Imagine giving yourself freely to the process of jumping 80 feet into thin air. Your heart is beating faster than the rate at which your body is falling. You are told not to anticipate the crashing waves beneath you, but instead, enter the water on your own terms. That is the essence of cliff diving.
The island of Hawaii is known as the birthplace of cliff diving. King Kahekili was the island nation's "birdman." In 1770, the birdman king "flew" the 63 feet from the cliffs to the water at Kaunolu Bay on the southern tip of Lanai island. To test his warriors' mettle, he forced his warriors to follow him off the very same cliff in a show of courage and loyalty. Legend goes on to say Kahekili was flying from cliffs up to 400 feet high.
Today, cliff diving is a competitive sport. And 35-year-old Orlando Duque is the sport's wonder boy. With nine world championships under his belt, the Colombian diver has set a new standard for cliff diving.
"Once you are standing there, you feel the blood pumping, your heart is racing, you're worried, you're scared. Then you're in the air and everything happens so fast, and it's kind of like an automatic thing," Duque said. "And all of a sudden you are in the water, and it's this rush of energy. It's just a really cool feeling. I love it."
He now lives and trains in Oahu, Hawaii, and was kind enough to coach me through the process. But if I was going to plummet into the sea from a cliff of death-defying heights, I was going to get my water wings in a more controlled environment. Namely, the pool at the University of Hawaii's Aquatic Center.
In an attempt to explain what the dive is like, Duque put it to me this way: "It is really hard on your body. You are traveling about 55 miles an hour, and you reach that speed in about two and a half seconds. And then underwater you go from 55 [miles per hour] to zero in about a second. So it is a little bit like a car. All of a sudden you stop, and all that shakes your whole body. Your joints feel it, your spine, your neck."
The training was going to be crucial to limit the car crash-like after-effects as much as possible. I first took to the trampoline to become reacquainted with the feeling of flight. I amused myself (and Duque, but mostly myself) by putting the safety harness on and doing a few front flips and back flips. Next, I made my way to the water.
The pool and four platforms at the University of Hawaii are outdoors. Although the weather was mild, 74 degrees, it was still windy, which only added to my fear.
When you're standing 10 feet above the surface of the water, it's scary. Multiply that by three and you've got a recipe for disaster.
The first dive was tough. The 10 feet of air between the platform and the pool seemed endless. Duque told me to relax, take a deep breath, curve my 10 toes over the edge of the platform and jump. The jump part was crucial. I couldn't just fall, as that would make for bad entry. I literally had to add height to an already high position.
I'd like to say after the first dive, they all got easy. In some respects they did. Upon entering the water, I realized it wasn't as bad as I had imagined it to be in my head. I also listened very carefully to Duque's instructions.