Honolulu, Hawaii, Nov. 8, 2009— -- 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.
Cliff Divers 'Just Go for It'
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.
"Relax your shoulders more. Don't bring your arms down so quickly and keep your head, neck and back in one line," he told me. It was a lot of information and more tasks than I wanted to do in the span of two seconds.
The five-meter platform was scarier than the three-meter. The seven-meter platform seemed insurmountable.
By the time I climbed all the way to the 10-meter platform, I was ready to call it quits. There was no way I could possibly make it off the platform at all, never mind doing it gracefully.
"Just go for it. You got it. It's just a few feet higher than the seven," Duque yelled to me from the pool. The entire training consisted of his diving first and waiting, ever so patiently, with my underwater photographer. I would only listen to his cues, not look for him. The last thing you want to do when diving from such heights is look directly down.
"You're going to have to count me down otherwise I'll never get off this thing," I pleaded.
"Ready?" he asked.
"Three, two, one."
And with those words I jumped 25 feet into the pool beneath me. The initial smack hurt, but I got over it quickly.
In his quest to assuage my fears, Duque said if I could do that dive, the cliff would be no problem. But what else would I expect from a man that makes his living jumping off cliffs 85 feet in the air and higher?
I could expect words of wisdom. All along the way, Duque knew my fears and didn't prey on them. Instead he talked me through every move, bolstered my confidence and reminded me of my awkward grace.
'Find Your Own Balance'
But when he said the following words to me, it all came together: "With most adventure sports, the athlete has an apparatus, a tool. Snowboarders have the board; motocross guys have the bike. In diving, it's just you and the air. You have nothing to create equilibrium. You have to find your own balance."
Talk about a metaphor for life.
My crew and I left the aquatic center, grabbed a snack and made our way to the cliff. I was reminded that there would be a safety team in the water consisting of one guy, Pake, on a jet ski and my underwater photographer, Mike, who would save my life in case Pake couldn't get to me quickly enough. On land, I had Tom Stone, who could dive in after me if need be.
And of course, Duque.
We had to hike to the actual location where I would dive. A nasty weather system came over the mountains and brought with it rain and gusty winds. (I think the weather gods were testing their favorite weather girl!)
First, we looked at my exit point. I was told getting out of the water would be just as tricky as diving into it. Next, we made our way to what Duque named "Marysol's Jump." The closer we got to the actual spot, the faster my heart raced. Still, I made idle chatter with Duque and our crew to convince myself everything was OK.
Over the last pass, down the side of the cliff, I spotted my jump-off spot.
"So this is it. If you look straight down, you can see a little rock sticking out, but based on how you dove at the pool, you should be able to clear it," Duque stated matter-of-factly.
Should be able to clear it? Why not definitively? And what happened to never looking straight down? It occurred to me that not only was this jump going to be higher than the 10-meter platform, only by three feet, but still, but also there were enormous waves literally banging into the cliff on which I was standing.
"Those waves are pretty menacing, Orlando," I cried in disbelief.
"They're fine," he said. "Really, they're not as bad as they look."
"They're not going to carry me away and smack me into the side of this cliff?" I asked.
"No," he said. "They are not."
Duque assured me that jumping into the ocean is actually more forgiving than jumping into a pool. You see, I had to use my body to break the surface of the water. It's akin to running into a wall. The ocean has more air, so I was told it would be softer and actually cradle me upon entry. As for the waves, Duque would try and time it so that the waves would be at their peak when I entered the water. That would actually shorten the dive.
Nothing But Air and the Sea
I was still a nervous wreck.
Everyone was in place: my photographer, producer, audio guy, the safety team and Duque. For this dive, I would go first.
"We won't do anything until you're ready, Marysol," he said.
The wind was picking up: Even if actually wasn't, it sure felt like it was. I looked out at the span of ocean in front of me and the clouds above it.
At that very moment, my mind cleared. I was ready to give myself to the process. It was just me, the water and this cliff. If I lost my balance, I could depend on nothing but the air, which is to say I could depend on nothing but myself.
"I'm ready," I announced.
"Ready," Duque yelled to the team in the water. "Three, two, one."
Without any hesitation, I jumped.
And I mean I jumped from that cliff. The water felt like it would never come, and in that moment I felt my body start to twist to the left. I tried my best to correct it, and before I knew it, I was in the water. The sea of blue rushed over me. I could see the surface of the sea and followed the bubbles all the way up.
I had just done the scariest thing I had ever done in my life. I looked up the side of the cliff and saw Duque and the crew clapping. I gave Duque the "OK" sign and reveled in my dive. Pake and the jet ski were right there waiting for me.
As I made my way to the exit point, I looked back at "Marysol's Jump," and thought it appropriately named. Even if there were hundreds that would jump from that very point in the future, for now, it was mine. And I was all the better because of it.