Meet The Cliff Diver Who Drops 27m At 85kph

Gary Hunt has raised the bar for cliff diving to the point where he’s now able to fit three front somersaults and four and a half twists into a single, two-second dive. Accelerating all the time, he has to ensure that his entry into the water is super-accurate and laser-straight, or he risks slamming into the water with enough force to break bones and concuss his brain – or even worse. The competition is fierce and Hunt knows how it feels to be on the ropes, so how has he turned his experiences of failure into his current, dominating run of three consecutive World Championship titles, continued with his win at 2017’s opening event at Inis Mor, Ireland?

RISING You began your career as an Olympic diver – did you struggle to make an impact?

GARY HUNT ‘On 10 metres I seemed to learn quite quickly when I was young, but I always struggled to win my age group. I think I got a couple of second places; third place was probably my average result. And so that didn’t give me the opportunity to travel to the Junior Europeans or the Junior World competitions. But I loved the sport so I kept on pushing, and I had loads of friends who I trained with who were at this high level, so they kept pushing me.’

‘It was a crushing blow for a while because it really felt like the championship was in my sights’

RISING Did you see that as a failure?

GH ‘Every competition, every opportunity to quality for international competition was a bit heart-breaking, I guess. My goal as a young diver was to compete for my country and it never happened for me as a junior. Yes, of course it feels like a failure at the time. But I think to myself now, if I had qualified for those competitions at a young age and had that wish satisfied, maybe I would not have continued and reached the level that I’m at now, because I still had that fire inside me pushing me to get better. And it was only as a cliff diver where I started to get the results, where I started winning competitions. So I don’t look back and regret the competitions where I didn’t achieve as much as I thought I could.’

RISING Your early wins in the Red Bull Series came to a crashing end in 2013 when you lost the championship by a single point. Did that failure leave you temporarily crushed?

GH ‘Absolutely, for a moment of time. It was a crushing blow for a while because it really felt like the championship was in my sights up until that point. The four other dives that I’d done were to the best of my ability and then that last dive was I think the worst I’ve ever performed it. So it was very unexpected, but it’s definitely something that I don’t look back on with regret.’

RISING Why don’t you regret that failure?

GH ‘It made me work a lot harder afterwards. I didn’t feel like I was taking things easy before that, but losing the title was a catalyst and it made me rethink things, rethink the dives that I wanted to do, and rethink my training strategies, my workload. And I really feel like I wouldn’t be as good a diver today if I had won that first competition, because I think I would have just kept on going how I was going. I feel like I needed that as a driving force for getting better.’

RISING What steps did you take following that defeat to turn things around?

GH ‘Since then, every year I’ve trained harder and harder. I feel like the hard work that I put in only makes me want to work harder, because I see the results. I saw a massive difference in my results from 2013 to 2014, and it was just a light bulb turning on to tell me that I have to put in this work. That I owe it to myself, really, and to the fans of the sport, to actually work as hard as I can, to not just coast through and be a good diver or a very good diver. That loss in 2013 pushed me to really be the best that I can be.’

RISING Was it part of the plan to turn that defeat into growth, to start working on a brand new way of competing: a new dive?

GH ‘Yes; the idea of this new dive, that was in the winter of 2013-14, and straight away I started learning the front twist, and we just took it step by step. In 2014 I learnt the dive with front triple with three and a half twists, and then took my time, and now I’m at a point where I think I can do four and a half twists throughout the whole series. I was concentrating on strength and conditioning and weight, but I wasn’t going to the diving pool as much. So I made that change and made sure that I was actually going to the pool and diving a lot more, and that definitely helped.’

RISING Did you have to give anything up in order to work harder?

GH ‘Absolutely, I’ve made sacrifices but that’s part of being a high-level athlete. I live in France at the moment and so I see my friends and family a lot less than I would do if I was in England, but I think that helps me keep my head down and just focus. I have a lot less distractions here, and that’s definitely been a help. It was very important for me to just focus on high-diving, and that’s a sacrifice that I’m willing to make. You know that time is ticking, that I’m not going to be able to do this sport forever, so I think to myself: “Why not just make those sacrifices now? There’ll always be time for hanging out with friends and family later.”’

‘I’ve realised how important it is to have somebody to push you and have a set of eyes looking at you’

RISING It looks very lonely up there on the 27m platform, but what role would you say outside coaching help has had in the process of coming back even stronger?

GH ‘Well, I’ve had three main coaches throughout my diving career. But here in France, for a couple of years I didn’t really have a coach. It was only really after 2013 where I decided to come to the diving pool a lot more often, and then the coach there, Alex Rochas, saw that I was much more motivated and said if I wanted that he would make a programme for me. And this is a massive factor for me, a massive change, and part of the reason that I have been so successful since 2013. I’ve realised how important it is to have somebody to push you and have a set of eyes looking at you in the pool. Mentally as well, it helps, knowing that you don’t have to think of everything. When I go to the diving pool, I’m told what dives I need to do and what I need to do in the gym, and that takes a massive weight off your shoulders.’

RISING You only get to try out these super-high 28m dives when the platforms are built just ahead of each competition, so how does that affect your mindset?

GH ‘You have to be very strong minded, mentally, to convince yourself that you know what you are doing. You don’t have the chance to do hundreds and hundreds of dives so that the muscle memory takes over – instead you have to be willing to take that leap of faith and trust in your training.’

WHAT NEXT? Ever wondered what it would be like to leap off a sea cliff? Then head to the birthplace of coasteering in South West Britain’s Pembrokeshire coast, which also hosted a summer round of the Red Bull Cliff Diving Series 2016 at the Blue Lagoon, a historic slate quarry forming a stunning natural amphitheatre. Local thrill seekers The Tyf Group run courses.