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Cliff Diving

Legendary leaps and daring descents: The history of cliff diving

What is cliff diving and how did it evolve from high diving? All your questions on the world's oldest extreme sport are answered here.
By Chris Magill
5 min readUpdated on
Over the past decade or so, the sport of cliff diving has come a long way. In fact, it's been one of the most progressive sports on the planet.
Those familiar with the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series will be accustomed by now to seeing finely-tuned athletes launching themselves from up to 27m, spinning and twisting their way immaculately through the air before slicing the water below with barely a splash.
But where did cliff diving originate and how, in just a few short years, did it progress into one of the most popular and high-level extreme sports in the world?
01

What is cliff diving vs high diving?

Cliff diving and high diving are, ultimately, one and the same. A leap from up to 27m, a series of aerial acrobatics and a feet-first entry into the water. However, in recent years, a line of distinction between the two has become more apparent. High diving was added to FINA's list of disciplines in 2013, with events generally being contested from scaffold platforms into flat, static water pools.
Cliff diving, or the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series to be more precise, is also governed by FINA rules, but with the addition of one extra and very crucial ingredient: nature. The mechanics are basically the same - take-off, manoeuver, water entry - but the scenery and conditions are many and varied. One week the athletes might be leaping off bare rocks into swelling ocean waves, while the next they may be taking off from a bridge platform into a fast-flowing and freezing river.
Cliff diving is the ultimate test. It's leaping from great heights while overcoming the elements, adjusting to the ever-changing scenery and mastering the entry into every form of water under the sun.
Maria Paula Quintero of Colombia dives from the 21.5m platform during the final competition day of the third stop of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in Polignano a Mare, Italy on July 2, 2023.

Maria Paula Quintero dives from the 21.5m platform in Polignano a Mare

© Mauro Puccini/Red Bull Content Pool

02

When and how did cliff diving start?

Although the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series has only been in existence for 14 seasons, since 2009, the sport itself actually originated hundreds of years ago in Hawaii. King Kahekili, after whom the champion’s trophy is now named, was a Hawaiian chief who first leaped from the holy cliffs of Kaunolo in the 1700s.
The old Hawaiian principles of 'mana' and 'pono,' power and balance, were crucial when 'lele kawa,' which loosely translates as 'leaping feet-first from a high cliff into the water without making a splash,' was born on the islands in the midst of the Pacific in the 18th century. They are principles that have been upheld and are today prerequisites for the sport of cliff diving.
03

Where was the first cliff diving competition?

The first Red Bull Cliff Diving World Championships was held in Brontallo, Switzerland back in 1997. There were no rankings back then, with just a small group of divers competing. Over the years, the sport developed greatly, the number of divers grew and in 2009 the very first Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series season kicked off in La Rochelle, France.
2023 World champions Rhiannan Iffland (L) of Australia and Constantin Popovici of Romania celebrate with their King Kahekili trophies .

Rhiannan Iffland and Constantin Popovici – your 2023 World Champions

© Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool

04

What is Red Bull Cliff Diving?

Free-falling from up to 27m combined with awe-inducing acrobatics – that’s the essence of cliff diving. Since 2009 the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series has provided a platform for aesthetic action and dives of incredible complexity. It’s pure. It’s breathtaking and it’s packed full of exciting drama.
Twelve men and 12 women compete at every stop, each earning crucial championship points along the way based on their final event positions. At the end of every season, champions are crowned in both categories, with each receiving the coveted King Kahekili trophy for their successful endeavors.
05

How high is cliff diving?

In the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, the men leap from a height of 27m and the women dive from 21m. Athletes can leap from bare rocks or platforms built on anything from bridges to opera house roofs, reaching speeds of up to 85kph on the way down and entering the water with an impact deceleration of up to 10G.

1 min

Cliff diving by numbers

Take a look at the numbers that go into creating these expertly executed dives.

English

06

How dangerous is cliff diving?

Leaping from a height of 27m and reaching speeds of around 85kph before entering the water, cliff divers compete in an extreme and inherently dangerous sport. But cliff divers are also experts at what they do, not thrill-seekers, and the dangers that come with the sport are managed and controlled by their skill, precision and dedication.
While serious injuries in cliff diving are as rare as in any mainstream sport, heavy water entries and painful crashes can occur from time to time.
07

Who are some of the best cliff diving athletes?

The most successful man in the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series is recently-retired Gary Hunt. Having originally represented the UK, Paris-based Hunt now flies the flag for France and has amassed astonishing numbers in his career: 10 overall World Series titles, 46 victories and 77 podiums in 98 competitions. Hunt has stepped away from the World Series as he concentrates on adding Olympic success to his many accolades.
Rhiannan Iffland of Australia dives from the 21m platform during the final competition day of the 2023 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in Auckland, New Zealand on January 28, 2024.

Rhiannan Iffland, Red Bull Cliff Diving's most successful female athlete

© Romina Amato/Red Bull Content Pool

Rhiannan Iffland is the most successful woman in cliff diving history. The Australian earned a debut victory in Texas back in 2016, and since then has racked up seven World Series titles, 35 wins in 43 stops, including two full seasons unbeaten.
The Red Bull TV documentary series Pushing Progression takes a look at the evolution of cliff diving and is available to watch now. Gary Hunt and Rhiannan Iffland, with the help of cliff diving legend Orlando Duque and impressive Canadian Molly Carlson, explain in more detail how the sport has grown and evolved from its roots into what it is today.
Also, don't miss the 2024 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series kick-off in Athens, Greece on May 26. The event will broadcast live on Red Bull TV at 2.30pm CEST (1.30pm UTC).
Download the free Red Bull TV app and catch the cliff diving action on all your devices! Get the app here.

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One of the world’s best cliff divers and a serial winner on the World Series, Australia’s Rhiannan Iffland is a dominant force from the 21m platform.

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