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The tragedy driving cliff diving star to conquer his fears
10:00am Monday 4th November 2013 in Sport
As a three-time champion of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, Gary Hunt operates at the very limits of sporting endeavour, writes James Gheerbrant.
The physical demands of his event are extraordinary enough: a 27-metre white-knuckle plunge that takes in 53mph of acceleration in three seconds – faster than most sports cars – and finishes with an impact of 3Gs, nine times harder than Tom Daley hits the water from the 10-metre board.
But there is also the uncharted mental territory that cliff-divers explore at nine storeys up: fighting every instinct in their body, staring down the catastrophic consequences of the smallest mistake.
For five years Southampton’s Hunt has been king of sport’s wild frontier, pushing the boundaries of possibility. And he has done it all with an astonishing secret: he is terrified of heights.
Rewind three months. July 14, the fourth stop of this year’s World Series in Malcesine, Italy.
Hunt thrilled the crowd with a series of death-defying leaps from the top of a castle that towers over Lake Garda. But back in his lofty hotel room, it was a very different story.
“There was a balcony – I couldn’t bring myself to go anywhere near the edge,” he says. “I get that butterfly-feeling in the pit of my stomach, the shivers down my spine. It’s the same with high windows – it’s something I try to avoid.”
It is an incredible confession for a champion diver to make. But then Hunt, who was narrowly beaten into second in this year’s Series at last weekend’s final round in Thailand, exudes none of the bravado you might expect from a master of the world’s most terrifying sport.
Modest and softly spoken, Hunt talks with refreshing candour about the risks of his event, and his reaction to them.
I ask him what it feels like to stand on the 27-metre platform. “It’s tough,” he says. “There are so many doubts in your mind, telling you you’re going to mess up. At that height, you know a few degrees from vertical [on entry] will really hurt. You’re always nervous.”
Even for the best, diving from 27 metres is never routine. The impact on the body is so great that, even the day before a competition, divers will only attempt one or two dives from the full height. Hunt’s fellow cliff-diver Blake Aldridge, Tom Daley’s former partner, has said that: “Even when you land perfectly, it still hurts a bit.” But no diver lands perfectly every time – and every diver has a painful story to tell.
Hunt’s horror moment came in 2010. He was attempting a new dive, a front somersault with a running take-off. “As I landed, I hit the top of a wave,” he recalls. “The impact really took my breath away. Afterwards, I couldn’t remember getting out of the water. My whole upper body was bruised for three weeks.” Hunt has never attempted the dive since. He pauses. “I still haven’t really got over it.”
The experience would have prevented many from ascending the platform again, let alone a man with a fear of heights. But Hunt prides himself on his mental resilience.
Despite his nerves, he has an undeniable confidence in his own ability, and he relishes the ongoing battle between the two. “In 10-metre diving, you have to fit more in in a shorter space of time – it’s physically demanding,” he explains. “Cliff-diving is much more of a head-game. You really have to push your limits.”
So where does Hunt find the courage to plunge headlong into his greatest fear?
For him, there is one source of inspiration that will never run dry. Six years ago, his best friend, fellow Great Britain diver Gavin Brown, was knocked down and killed by a hit-and-run driver.
The sport of cliff-diving was then just taking off – it was an adventure Gavin and Gary had planned to take on together.
For Hunt, the memory of his friend provides strength at moments of doubt.
“It’s definitely pushed me on,” he says. “Gavin was the kind of person who would never be afraid. So I try to keep that state of mind with me when I dive.”
Despite this season’s disappointment (Hunt was leading the standings going into the final round, but his fourth place in Thailand allowed Russia’s Artem Silchenko to overhaul him), Hunt commands enormous respect within British sport.
Tom Daley has said he would never have the courage to attempt what Hunt does. And Hunt’s silver medal at this year’s World Aquatics Championships outstripped the solitary bronze won by Britain’s entire swimming team. But he remains a largely unsung hero, that rare breed of sporting champion who can stroll round his local supermarket unnoticed, existing in the shadow of the Olympic limelight.
That may yet change.
Hunt is cautiously hopeful that cliff-diving may be able to secure a place in Rio as a demonstration sport, potentially paving the way for full event status in Tokyo in 2020.
He will be 36 by then, but refuses to give up the dream.
“If I manage to stay injury-free, I could have another ten years of diving at a high-level,” he says. “I’d love to compete at an Olympics one day and win a medal for Great Britain.”
And that’s Gary Hunt in a nutshell: the man with the dread of heights who can’t help setting his sights on another summit.
Words by James Gheerbrant
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