KAZAN, Russia —From the impossibly altitudinous perch of the dive platform, rising roughly nine stories above the Kazanka River, athlete-daredevils in the FINA World Aquatics Championships high-diving competition can see the dazzling spires of the Kazan Kremlin, the gilded minarets of Kul Sharif Mosque, the swirling confluence of the Kazanka and Volga rivers, the Palace of Farmers with its white columns and symbolic bronze tree, and, beyond the city, the vast Tatarstan countryside.
They also can see, just below them, the three scuba-suited emergency divers flanking the landing area — appearing from above as little black dots in the water — ready to swoop in the instant they hear “bad landing” in their earpieces and, beyond that, the medical personnel standing watch in a boat and the ambulance parked nearby.
“If you eat it from 27 meters,” said American diver Andy Jones, “you’re probably going to the hospital.”
Jones, 30, has both eaten it and gone to the hospital. He has suffered bruised ribs, esophageal bleeding and, in May, nerve damage to his brachial plexus that left his arm numb for three weeks. That last one had the scuba divers coming in after him, followed by a backboard to carry him out.
But on Wednesday afternoon, Jones and two American teammates, David Colturi and Steve LoBue, climbed the steps to the top of the temporary-construction, 89-foot-high platform, two times apiece, during the finals of the men’s high-diving competition. They placed fifth, fourth and seventh, respectively; the gold went to Britain’s Gary Hunt, who nailed his “back triple-quad” — a three-somersault, four-rotation-twist dive from a back-to-the-water position.
On Tuesday, another American, Rachelle Simpson, won the gold medal in the competition for women — who dived off a platform a mere 20 meters (or 66 feet) high.
The international field of 20 men and 10 women, representing 16 different countries, came from varied backgrounds. Jones performs in Cirque de Soleil in Las Vegas. Simpson is a former gymnast. But most, like Colturi and LoBue, are former conventional high-divers — from the 10-meter Olympic platform — who were seeking a higher purpose.
“It is an extreme sport, and everyone just assumes we’re these crazy adrenaline-junkies,” Colturi said. “But really, we’re all very calculated risk-takers. There’s a big science behind all the dives we do.”
This is the second world championships in which high diving is being contested as a test event, but the acceptance two years ago of FINA, the international governing body for aquatic sports, was a critical step for a sport that has its spiritual roots in cliff diving and that is still centered around the eight-stop Red Bull Cliff Diving professional tour.
“If you think about it, we’re definitely the oldest extreme sport on the planet,” Colturi said. “As long as there have been cliffs to jump off, humans have been doing it. It’s a very natural extreme sport. There are no joysticks, no engines, no equipment. We’re just flying through the air.”
The next step, they hope, is to get full certification from FINA in hopes of getting the sport into a future Olympics — if not for Tokyo in 2020 than for the 2024 Games, for which a host city has yet to be chosen. In recent years, the International Olympic Committee has embraced winter extreme sports such as snowboarding — but high diving has little hope of gaining FINA’s full acceptance, let alone that of the IOC, without attracting more athletes, primarily women, from more countries.
“We need more countries to compete in this sport — like in swimming, in water polo, in synchronized swimming,” FINA President Julio Maglione said. High diving, he said, “is new. It’s exciting. But the reality is the reality.”
In Kazan, the high divers operate mostly outside the official channels. Colturi, Jones and Lo Bue are loosely organized under the USA Diving umbrella but don’t have official coaches or medical personnel. They tape each other’s shoulders and stretch each other’s hamstrings. Hunt, the British champion, was stung by a letter he said he received from his country’s federation saying he and his teammates were not considered official members of the delegation.
“We didn’t even get a [Team Great Britain] T-shirt or warmups,” he said.
If they didn’t need the Olympic imprimatur to help put food on their tables, the high divers might actually prefer their outlaw status. It takes a special sort of athlete to be willing to hurl themselves off an 89- or 66-foot platform and into a body of water, twisting and somersaulting along the way and holding on to the faith that you will enter the water feet-first, the only safe way and the only way allowed in the sport’s rules. From the top platform, the final 19 meters go past in about half a second.
In preparation for this week’s event, the portion of the Kazanka used as the impact area was dug out to a depth of between nine and 11 meters, or 30 to 36 feet. But divers have been known to practice in 12-foot or even 10-foot pools.
“At 10 feet,” said Jones, “the bottom [of the pool] gets up on you pretty quickly.”
Because there is only one permanent 27-meter diving platform in the world — in the mountains of Austria, accessible only during the summer months — the divers typically implement, practice and perfect their moves from 10 meters. They break their dives into three components — the take-off, the middle rotations and the water-entry — and work extensively on each before taking it up to 27 meters.
The view from the top of the platform is one of the perks of the job. “I always take a moment to appreciate where you are and then focus on the dive,” said Colturi, 26. “It’s like, ‘This is nice. This is awesome. I can’t believe I get to do this.’ And then, ‘Okay, let’s focus on the dive.’ ”
But the fear never goes away. Colturi, who was in second place behind Hunt entering Wednesday’s finals, has been in the sport for almost five years and said he still gets scared every time he stands at the top. It is a constant and in some ways a healthy part of the sport.
“The fear, you have to respect it,” said LoBue, a 30-year-old who just missed a spot on the 2004 U.S. Diving team in the 10-meter platform. “We always say you have to keep your fear at a healthy level because if it’s too low you might do something stupid, and if it’s too high maybe you’re too nervous and you can’t focus on your mechanics and what you have to do to safely complete the dive.”
The fear harbored by the divers’ families is another matter entirely. Colturi said his grandmother is always asking him where he sees himself in three years — “Hoping I’ll say, ‘Back in school’ or ‘In a real job,’ ” he said. But the better strategy, the divers have found, is to invite their parents and other family members to come to the competitions and watch rather than simply contemplate the terrifying mathematics and assume the worst.
“Once they see we actually know what we’re doing and can guide ourselves in the water and get vertical every time, it’s comforting for them,” Jones said. “They can see that we’re pretty safe — that we’re not just out there hocking ourselves off the top.”