Even the Best Cliff Diver in the World Gets Scared Before the Jump

Gary Hunt is known as the Cucumber on the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series tour for keeping cool in a sport where fear is necessary to survive. This weekend, he looks to defend his title and push the limits.

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Jun 3 2016, 3:29pm

Courtesy Romina Amato / Red Bull Content Pool

Despite being the most decorated cliff diver in the world, Gary Hunt is not immune to the fear that comes from jumping off a platform nine stories above the water. Especially when he's trying a new dive, and especially at the first event of the year. So when the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series kicks off this weekend at Possum Kingdom Lake in Texas, he'll be a little nervous. For the 2016 season, Hunt has a new dive: three front somersaults with four and a half twists.

"The first competition of the year is always a tough one," Hunt said. "I've been to competitions before where my mind is ready to jump, but my body isn't ready. I've had to stand back off the platform because my legs were shaking so much."

The consequences can be severe if something goes wrong: muscles ripped from bones, skin lacerations, concussions. And so Hunt is meticulous in terms of preparation. It takes him about two years to add a new element to his more complicated dives in competition. Adding just one twist, which Hunt will do when he debuts his new dive this season, requires an exponential increase in strength and speed. The margin for error is narrow, particularly for Hunt, who goes to each World Series event with the expectation of winning.

WATCH: High Stakes Cliff Diving In Italy

The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series launched in 2009, with nine stops on the tour each year. Sixteen divers participate, earning €35,000 (about US$39,000) at each competition, plus bonuses for winning individual events, as well as the overall World Series title.

No one else on the Red Bull circuit even comes close to the success that Hunt has had since he quit Olympic-class diving in 2008 and joined the tour in its first year. He's the only diver to have participated in all 50 Red Bull competitions, and he has won half of them. He has taken home the overall World Series title five times.

"Gary has raised the overall degree of difficulty in the sport of cliff diving, and honestly, he's done dives that I didn't even know were possible," Joey Zuber, a cliff diving champion turned commentator, told VICE Sports.

Zuber cited four things that have helped Hunt in his eight-year reign over the sport of cliff diving: his technical proficiency, his slender build, his spot-on timing, and his mental toughness. All have been integral to Hunt's success, but it's the last one that sets him apart from other competitors.

"Gary has the mental capacity to maintain control over his fear and emotions," Zuber said. "You must have fear—you must have it to keep yourself safe—but it's a problem if you let it control you."

Hunt at the final stop of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in Bilbao, Spain last year. Courtesy Romina Amato / Red Bull Content Pool

In World Series events, divers take off from a platform affixed to a cliff face, bridge, or building at an average height of 88.5 feet. By the time they hit the water, they're traveling more than 50 miles per hour. At that speed, a minor mistake or misjudgment can spell disaster.

Though Hunt has managed to avoid major injury, Zuber experienced the high stakes of cliff diving first-hand when he hit the bottom of a muddy river after a dive in a remote region of Colombia. He snapped his femur, tore knee ligaments, and broke his right ankle. The nine-hour ride to the nearest hospital coupled with surgical complications led to both heart and kidney failure, as well. Zuber fully recovered from the accident, but his experience serves as reminder of why fear is so necessary in this sport.

"If you land flat from ten meters, it'll sting. If it's really bad, you might need a week off," Hunt said. "From 27 meters, if you hit badly, it can be very serious. It can end your career."

Hunt has not let that prevent him, however, from pushing the limits with each of his dives. At World Series events, divers complete up to four dives: after one required dive and one intermediate dive, which each have a maximum difficulty allowed, they can showcase more challenging moves. While many divers stick to basic maneuvers in these early-round dives, Hunt nearly always attempts something with a higher degree of difficulty.

That has earned Hunt a nickname on tour, according to fellow diver Blake Aldridge: the Cucumber. Aldridge will join Hunt and 14 other male and female divers at Possum Kingdom this weekend.

"With what we do, there's a lot of pressure not just to perform but to stay safe," he said. "Gary, though, is just so laid back about things. He's got such a level head."

Hunt and Aldridge attended the same primary school in London and have remained friends throughout their careers. Both men were Olympic-class divers for Great Britain, specializing in the synchronized 10-meter event. (Aldridge reached the 2008 Beijing Games, before quitting the sport in 2011.)

Hunt had been competitively diving for 13 years and was contemplating hanging up his speedo in 2006 when he got a call that would change his life forever. An amusement park in Italy was looking for someone with diving experience to fill a month-long role in one of its shows. Hunt happened to have a break after that year's European Championships, so he accepted the offer.

In the show, Hunt played a pirate, acting out a sword fight before jumping from an 18-meter platform into a tiny tank of water—nearly twice the height he was accustomed to at the time.

"The experience was just a revelation for me," he said.

After the park closed in the evenings, Hunt would practice high diving on the platform. After his gig there ended, he competed in both Olympic-class and cliff diving events for about a year. Finally the time came when he had to choose between the two, but the decision was easy. Hunt knew he had a brighter future as a cliff diver.

"I feel a lot freer when I'm doing cliff diving competitions," he acknowledged. "There's no coach that comes with us. We know what we have to do, and it's up to us."

Hunt diving at Polignano a Mare, Italy last year. Courtesy Romina Amato / Red Bull Content Pool

Cliff diving, like many extreme sports, inspires a sort of outsider appeal. Many Olympic-class divers will tell you that their coach is the most important person in their lives, but that's not the case for cliff divers. They have the option of receiving as much, or as little, coaching as they choose while training, and although coaches are permitted at competitions, most divers choose not to have one on site.

Another thing that sets cliff diving apart is the level of camaraderie among its athletes. The atmosphere at a traditional diving event is a bit like school, Hunt said, while cliff diving events are more like parties.

"In cliff diving, there's almost no rivalry," he said. "Everyone is a little friendlier, and everything is a lot less serious."

Hunt is buddies with the nine other full-time members of the World Series tour. He even spent time in Russia last off-season visiting Artem Silchenko, the only diver other than Hunt to win an overall Cliff Diving World Series title since 2010.

Despite cliff diving's fun atmosphere, Hunt still works as hard as he did when he was an Olympic-class diver. He currently lives in Paris with his partner, Sabine, where he trains with France's national diving team. He typically spends three mornings a week working out in the gym, and two at the diving pool. Twenty-seven-meter platforms are difficult to come by, so most of his practice comes on three- and five-meter springboards, where he is still able to work on things like speed and aerial awareness. By the time the World Series tour starts this weekend, Hunt will have only done a handful of reps from 27 meters this year, even though he's rolling out a new twist this season.

"You think the sport has reached its limits, but then Gary comes along and says, 'No, there's something else we can do,'" Zuber said.

Hunt, for his part, has something specific in mind.

"In two years' time, I'd love to try another new dive: a back triple with five twists," Hunt said. "It's been on my mind for a while now, but it depends how my body holds up. I'm not a spring chicken anymore."