Next Saturday, roughly two dozen muscle-bound men and women will gather at the remote Possum Kingdom Lake in Central Texas for the start of the seventh season of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.
The divers will climb to the top of the Hell’s Gate Cliffs, and fling themselves over 65 feet to the water below. The divers come from myriad backgrounds, but one thing is certain: They have all taken a wild, winding path to get to the tops of those cliffs.
Cliff diving as a sport exists in extreme defiance of every basic human instinct geared towards self-preservation. The competitors dive off platforms between 66-90 feet high, which is two to three times the height of Olympic platform diving (33 feet).
Divers falling from that height hit speeds of 60 miles per hour and risk concussions, broken bones and internal bleeding upon impact with the water. So why would anyone want to try it?
“There might be something a little off with us,” the two-time defending women’s world champion Rachelle Simpson jokingly told GrindTV. “It sounds silly but I’ve always liked to just jump off stuff. Growing up, there were some cliffs near my house in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that my brother and I would climb and jump off into this lake called Phelps Lake, and I always just loved the experience.”
The 28-year-old Simpson has set the standard for female cliff diving. The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series began in 2009, but the women’s division started in 2014. Since then, Simpson has claimed both world titles and has won damn near every tour event she’s entered (the tour had four stops for females in 2014 and five stops in 2015, Simpson won eight of those events).
Given her dominance, you might expect Simpson to come from a family of cliff divers, where she was constructed in some highly intensive training center to become the perfect cliff diver.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I got my start in 2012 performing in a show in China called the House of Dancing Water,” Simpson chuckled. “It’s a bit like Cirque du Soleil, but focused around water. They had high diving in the show, and while I had done platform diving at the Junior Olympic level as a kid, I had always wanted to go higher. So I started diving from 66 feet.”
You see, despite diving being one of the oldest extreme sports in the world, there aren’t really any training centers across the globe set up for it. So the athletes largely get their starts performing in amusement parks and touring attractions.
And so an entire tour filled with elite, world-class athletes, is essentially fueled by carnivals.
“I was diving at Purdue University collegiately, which transitioned from traditional diving to high diving, and there are no cliffs in the Midwest to go jump off or training facilities,” David Colturi, a 27-year-old competitor on the men’s tour, told GrindTV.
“So I took a summer job performing with two teammates at an amusement park not too far from Purdue called Indiana Beach. It's an action water sports show, so there was wake boarding and jet skis and whatnot, but there was also comedy routines because we needed to entertain. So while we were getting training for high diving, we’d be lighting ourselves on fire.”
Like Simpson, Colturi heard about the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series while working as a performer and, on a whim, decided to try out for it.
“I was accepted and now five years have gone by really quickly traveling the world and competing in the sport that I love,” said Colturi.
And while Colturi and Simpson both said diving is a year-round commitment, they both need to work part-time gigs to make ends meet. But there’s hope on the horizon that they can turn it into a full-time career: In 2014 the International Swimming Federation made high diving an official sport.
Now, Colturi and Simpson are hoping the sport gets accepted into the Olympic program. Until then, they’re just enjoying the ride.
“Ive always had a passion for jumping off things,” said Simpson. “So I guess this is working out for me so far.”
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