IT is like diving off the top of a 10 storey building. A platform juts out from the side of a sheer, jagged cliff face 27 metres above the water.
A lone diver stands precariously on the end, there is an eerie silence and then the diver plunges elegantly towards the water below, twisting, turning and somersaulting before plunging three seconds later, feet into the water below. Eventually he reappears and gives a thumbs up; the crowd erupts and the judges give their scores.
Welcome to the growing sport of cliff diving.
“When we hit the water we are travelling at around 60mph and if we didn’t land feet first we could easily break our wrists, or arms or worse,” explains Mat Cowan, the 24 year old Howarth diver who has just surprised the cliff diving world by qualifying for the World Series.
Mat was a wild card entry into last week’s qualifier in Australia and no one, not even himself if he’s honest, thought he would get through. He was diving against 14 of the best cliff divers in the world including GB Olympic diver and Tom Daley’s former diving partner Blake Aldridge who qualified third to Mat’s fifth place – just five divers qualify for the 2013 series which kicks off in the French port of La Rochelle on May 25.
What makes Mat’s qualification to the Red Bull Cliff Diving world series, which will see him travel to places including Portugal, Italy, Brazil and the finals in Thailand, is more remarkable given that he only took up cliff diving last year.
“I went to watch the UK heat in Wales in September. I’d been doing show diving for seven number of years which meant diving off ladders of up to 27 metres. I knew a lot of the high divers and they let me have a go diving off the cliff. Then when someone pulled out due to injury they asked me if I wanted to compete.”
It was the first time that the competition had been held in the UK and the first time divers had attempted such heights.
“It’s not just a physical challenge; it’s a mental and psychological one as well. Standing on that platform can be a very lonely place with everyone watching you. That’s when your training really kicks in,” explains Mat whose sister is Olympic diver Jennie Cowan.
“When you are standing at 27 metres about to dive off there are so many things that could go wrong and if they did from that height you could be seriously injured, but you can’t have any doubts about what you are about to do. You have to have complete confidence. It is very different from diving off a ten metre board.”
Mat first got into diving as a six year old at Shipley Pool before joining Bradford Esprit Diving Club,
“My mum was a gymnast and my gran was a swimming coach. I got really bored with swimming and wanted to do more acrobatic stuff and so took up diving.” Mat’s mum is now a diving coach and as well as his sister his brother dives as well.
Mat progressed to diving fort the GB junior squad on the international stage, but that meant intensive training and a move to Sheffield.
Although he could possibly have gone on to compete in the Olympics Mat said his head just wasn’t in the right place.
“I was away from home and from my family and training all the time. I just wasn’t emotionally in the right place and you have to have everything to be a successful diver.”
So Mat returned home and was unsure what to do with his life. Then a call came from a friend of his who was working in Italy in a diving show and he asked Mat if he wanted join him.
“A couple of days later I was there. It was like a theme park and we had to dive off this ladder which was a bit mad as it was very wobbly. But that’s how I got into high diving.” Since then Mat has travelled the world appearing in diving shows and this week he travelled to France to film the French version of Splash – the reality television show presented by Tom Daley in the UK which has split opinion.
“As far as I am concerned any publicity for diving is great. Diving has never been so popular and the more people are taking about it the better,” says Mat.
“People may have knocked it but the viewing figures said something different. Apparently they are even talking about doing as second series.”
Mat was just 17 when he did his first dive from 26 metres.
“I am a bit of a daredevil and diving from these heights satisfies my need for adrenalin. It is really pushing the boundaries of diving. It’s similar in some ways to 10 metre diving – you take off and perform a somersault but it is the bottom half of the dive that differs and where things can go really wrong.”
Mat admits that in the past cliff diving has had something of an image of attracting adrenalin junkies but more recently it has started to attract some top divers and started to be recognised as a sport.
“Now you get less of the mad people and more of the serious divers. A lot of them have taken part in the Olympics and as a result the sport is being taken a lot more seriously.”
The only real problem Mat has is finding somewhere to train.
“I train at the John Charles Centre for Sport in Leeds but they only have a ten metre board. They do sometimes let me use a trampoline as well, but it is difficult to get anywhere high enough. In Australia I had just two days to learn two new dives.”
Although Red Bull pays travel for the divers to take part in the event there are other expenses and so Mat is looking for sponsorship.
“Red Bull are very good, they really look after his with physiotherapists and lots of support. They really don’t want us to get injured and have to pull out. They have done a lot to get the sport out their to competitors and also spectators.
“It’s a really risky sport. If you have a vertical entry and keep your legs together then it feels really good. But if a leg or arm is slightly sticking out then you can rip your groin or tear your shoulder.”
Mat says anyone considering cliff diving should join their local diving club first and then work their way up.
“When we dive we have scuba divers on hand all the time who have checked out it if safe to dive. It is very dangerous to jump or dive off a cliff into the water as you have no idea what is underneath the water and that is when a lot of the accidents happen.”
Sport that King Kicked off
CLIFF diving dates back to 1770 when King Kahekilil, the last king of Maui, leapt from Kaunolu, a 63ft cliff, and entered the water below without making a splash.
The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series was established in 2009. Divers jump from a platform at a height ranging from 26 to 28 metres.
They perform four platform dives and they are scored in a similar way to Olympic divers, including points for technique, synchronisation of rotations, clean lines and water entry and difficulty of the dive.