High hopes: Cliff diving wants to join the Olympics
Canadian star Lysanne Richard can see her sport on the biggest stage
It's got awe-inspiring athletes, stunning visuals and a growing fan base, and Canada's Lysanne Richard thinks her sport belongs in the Summer Games.
Jumping from more than twice the height of Olympic platform divers, Richard and her fellow competitors on the Red Bull Cliff Diving tour hope the sport gains enough momentum to be contested on the biggest stage.
"It was always my first love, high diving," Richard, who performed with Cirque du Soleil for 10 years before diving competitively, says. "But it was easier to get jobs all year long in circus and it was easier for the family because I have three kids."
The 35-year old from Chicoutimi, Que., finished second overall in her first full season on the Red Bull circuit in 2016, winning at stops in Italy and Bosnia and Herzegovina while reaching the podium at three other events. Before her time on tour, she performed in high diving shows in addition to her circus work.
So, other than the height of the platforms — men dive from 27 metres while the women's height is moving from 20 to 21 metres starting next year — what distinguishes high diving (the name it's called by FINA, the world governing body for aquatic sports) from what you see at the Olympics, where the top height is 10m?
In addition to the scenic locales on the Red Bull circuit, the most noticeable difference is that divers enter the water feet-first in a move done more for self-preservation than technical purposes.
"We get so much speed in the air because we are longer in the air. We have time for acceleration, so we enter so quick in the water, like around 80 km/h," Richard says. "The water seems really like concrete at this speed.
"So [hitting the water hands-first] would be really hard because the head is so close. Imagine if the hands are not at the right place and do not protect the head. It would be fatal."
The additional height means high divers can max out at five forward somersaults with a half-twist pike compared to 2½ somersaults with one twist pike in the Olympic platform event. However, 10-metre divers can execute a higher number of somersaults in the tuck position (up to 4½) because they can enter the water head-first without serious consequences from the impact.
Safety is one of the primary concerns for Niki Stajkovic, the sports director for Red Bull Cliff Diving.
"We always have three or four scuba divers in the water going straight after the diver in case they're knocked out and then getting immediate medical help," Stajkovic says. "Now luckily, I got to knock on wood, we've had a really safe year. We had nine events and nothing actually happened, but we will not take any chances."
Founded in 2009 with just the men's circuit, Red Bull Cliff Diving combines the performance history of high diving and the thrill-seeking aspects of natural cliff diving (like you'd find in Acapulco or in a rom-com with Jason Segel) with a professional competition model that Stajkovic helped create.
The divers leap off of man-made platforms into open water and are evaluated by a panel of five judges based on execution and degree of difficulty; the female divers have three opportunities while the men have four.
Richard believes that Olympic divers could certainly make the transition to the high dive, but the air time and impact would require the biggest adjustments.
"It's different to fall on [their] feet and they have to gain some experience," Richard said. "It takes a long time before they are ready to do really hard movements."
While the sport has been a part of the past two FINA world aquatics championships, including the 2015 worlds in Russia where Richard placed fifth, there are still obstacles facing these athletes.
"The big challenge that we have for now is we do not have often access to a high dive platform," Richard, later won FINA's high diving world cup in 2016 in Dubai, says. "We practice on 10-metre [platforms] head-first because after, when we go higher, we just add a half-rotation to fall on our feet."
As for the sport's future as a possible Olympic event, Mitch Geller, the chief technical officer of Diving Plongeon Canada, is confident.
"The question is how soon that might become a reality," Geller says, adding that the creation of FINA's technical high diving committee was "a good sign" for the sport.
Geller acknowledges the absence of continental high diving championships is an impediment to the International Olympic Committee's global participation demand, but the popularity of the sport could propel it into the Games.
"The likelihood is quite good for 2024, however I will also say that it's not impossible in terms of it appearing in 2020 because the TV interest is very high," he says.
Stajkovic, a five-time Olympic diver himself, echoes Geller's sentiments.
"We're pretty far along actually," the 57-year-old Austrian says, adding that he's been in contact with the IOC and FINA.
"I am assuming most likely we're going to be able to get this to the 2024 Olympics. I don't know if it is still possible to get it into the 2020 Olympics in Japan, but that would be even better."
For now, there's the 2017 world aquatics championships in Budapest to prepare for. Richard, who is Canada's lone diver on the Red Bull tour and was named FINA's high diving athlete of the year, is also looking for sponsorships to supplement the prize money she's earned.
Her confidence in the sport is unwavering.
"Red Bull Cliff Diving already has a lot of followers and spectators and there's really a big interest from the crowd" she says.
"It's kind of a big process, but things are moving so I'm super optimistic that it's going to be in the Olympics."