive amount of lives that we can affect," says Gary Hunt. Standing on top of the 27m-platform and having 60 or 70 thousand people down below cheering for you, is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience, something that gives you goose bumps. "You have to enjoy that, because that is not going to happen too many times in your life. We are not football players where that happens three times a week; this is cliff diving and it's this many people cheering for you," describes Orlando Duque, "It's unreal for a second. One million spectators is a lot of people. If you really look at the amount of people, sometimes looking from the platform down on 50,000 people it looks so many, I cannot even picture a million around."
The enormously positive public as well as sportive feedback led to the introduction of a Women's World Series in 2014, which has just crowned American Rachelle Simpson champion for the second time in a row earlier in September. 6 stops, 11 athletes from 8 nationalities and an obvious increase in difficulty within two seasons – the female cliff divers are ready for a bigger future within the World Series.
More stops, new places, somebody taking the dominating spot from Gary Hunt eventually – what can we expect from the World Series in the next years besides being broadcast live on Red Bull TV as of 2016? Gary Hunt: "I think it's still going to get bigger and bigger. I think it's starting to be noticed in more and more countries, more and more people, it looks like we´re really going in the right direction to make cliff diving something lots of people like to watch."
The history of Red Bull Cliff Diving might still be short compared to other sports, but for the athletes, the fans and everybody involved, 50 is not just a number. It's a lot of emotions, a lot of stress; it's a lot of competition. Keep these numbers growing!
Watch the divers talk about the history and progress of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.