With not long to go now until the new Red Bull Cliff Diving season kicks off in Boston, USA in June, it’s time to take a closer look at the athletes who’ll be wowing us with their aerial acrobatics from up to 27m this summer. Eight stops are scheduled in this bumper season, which will see new ground broken in Paris, Oslo and Sydney. Here are the 16 protagonists who’ll be lighting things up as they battle for the King Kahekili trophy.
Jonathan Paredes (Mexico)
Nicknamed ‘The Stylemaster’, Jonathan Paredes is famed for his immaculate precision in the air and piercing rip entries. With one King Kahekili trophy already in the bag from the 2017 season, he has been a perennial title contender for the best part of a decade now.
Paredes began diving at the age of six. After kicking off his career in high diving shows, he made the move into cliff diving. In 2011, he made his World Series debut on home soil in Yucatán, and even in those early days he was tipped to be a future champion.
His first career victory came in Mostar in 2015, followed by an overall runner-up finish in 2016. Then, one year later, he realised his dreams in the waterfalls of Chile, pipping Gary Hunt to the title with his very last dive.
"It's unreal for me," said Paredes as he emerged from the water that day. “I'm so happy, a little bit sad for Gary, but that's the sport. I hope to keep this level for the years coming."
One title, three wins, 21 podiums and five overall top three finishes are the bare statistics from his World Series career.
Eleanor Smart (USA)
Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smart is not your average cliff diver. Her passion for a sport which takes her to beaches, rivers and lakes across the globe, is matched by a deep and committed drive to clean up the planet along the way.
Smart founded ‘The Clean Cliffs Project’ together with her partner and fellow cliff diver Owen Weymouth, with the mission to prevent plastic pollution and inspire others to take action. "Wherever we go we see humankind's footprint. I want my children and my grandchildren to experience the world in a very beautiful way, and so I hope that by cleaning and creating an awareness I've been helping that my kids will get to experience these beautiful places that I have.”
On the competitive side, the 26-year-old has been a growing talent since making her World Series debut in Inis Mór, Ireland in 2017. She earned a permanent place in the women’s line-up for the 2019 season with a third place at the FINA World Cup, and has maintained her spot ever since.
An ambitious personality with high goals, Smart admits she is inspired by Oprah Winfrey: “It would be awesome to be in her shoes for a day!”
Alessandro De Rose (Italy)
The first-ever Italian to appear in the World Series, Alessandro De Rose is perhaps most famous for a history-making feat back in 2017. Having never previously landed on the podium since making his debut in 2013, he defied the odds to become the first-ever wildcard to win a competition.
A feat that would have been stunning in any setting was made all the more historic and emotional due to the fact it was played out in front of a raucous and passionate Italian crowd at the home of European cliff diving in Polignano a Mare. “The crowd really helped me, and it's a dream come true. Orlando is a legend, Gary is a legend, and I was better than them,” cried an almost disbelieving De Rose after his victory.
Following that dream day, it’s been a somewhat yo-yo career for the 29-year-old, in which he has gained, lost and then regained permanent status. He’s back in the line-up this year on the back of some very strong performances in 2021, including two third-place finishes and the first 10s from the judges in his high diving career.
The keen guitar player admits he would have been a chef if it hadn’t been for cliff diving, and his role model growing up was Italian footballer Alessandro Del Piero.
Adriana Jimenez (Mexico)
With three wins and 11 podium finishes to her name, Mexico’s Adriana Jimenez has been one of cliff diving’s leading ladies since 2014, when the women’s World Series competition debuted.
Like her compatriot Jonathan Paredes, ‘Ady’ is famed for her flawless style, and in 2018 she enjoyed her best season to date, when two wins and a second place thrust her into a thrilling title fight with Rhiannan Iffland. The Mexican carried a 20-point lead into the final showdown in Italy, but ultimately fell just short of glory as Iffland wrapped up her third title in style.
In 2019, the former Olympic diver stepped back from competition after the FINA High Diving World Championships, where she finished second, due to a recurrent hernia injury. Upon her return as a wildcard in 2021, she picked up right where she had left off, with a second-place finish at her first competition in two years.
At the age of 37, this karate black belt will be looking to kick-start another title challenge in 2022.
Constantin Popovici (Romania)
33-year-old Constantin Popovici began doing high dives for fun before realising he had a real talent for it, and he credits his father for instilling such a strong sporting drive in him. “My father, he was the one who brought me and my sisters into sport from a very young age. I remember we were about 4-5 years old, and we were doing abs and push-ups in the house.”
A relative latecomer to the world of cliff diving, ‘Costa’ didn’t make his debut in the sport until the age of 29, but this talented diver has now firmly positioned himself as one of the biggest threats to champion Gary Hunt’s long reign at the top.
In 2019, Popovici returned from an injury lay-off to produce only the second-ever perfect dive in World Series history, scoring 10s from all five judges in Mostar. Relive that sensational dive here.
In 2021, he was an ever-present on the World Series podium, finishing in second place on four occasions, with one third place. Despite being unable to topple champion Hunt, his overall second place in the standings was a career-best so far.
Amazingly, the Bucharest-based diver is also still a 10m professional and missed out on a ticket for Tokyo by a mere 10 points during the 2020 FINA World Cup.
Jessica Macaulay (Canada)
With four appearances on the women’s World Series podium in 2021, Jessica Macaulay enjoyed her most successful season last year, narrowly missing out on a first-ever win at the penultimate stop in Puglia. Over the past few years since making her debut in 2017, the 29-year-old has firmly positioned herself as the main challenger to long-reigning champion Rhiannan Iffland.
2021 was her first season competing under the Canadian flag, having previously represented the UK. Born in England, Macaulay moved to her father’s country of origin, Canada, when she was six weeks old to live there for two years before family life and jobs took her to different areas of the world. From Texas, where she was based until the end of 2020, the 2019 FINA High Diving World Championships bronze medallist moved north across the border to continue her trip towards the top of her high diving game.
“It’s always been my competitive nature that made me push myself to something, same with high diving – it wasn’t the high dive that drew me, it was seeing somebody else doing it, then I had to do it as well,” the nine-time podium finisher explains.
From the little girl who never thought she’d be good enough to dive aesthetically from 10m, the passionate high liner and self-confessed adrenaline junkie matured into one of the World Series’ most watched for divers and a strong contender for the overall win.
Oleksiy Prygorov (Ukraine)
Oleksiy Prygorov is a unique species in the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. He’s the only athlete with an Olympic medal around his neck.
Making the leap up from the 3m springboard to the nine-time-higher cliff diving platform isn’t for everyone, but the Ukrainian confesses that he was reeled in by the extreme sport during a show contract in Germany. “I met Yana Nestsiarava and Viktar Maslouski in 2016 and they were already pretty advanced in their high diving, but I admired how bold it looked and had no choice but to try mastering the altitude.”
And master it he did. With a third-place finish at the FINA High Diving World Cup in 2018, Prygorov earned an automatic promotion to the 10-man permanent line-up for the 2019 season. Although the 1987-born athlete lost this privilege for the following season, he regained permanent status once again and will appear at every stop in 2022.
Maria Paula Quintero (Colombia)
For someone still so young, it feels like 21-year-old Maria Paula Quintero has been on the cliff diving scene forever. Indeed, she was barely 17 when she made her World Series debut in Texas, and still just 18 when she secured her first podium finish in Polignano a Mare, Italy in 2019.
Inspired by her stepfather, Miguel Garcia, and fellow Colombian and mentor Orlando Duque, Quintero made her first leap from 20m when she was 16. “I saw Miguel and Orlando diving from the scaffolding they had built in the pool in Cali. That day it clicked, and I decided to go for it. Miguel started coaching me and Orlando shared all his knowledge.”
Although she has yet to earn that elusive second podium finish, the 2000-born athlete enjoyed a solid season in 2021, maintaining her permanent place on the World Series as she continues to represent Colombia in this evolving sport following the retirement of its ponytailed legend, Duque.
Catalin Preda (Romania)
In 2021, nine-time World Series champion Gary Hunt referred to Catalin Preda and his compatriot, Constantin Popovici, as ‘Romanian sharks’ circling him in the water. Of course, it was a compliment, and a testament to the challenge being laid down by the pair.
Preda, known affectionately as ‘Cat’, is more than deserving of such respect following a stunning breakthrough season in 2021. After a 21-month break from cliff diving due to the pandemic, Preda returned in sensational style with victory at the opening stop in Saint-Raphaël, France. Another podium and two fourth-place finishes, along with a ‘perfect 10’ dive in Italy, helped push Popovici and champion Gary Hunt all the way during a thrilling season. His overall third place in the standings qualifies him as a permanent diver for the first time in 2022.
Going back to the start, in the lead up to his debut World Series appearance the athlete from Bucharest performed a dive that has never been done before, just like that. The Back Quad with 2 Twists has a Degree of Difficulty of 5.1 – less than a handful of elite World Series divers reach this complexity – and while the trained journalist left everyone in awe, he emerged from the water with a simple: “It’s possible!”
A third-place finish that day was clearly a sign of things to come.
Molly Carlson (Canada)
When the World Series restarted in 2021, not many in the cliff diving world knew the name Molly Carlson, but by the end of the year the 2014 Canadian Youth Olympian had cemented her status as one of the women’s top contenders. Not since a certain trailblazing champion arrived on the scene in 2016 has a cliff diving debutante made such an instant and impressive impact.
It all began for Carlson with a social media poll, where it was a resounding ‘yes’ from her fans to the question of whether she should start competing as a cliff diver. In 2021, she made her memorable debut at Saint-Raphaël on the French Riviera. Three exceptional dives helped secure a second-place finish, with only the champion Rhiannan Iffland ahead of her.
Two more podiums followed and an overall third place in the World Series standings, and with it a permanent place for 2022. A dream year for the bubbly 23-year-old concluded with a silver medal at the FINA High Diving qualifier in December.
Nikita Fedotov (Independent)
In 2017, Nikita Fedotov announced himself to the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in memorable style, becoming the first ever male wildcard to make it onto the podium in his debut.
It wasn’t until four years later that the 27-year-old landed back on the podium, scoring a repeat of his third-place finish in the same location - Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina - a result which helped secure him a first ever permanent invite for the 2022 World Series.
Fedotov is married to fellow cliff diver, Antonina Vyshyvanova, and confesses he has a soft spot for dogs. As if cliff diving wasn’t enough, he also admits he wants to try wingsuit flying one day.
Yana Nestsiarava (Belarus)
How about this for a start into your diving career: “I was seven years old when I did my first straight dive from 10 meters. I hit my hands because they were spread apart and my face because I landed over.” And so things were set in motion for Yana Nestsiarava, who has since become one of the most consistent women on the World Series, earning seven podiums in 24 starts.
Having made her debut in 2014, the 30-year-old enjoyed her most successful season to date in 2019 when, despite nursing a back injury, she kicked things off in the Philippines by finishing second only to champion Rhiannan Iffland, before posting two third-place finishes on her way to an overall fourth position in the standings.
Despite missing out on a podium place last season for the first time since 2015, the Minsk-born athlete was the epitome of consistency once again, finishing fourth in three of her four starts as the World Series returned from its enforced pandemic break.
Nestsiarava credits her successes to her parents, who decided to channel their daughter’s excess energy into sports after objects in the household began to suffer.
Aidan Heslop (Great Britain)
Gary Hunt beware - there’s a fresh-faced new kid on the block who’s ready to shake things up in 2022. Aidan Heslop is certainly one of the most exciting Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series prospects to emerge in the last few years.
At the age of 16, Heslop became the youngest diver ever to compete in the World Series when he made his debut at the 2018 season finale in Polignano a Mare. Watch the moment it all began for Heslop here.
One year later, in only his second appearance, the Brit delivered a taste of what’s to come when he landed on the podium at the season’s final stop in Bilbao. A stunning achievement for a 17-year-old wildcard, especially as he performed the exact same dive list as record World Series champion Hunt.
In 2021, after a slow start in Ireland, he scored his first tens before securing fourth and fifth place finishes in the Italy doubleheader. A first high diving victory followed in December at the FINA qualifier in Abu Dhabi, thrusting him up the rankings and into permanent diver status for the 2022 World Series.
The Plymouth resident, who represented Wales at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, enjoys rock climbing and parkour when he’s away from the platform, and describes himself as “hyper-active, adventurous and crazy.”
Xantheia Pennisi (Australia)
At the age of 23, Xantheia Pennisi’s sportive career has already taken a few turns from gymnast to traditional diving, but it was cliff diving that sparked something in her. A show in Australia, together with Rhiannan Iffland, was the beginning of it all.
Climbing from 10m to 15m and 17m in 2017, Pennisi then made her World Series debut from the 21m platform in Mostar in 2018.
Half Filipino, the Brisbane-born and bred athlete is particularly proud to have been part of the line-up during the 2019 season opener in the Philippines, the first ever cliff diving event in the country.
Pennisi’s breakthrough year came in 2021, when the Australian finally secured her first place on the podium in Ireland, before repeating the feat just a few weeks later at the season finale in Polignano a Mare. Those efforts earned her a first-ever permanent ticket this season.
Gary Hunt (France)
Brace yourself for some truly mind-boggling career stats: Nine Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series titles, 43 victories and 71 podiums in 84 competitions and three perfect-10 dives. "I want to break barriers and do things that no one has ever done before,” – Gary Hunt really is a man of his word.
After focusing on the 3m springboard and the 10m platform in the early years of his career, Hunt soon found his true calling from a much higher place – 27m. After being inspired by watching a video of Orlando Duque doing his thing, Hunt soon found himself not only competing with the Colombian legend but outperforming him.
The highly decorated Hunt, who switched competitive allegiance to France from the UK in 2020, also holds the 2015 and 2019 FINA High Diving World Championship titles, along with golds at the 2016 and 2018 FINA High Diving World Cup events.
When in the summer of 2019 Hunt finally laid his hands on the cliff diving’s Holy Grail – five straight 10s from the judges in Beirut – he credited his rivals for pushing the boundaries and helping drive him to perfection: "I absolutely feel pressure. It's so much easier for me when there is a fight, when there are other divers doing well. It's more enjoyable as well.”
There were no signs of slowing down when the World Series returned from its enforced break in 2021, as Hunt posted two more perfect dives and held off the strong challenge of Romanian rivals Constantin Popovici and Catalin Preda to take his ninth title.
Rhiannan Iffland (Australia)
Sensational. Invincible. Unstoppable. These words are never far away when Rhiannan Iffland is being spoken about. The little-known wildcard who exploded onto the cliff diving scene with a debut victory in Texas back in 2016 is now a five-time World Series champion. Like Gary Hunt, her stats are barely believable: 23 wins and 27 podiums in 29 stops, two FINA High Diving gold medals and two full seasons unbeaten - Iffland is the most decorated female athlete in the history of cliff diving.
An avid trampolinist from a young age, the Newcastle native began diving at the age of nine and admits to being ‘petrified’ the first time she clambered up onto a platform. Soon enough though, she was competing regularly from 3m and 10m, before utilising her acrobatic skills to entertain crowds on cruise ships in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. It was during this time that she was first introduced to high diving.
After that stunning debut in Possum Kingdom Lake, Iffland won four of the next six events, wrapping up her first title under the lights in Dubai. Four more successive King Kahekili trophies have followed for the 30-year-old, who names fellow Aussie athletes Loudy Tourky and Layne Beachley as her inspirations growing up.
‘Cliffland’, whose other passions include skiing, rock climbing, bouldering and surfing, is clearly aiming to ride this wave of success for many more years to come.
Along with the 16 permanent divers, there is also a pool of wildcard divers who compete throughout the season.
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