Issue 14.2: April - May 2011

Legend of the Fall

Story by David Thompson
Photos by Olivier Koning

High stakes: Orlando Duque -- who was born in Columbia and now calls Hawai'i home -- has made dives from a height of eight stories or more from a castle, a helicopter, a seaside Italian villa, the yardarm of a square-rigged sailing ship, the Copenhagen Opera House and plenty of other lofty places. Here, he prepares to dive at a waterfall in Hilo.
Orlando Duque steps to the edge of a platform at the top of a Big Island waterfall, looks down and feels his stomach churn. It’s an eightyfive- foot drop to the dark water below, and Orlando concentrates on his breathing to keep his heart from racing. He closes his eyes and visualizes the complex sequence of twists and somersaults he’s about to perform. Then he looks over the edge again, stands tall, bends his knees and leaps skyward, as if eighty-five feet wasn’t quite far enough to fall.

 

The crowd gathered across the chasm cheers when Orlando hits the water. This is the final event of the 2010 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, a competition that has traveled to four European countries and Mexico before landing in Hawai‘i. The technicalities that made Orlando’s dive near perfect were undoubtedly lost to most of the onlookers in the twirling blur of torso, limbs and Speedo they just saw plummet into the water, but the technicalities weren’t lost on the judges, who hold up score cards with 9s, 9.5s and a 10. With this and two other high-scoring dives, Orlando wins the event—a badly needed victory for the 36-year-old professional cliff diver.

 


 

Orlando, off Portlock, on O'ahu's southeastern coast.
It’s not the cliffs that distinguish competitive cliff diving from traditional high diving. It’s the height. Where Olympic and collegiate high-divers max out at thirty-two feet, competitive cliff divers jump from between eighty and ninety feet. On the way down they perform intricate combinations of forward or backward flips and twists as they accelerate to speeds of nearly sixty miles an hour before reaching the water. It’s simply too risky to enter the water head first at that velocity, so they land feet first, breaking the surface with the weight-bearing bones of the legs. Good landings hurt. Bad landings can smash ankles, separate pelvises, shatter femurs, shear critical soft tissue. Really bad landings can kill. And the whole dive takes place in less than three seconds, about as long as it takes to say, “They must be out of their freakin’ minds!”

 

Modern competitive cliff diving traces its origins to the ancient Hawaiian sport of lele kawa, which involved jumping into the sea from a cliff with the smallest possible splash. Keeping the splash to a minimum is still a goal, but the actual cliffs have become incidental. In his eleven years of competitive cliff diving, Orlando has plummeted eight stories or more from a castle, a helicopter, a seaside Italian villa, a construction crane, a stack of shipping containers, the yardarm of a square-rigged sailing ship, the Copenhagen Opera House, many tall bridges and other man-made high places. There have been plenty of natural settings, too, including an eightyfoot cliff along the south shore of Lana‘i, where at the world championships in 2000, Orlando performed a double back somersault with four twists so flawlessly that all seven judges awarded him 10s— a perfect score. That earned him a Guinness World Record. He holds another Guinness World Record for winning the cliff diving world championships more often than any other cliff diver. He’s got nine world championship titles to his name as well as the unofficial title of “world’s greatest cliff diver.”

 

But 2010 was not Orlando’s year. Before the Hilo event last September even began, the 2010 world championship title had been virtually sewn up by a birdlike young Englishman named Gary Hunt, who squeezes more twists and flips into an eighty-five-foot free fall than anyone has ever done before. Orlando entered the Hawai‘i event in a battle for second place overall with a shaved-headed young Russian named Artem Silchenko, who wows crowds and wins extra points with his reverse armstand takeoffs and blind entries. Cliff diving’s next generation has arrived, and it’s giving Orlando competition like he’s never known. His performance in Hawai‘i was his only first-place finish of 2010, the best possible ending to an otherwise disappointing season. It was also a nice homecoming, for although Orlando represents his native Colombia in competition, he lives on O‘ahu, in Lai‘e— at least when he’s not jetting around the globe for competitions and related events, which is most of the time.

 


 

 

Orlando is five feet nine inches tall, with dark eyes, a dark complexion, a gymnast’s abs and a long black ponytail that thrashes the air like a whip when he dives. When he’s not in competition mode, he is easygoing and quick to flash his gleaming, toothy smile. But as the pressure before a dive builds, he turns inward and wears a look on his face that very clearly says, Not Somebody You Want to Bother Right Now. Yet even as the stress builds he still somehow exudes tranquility, which can’t be said of all cliff divers. On competition day in Hilo, I watched divers pacing back and forth before their jumps, smoking cigarettes, chewing towels, chugging Red Bull, looking jittery. I spotted Orlando sitting under a tree with his eyes closed. He was practicing a breathing exercise and visualizing his dives, he later explained.

 

If he looks calm it’s certainly not because he’s fearless. “Every time I stand there and look down, my heart jumps into my throat,” he says. He gets so nervous on competition days that he can’t eat. But he thinks of fear as “an old friend.” It forces him to focus and approach his dives methodically. It ultimately keeps him safe. And then, in the final moments before he jumps, it turns him loose. “When I know that it’s time to do the dive, I’m completely focused on it and the fear is gone,” he says. Then comes the impact, and all the apprehension and dread preceding the dive vanish with the splash. “In that short period of time, you go from being so worried to WHAAA!” he says, slapping his hands together. “Complete ecstasy.”

 

Orlando is, quite simply, an adrenaline junkie. He’s been like this since he was a kid, growing up in the sprawling city of Cali, Colombia, where he was raised by a single mother who ran a catering business. He got hooked on diving at the age of 10, when after soccer practice, he would hang out at the municipal swimming pool beside the soccer field to watch the dive team practice. One day the coach invited him to try the three-meter springboard. He was not a strong swimmer and worried he might not make it back to the edge of the pool, but he jumped anyway, survived and found the whole experience of tension and release to be so much fun that he had to go back for more. He joined the diving team and practiced daily, often twice a day. “If there were days when we didn’t have school, I would spend the whole day at the pool practicing,” he says. “I went full-on. I put everything into it.” He excelled in school competitions and continued to compete after graduation, winning the national championships for the army while doing his compulsory military service.

 

He qualified for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but in a disappointing lastminute announcement Colombia’s Olympic committee declared it didn’t have the budget to send a diving team to Spain. After a few stop-and-go years of college, Orlando signed on as a stunt diver at a safari-themed amusement park in Austria, where he met other high-divers from around the world and slept in a converted shipping container beside the sea lion pool. He performed comedy dives, playing Chaplin-esque roles like the carpenter who takes a header into the water while trying to fix a broken diving board. He did spectacular “fire dives,” wearing a cape that was set ablaze before he jumped. And he gained invaluable experience diving regularly from a dizzying perch seventyfive feet high, aiming for a pool that looked the size of an ashtray. During the off-season one year he got a job diving at Waimea Falls on O‘ahu, where he fell for and married one of the hula dancers, which is how he came to live in Hawai‘i.

 

That was in 1999, the same year he entered his first cliff diving competition. He placed second and came back the next year with his Guinness World Recordwinning dive on Lana‘i. Orlando was a transformative figure in the fledgling sport. He upped the degree of difficulty of the dives and helped move the sport out of its daredevil era into the realm of professional sports. He approached competition as a trained athlete, unlike the older divers, who came out of the tradition of stuntmen and showmen. “We showed up, had a party the night before, stretched our fingers, cracked our knuckles and then jumped off the cliff,” says Dustin Weber, who was world champion at the time. “Those with the most courage won. Orlando came in and proved that it had more to do with skill than courage. He put the word ‘professional’ in the sport.”

 


 

 

A dozen divers from nine countries competed in the five-month-long 2010 cliff diving world series. At the end of the season, most returned to their regular jobs. The group includes a prison guard, a marketing manager and a math teacher. Gary Hunt, the British wunderkind, works at a French amusement park as a highdiver, dressing like a pirate and juggling between shows. Orlando is one of the few who has made a full-time career out of cliff diving. He travels worldwide, doing contests, expos, clinics, television, charity work and generally serving as cliff diving’s goodwill ambassador. Red Bull took him under its wing as a sponsor early on, and recently he signed a deal with Gloryfy, which has created a signature line of Orlando Duque sunglasses. In 2005 an Austrian film company cast Orlando as himself in a film called 9Dives, which portrays him as a modern Orpheus, “constantly on his way to his personal underworld and back again.”

 

Being the world’s greatest cliff diver is a fabulous job, but it’s a job with a shelf life. To stay competitive Orlando is training harder than he’s ever trained before—four and a half to five hours a day, six days a week. The Gary Hunts and Artem Silchenkos are now the ones pushing the limits of the sport, and Orlando is driving himself like never before to stay in the game. “The only thing I can do now is increase the difficulty of my dives,” he says. “I have to get a little better, a little bit faster, a little bit stronger. Nothing else will work. I can’t get a better Speedo and dive better. I have to make myself better.”

 

Naturally the divers on the Red Bull tour are rivals, but they are also a tightly knit group, a brotherhood of elite athletes in an extreme sport on the fringe of public consciousness. After the Hilo event they all got together for a little post-season downtime at a beach house Orlando rented for a couple of weeks on the North Shore. I met him on O‘ahu after the group disbanded. The only straggler was Eber Pava, a barrel-chested cliff diver who is also from Colombia. Eber and Orlando are tight, more like teammates than competitors. They eat together, they practice together, they wait for each other to complete their dives and climb back to the top of the diving area together. Eber’s English is limited, and he and Orlando speak Spanish to one another. Orlando’s English is excellent, and if he has any accent at all, it is a faintly Austrian one.

 

I joined Orlando and Eber for a photo shoot they did at Spitting Cave, a notorious O‘ahu cliff jumping spot where a sea cave shoots horizontal bursts off spray across the landing zone. They agreed to do four jumps for the camera, with Eber diving first so the photographer could set up his shots. The drop was only about forty feet, not particularly scary for these guys, but the blasts of spray excited them and they climbed back up the cliff after each dive laughing and grinning. After the final jump the photographer asked Orlando if they might do just one more. Orlando broke into a big smile and said, “Sure.” Then he jumped again and again and again. It was a beautiful cloudless afternoon. The warm sea was deep blue and sparkling. The photographer was eating it up. And Orlando was simply having too much fun to stop.