Remember going to the pool as a kid, that day you decided to muster your strength, boost your confidence, and tiptoe to the edge of the diving board? I can still feel the fear, leaping into the deep end. Now imagine that diving board 90 feet up, atop a steep rock cliff. Even just in your imagination you’re probably beating a retreat, yeah?
Well, this past weekend at Possum Kingdom Lake, 19 world-class divers competed at highway-fast speeds on the second stop (of seven) in the 2014 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. They tested their fate at the lake’s ominously named Hell’s Gate, plunging into the cavernous depths below.
More than 6,700 spectators arrived Saturday to witness the thrill–seeking divers battle it out in this competition’s first-ever event in Texas and the only North American site along the tour. The hellish Texas heat roasted my legs and took plenty of lake-goers victim as well, turning their skin crab red.
Boats and spectators, many waving Texas and American flags, arrived early Saturday, entering between the two towering limestone cliffs that form Hell’s Gate. The Brazos River Authority reported that 600 water-bound vehicles came to watch. There were seemingly people everywhere, arriving by boat, canoe, water tube, and even a blowup mattress. This event’s aquatic location required you arrive in a boat or “watercraft,” and the turnout made the large cove feel more like a packed sardine can.
106.1 KISS FM’s DJ Billy the Kid provided tunes for the packed audience, and also the Cody Robbins Band from Bowie gave the Red Bull crowd “a taste of Texas local music,” with Southern country tunes.
The competition started Friday afternoon with round one, which determined head-to-head matchups for the men’s competition. The women’s competition completed rounds one and two Friday, keeping round three for Saturday. The men competed head-to-head on Saturday in rounds two and three. Round one was a required dive for both men and women, and rounds two and three were both optional dives. The women’s competition kicked off the day, Saturday, with twisting acrobatic perfection, after rappelling down to their 60-foot dive board off the cliff.
Four-time Olympic gold medalist and American diving legend Greg Louganis was one of the five judges. “I know that some of the divers are talking about adding some more twists, some more somersaults,” Louganis said about the athletes going beyond what’s happening in the Olympic Games. “They’re really pushing the boundaries of this sport, and it’s really exciting to see.”
This was the first time in the United States that women also competed in a professional extreme cliff-diving competition from 60 feet. Texas’ own Rachelle “Rocco” Simpson from San Antonio took the women’s competition with a front triple somersault with a one-and-a-half twist pike. “I love Texas, and to win in front of the home crowd is just amazing,” the 26-year-old said, after winning her first professional competition.
For the men, three-time series winner Gary Hunt of the United Kingdom took first, with a front triple somersault with a three-and-a-half twist pike.
For each dive, the competitors approached the edge of a temporarily constructed plank that jutted off the cliff’s face. The music cut off, and the cove became silent as they readied. The occasional drunken heckler chimed in, shouting. As the diver prepared to jump, I could hear the wind and waves beating against the cliff, and the crowd quiet. The divers concentrated, and suddenly projected like missiles, twisting and spinning with athletic precision, down in less than three seconds.
Then: the sound of splashing water. Sometimes a smack, followed by an “Ooooowwwweeeee” from Billy the Kid. The crowd erupted as the diver surfaced. Boat horns blared.
American diver Andy Jones was blown away by the crowd’s enthusiasm. “A lot of people stuffed into this little cove [were] siting out there in the heat and still cheering us on,” he said.
But the heat didn’t stop the divers from nailing their dives. “Beautiful lake, tons of people, party atmosphere, beautiful weather, it’s just insane,” third-place U.S. winner Steven LoBue said. “I don’t think anyone got below a nine. It’s kinda insane.”
These thrill-seekers survived Hell’s Gate, battling the heat and 25-mph winds Saturday. Next, they’re headed for the ice-cold Serpent’s Lair, where the water temperatures are around 53 degrees, in Ireland, the next stop in the series.
Aaron Claycomb is a D Magazine intern.