“WHEN YOU GET to the end of the board and all you can see is the sea meet the sky, you feel like the smallest thing in the entire world.”
WHEN COMPETITION DAY came around, Jonathan Paredes decided he didn’t want to feel small or inconsequential.
So he didn’t look out. He looked down, with confidence.
To look down with confidence. That’s an usual action, an unusual sentence.
But pretty much everything about cliff diving – Paredes’ sport of choice – is unusual.
The youngest of 10 permanent members of this year’s Red Bull Cliff Diving series, the Mexican is not alone in focusing on his mind, as well as his body, as he walks the 27-metre ladder to the diving board.
“It’s an art to be able to lie to yourself and get into the right mental state,” agrees Blake Aldridge, a British diver with pedigree – he was Tom Daley’s synchro partner in Beijing in 2008.
All 10 competitors, plus the wild cards of which there are four at each meet, admit they still get scared at the top of the 27-metre board.
Even Orlando Duque, the sport’s biggest star and, at age 39, its veteran.
“It’s high,” he exclaims, acknowledging that everybody watching him believes he is an insane adrenaline junkie.
You get scared. It’s natural. Even though I’ve done it so many times, it’s still in the back of your head to be careful and that you can die.
“But that’s part of the attraction too. It makes you breathe faster and your heart go faster. It really gets you going.
“It is just so much fun. Like if you’re going fast in the motorcycle – or a dog excited with its head out the window.
That’s what we’re like in the air. It’s loud, you’re falling fast and you’re happy.
“The greatest sensation in the entire world,” adds Aldridge. “I’ve never experienced anything that comes near it or compares to it.”
As well as emphasising the mental focus, Duque notes that the physical aspects are just as important.
“It may look like a bunch of crazy guys jumping off things but it takes a lot of preparation and a lot of skill.
“I train three times a day – four or five hours of exercise to make sure we can handle these things.”
Even with the training, each 27-metre dive takes its toll.
“Even a good dive will hurt,” admits Duque, a Colombian living in Hawaii. “And if you make mistakes, you feel it even more.”
Watching from a boat close to their entry point on competition day in Cuba last week, reporters and family can hear the sound of that impact.
Flying at 85kph, the divers hit the water with poise and elegance – but it still sounds like a mighty crash.
Each dive takes just three seconds from dismount to landing. But a hell of a lot can go wrong in that short period.
Last year, American Andy Jones was brought to hospital with broken ribs and a punctured lung.
He’s back on tour this year.
“I managed to turn my retinas from 10 metres so imagine what you can do from 27m,” adds Aldridge.
Hearing them talk about their injuries and the times it went wrong highlights their bravery as they dive again and again from the platform, jutting out from the impressive El Morro fortress at Havana Bay, where TheJournal.ie got its first live taste of the sport.
TAKING THE EXTREME ROUTE
Watching as they stand, back to the ocean, clinging to the board by only the skin on their toes before jumping. Or getting to the edge and forming a perfect handstand before lift off.
Red Bull calls it the most pure of the extreme sports. There is no machinery, no engines.
Just the body. The board. The sea.
They are former Olympians and adrenaline junkies but there are other reasons for taking the plunge from such dangerous heights.
As Paredes teaches me how to dive from a five-metre platform (and, yes, that is pretty terrifying), he explains that he started diving at the age of six.
By 15, knowing he would not make the Olympic squad, he started to take on the 20-metre platforms.
“My family needs to eat,” he says as way of a simple explanation.
Most of the divers have other jobs – on cruise ships or Chinese diving shows. Jones is a former Cirque du Soleil performer.
Thousands of people turned out to the coastal road in Havana to watch the spectacle, a historic event in Cuba, given the commercial sponsor and unprecedented access. (One cameraman having difficulty with his equipment at the airport was immediately waved through – with a diving action – after the inspector realised he was part of the event).
There were even a few who flouted the rules and headed out to the area in their boats – and on their surfboards.
As picturesque and noteworthy as Havana was, Irish spectators will be treated to an even greater event at the end of next month.
The tour comes to Inis Mór on 28 and 29 June for its third leg.
“Everyone mentions the weather,” laughs Duque, who has dived in Ireland five or six times. “But it is what it is, I like it.”
Every crew member speaks about the location with wonder.
“Four seasons in an hour,” says one. “I don’t know how they dived into those crashing waves,” another.
But they all agree on the fact that the island is the most dramatic set for the television cameras.
From 27 metres, the Serpent’s Lair (a naturally-made, rectangular pool) looks small – and the divers feel they have to be precise and accurate to not hit its walls.
“The location is tough but it is one of my favourite places. It’s always a good time,” continues Duque.
“It’s the coolest thing to watch. I’m around this sport forever but I’m still fascinated by it. When the others dive, I still look at the water to make sure they’re alive. It’s action packed. As the competition progresses, it just gets better to watch.”