None but the brave
The breathtaking pinnacle cliff of Koh Hong, Krabi will serve as a platform for the championship round of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series 2013, the purest extreme sport employing the utmost skill, concentration and physical control
Like any perfectly-toned and seasoned diver, American athlete David Colturi glibly leaps off the 10-metre platform at Hua Mak swimming pool to execute a couple of somersaults before slicing into the water with a slick barani. He jumps off the high platform as easily as if it were only one metre like any other US national champion can, but the main difference is that he enters the water feet first. To do so is to go against every natural instinct and reflex a normal diver has ever known, as well as to defy all lessons taught and what the muscles have been trained _ and want _ to do. Albeit lesser known, the ability to enter the water feet first effortlessly with such an experienced sleekness is a signifying mark that this is also a cliff diver we're looking at.
David Colturi jumps off a platform in Malcesine, Italy.
There is always that one ultimate competition that burrows itself into every athlete's heart and for cliff divers, the stage they all hope to champion is the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. Hosted at magnificent and stunning locations around the world, competitors travel from one continent to another to execute acrobatic dives from various 27m platforms, if not the very bare cliff ridge itself. Land in any position other than a completely-vertical feet-first form and the consequences can be fatal, with divers hitting the water at 85kph. As one of the youngest athletes in the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series 2013, the 24-year-old's current fifth place ranking is an impressive feat, considering how the sport requires years of training and this is only Colturi's second season in the series.
A native of Ohio, Colturi's diving career started at the wee age of five and continued throughout his high school and college years, which has propelled him as Purdue's star diver and also the national diving champ in 2009. In fact, his foray into the cliff diving world only came after college, as he initially saw more of high diving at an amusement park in Indiana and wanted to go beyond the Olympic's 10m platform standard.
Definitely different from normal diving, cliff diving involves more stress and requires a strong core and legs to be able to withstand the impact when landing in the water.
"All divers have a serious physical regimen to stick to, but to be a high diver, it's all about the mental aspect and you need to work on visualisation and relaxation exercises. You need to be able to calm your heart down and handle high stress situations," says Colutri.
"The first time I jumped off a cliff, I thought my heart was going to leap out of my chest. It's crazy and you almost lose it when you're up there. But one of the coolest things is to calm yourself through the experience and to be able to survive something like that is incredible."
Although it is Colturi's second season in the Red Bull Series, he admits that you never really get used to the height and the fear.
''It never gets to a point where it doesn't bother you and I think that's healthy because you need a balance of fear and courage to be safe in this sport. I'd say we just get better at handling it _ even Orlando Duque, who is the best and most experienced diver, still gets nervous. He just knows how to control it and is really good at being mentally focused.''
Jumping off a 27m platform is equivalent to jumping from an eight-storey building _ which obviously comes with risks of serious injuries, if not death. The only thing used in this sport is the athlete's body, with no slings or protection of any sort, except for the scuba divers, onsite ambulances and helicopters should something go wrong.
''The worse-case scenario is landing with a flat, hard smack. If you are lucky to be able to swim to the surface, but have internal bleeding and don't get to the hospital in time, it could kill you.'' Colturi adds. ''And even if you did hit vertical and straight but you weren't tight enough, the water can tear your legs apart and rip some muscles.'' So far, luck has been on the young diver's side and the worse he has ever been through was a hard smack against his chest, which left him with eating and drinking difficulties for a couple of days.
Asked how his loved ones feel about him risking his life with every dive, he answers with a laugh, ''My grandma keeps asking me when I'll stop. And when I first started doing this, my dad told everyone he dropped me on the head too many times when I was a baby, but they're supportive and they come to the events. They see how neat and cool it is and they really like it.''
Currently, there are no coaches, teams or training centres _ all divers simply help each other out through experience and commenting on each other's technique. ''It's something we all experience together and help each other out. We also only get to practice when we're actually at the location because there are no facilities.'' And as the impact is so hard and hurts every time, there's only so much a diver can practice each day, before having to rest for another week.
''The most one could dive is around 10-15 times per day, but usually we do only four dives before the competition day. I used to bruise the bottom of my arches when I started but it's something your skin has to get used to.''
Perfect dives alone are not enough, as divers must also train themselves to deal with the different locations they are in, be it rappelling themselves in a harness into a castle, climbing volcanoes or trekking through forests to get to the cliff. Rough climbs are part of the package and while it may seem like divers are only jumping in the same acrobatic manner, Colturi explains that each different location brings about unique challenges and factors they have to deal with.
''Visual aspects can be really tough, where the landing area below you looks small and narrow. Not to the point of danger, but from the platform, it sure looks like you could land on rocks,'' he chuckles.
''It's also really weird if you have a cliff facing you, as opposed to being out in an open sea,'' he adds. The weather _ sometimes gruesome _ can make everything even more of a challenge. ''We've seen rain, fog, wind and terrible heat. During my first competition, it was freezing and raining down really hard on me. With normal diving, the slightest cough would turn heads as it requires complete silence, but with cliff diving, you just have to go.''
Going back to medical school and continuing as a diving coach in the future is probably on the cards for this rising star, but right now, Colturi is excited about being in Thailand for the first time and visiting picturesque locations around the world. Cliff diving may not exactly attract a worldwide madcap throng of watchers the way Formula 1 does, but the outdoorsy young man who also enjoys all kinds of sports insists cliff diving is no less of an exhilarating sport to watch.
''Pictures and videos look cool but it's not the same,'' says Colturi. ''If you can actually come and see how high it is and are also close enough to hear the entry, you can almost feel the impact. It's a huge difference watching it live and I haven't met anyone who was indifferent about it. They're all like, 'Holy crap, that was incredible!' ''
The Blue Lagoon in Pembrokeshire, Southwest Wales, UK.
Saint Nicolas Tower in La Rochelle, France.