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High diving pioneers to take the plunge at worlds

July 26, 2013

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — If Superman is known for leaping tall buildings in a single bound then the high divers who are about to debut their sport at the swimming world championships must also qualify for superhero status.

Rather than leaping buildings, they will be diving from them, or the equivalent at least.

High diving will make its debut in the FINA competition next week with 14 brave men and five fearless women jumping from 27- and 20-meter platforms, respectively, into Barcelona’s harbor. That’s the equivalent of a nine-story building for the men and seven stories for the women.

Speeds will approach 100 mph (160 kph).

“That really is a lot of guts and courage, and a dash of insanity,” USA Diving high performance director Steve Foley said in an interview. “I can’t wait. It’s going to be fantastic.

“It’s just another extension really of what high diving is all about,” Foley added. “For a lot of years high diving has been in shows — jumping out of roofs — and an entertainment factor. Now it has become a genuine event.”

The participating athletes come from the established Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, which has been known to attract crowds of more than 70,000 to its most popular event in La Rochelle, France, each year.

Still, it wasn’t expected when the FINA Bureau moved quickly to approve high diving as a full medal event just five months ago.

“It was quite surprising. My initial reaction was, ‘Wow, are we sure?’” said British Swimming chief executive David Sparkes. “But I’ve warmed to it. I’ve looked into it and I’ve talked to our colleagues from Red Bull.

“There’s a good safety protocol around the whole thing and they’ve had a group of people who are really experienced in diving and safety looking at it,” Sparkes added. “So fingers crossed nothing happens.”

And if something does go wrong, organizers will be ready.

Just like on the Red Bull series, scuba divers and free divers will be waiting down below when each diver jumps, and they will enter the water simultaneously with the athlete to make sure he or she gets back up to the surface.

Still, the risk of injury is high, depending mostly on whether divers rotate too much or too little.

Due to the high speed, divers are required to enter the water feet first, optimally with their arms and hands flanking their sides.

“A few of the divers have been knocked unconscious because they under-rotated just enough to take a shot on the chin,” American competitor Steven LoBue wrote in an email.

If the divers’ legs come apart under the water after entry, that could cause trouble, too.

“Even if your entry is completely vertical, the inner thigh muscles must be fit to avoid pulling/tearing the groin muscle,” LoBue said. “The impact is so strong that it can contort your body underwater if you don’t tighten your muscles at exactly the right time.”

LoBue and fellow American competitor David Colturi were each injured during their first high diving competition.

“I over-rotated a dive and landed well past vertical and fractured my tailbone,” LoBue said. “I still competed the next day but the next two months were pretty painful.”

Colturi landed on his backside and his swimsuit ripped in half, leaving him in agony for weeks.

A former U.S. national team diver, Colturi took his first dives from 20 meters working at a stunt show in Monticello, Indiana.

“My first takeoff was just a straight jump, all the way down, something I would never do again because of the free-falling, stomach-in-your-throat effect like riding a roller coaster,” Colturi said. “After that I started doing single somersaults and harder tricks from there. I’m still scared every time I step onto a high diving platform. It’s a healthy balance of fear, calmness, and confidence that keeps us safe and able to perform well.”

Colturi and LoBue placed 1-2 earlier this month in the Red Bull stop in Malcesine, Italy, and they will be among the medal contenders here.

Gary Hunt of Britain won the Red Bull series the past three years and leads this year’s standings. Then there’s 38-year-old Colombian Orlando Duque, who won the inaugural Red Bull series in 2009 after dominating other global competitions for the previous decade.

The women’s competition is more of a mystery, since they only competed on the Red Bull series for the first time in Malcesine.

Three Americans are entered in the women’s competition — Cesilie Carlton, Ginger Huber and Tara Hyer Tira — plus Anna Bader of Germany and Stephanie De Lima of Canada.

“It takes a very special type of person. It’s a very courageous thing to do,” Sparkes said. “Who’s to say we won’t one day see Tom Daley coming down 27 meters. He says no, by the way. I’ve asked him. But it’s good that FINA are looking to push the envelope a bit.”

The American and British high divers have no funding from their national federations, since FINA approved the discipline so recently. FINA essentially chose the competitors themselves together with the Red Bull series, with which it will become a partner next year.

In Barcelona, athletes will have to climb 200 steps up to the top of a temporary tower. Still, that’s nothing compared to what they sometimes face.

“Usually we have some random path to the top of the platform involving homemade ladders or treks through the woods and dirt,” LoBue said. “Once I am up on the platform it is time to enjoy the beautiful view and appreciate how fortunate we are to do what we love.”

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