24-year-old rookie diver Rhiannan Iffland took the Red Bull Cliff Diving Championship by storm last year, entering her first season as an unknown wildcard before scooping the win to become the Series’ youngest ever winner.
So how does it feel to throw yourself off a cliff at an insane height (up to 90ft high) and plummet at 70km an hour into the water? As the cliff diving season kicks off this month, Aussie diver Rhiannan talks training and mindfulness and how she’ll never lose the fear.
Can you tell us a bit about your sporting background growing up?
Growing up, I always loved any form of sports, I always loved the water. But I actually started my career at around the age of 10, as a trampolinist, which then led me to diving.
My first coach and mentor was Brett Austine, a legend in trampoline sports inside of Australia. As a young athlete I really looked up to Brett as a coach – his way of coaching really worked well for me. He was also a teacher at my school and ran a trampoline program so I spent most of my lunchtimes bouncing around and playing with different skills. I competed at a state and national level on trampoline, but Brett really encouraged me to fall in love with both sports.
Photo Credit: Brett Hemmings
How did you go from trampolining to diving?
Through my coach and friends from my trampoline club. In my area it was common that all athletes had a crack at both sports. I juggled the two sports for a few years, but then made the ultimate decision to focus on springboard and platform diving. I then trained for a few years with the New South Wales Institute of Sport.
Although the sports are very similar in a way, I always kept the skills and techniques strictly separate through my training so they fitted both sports at competitions. It wasn’t until I entered show diving and high diving that I started to play and experiment mixing the techniques together.
You competed in diving for the Junior Australian team for a while, didn’t you?
Yes, I did a couple of competitions at an international level for Australia. But as I was soo focussed on my diving, it got repetitive performing the same routine over and over. I will tell the truth, I was a little burnt out. And I’m sure all athletes experience these feelings at some stage, but I think I had to step back and reassess my thoughts as an athlete. It wasn’t until I started to look at the sport with a different attitude and from different angles that I managed to make myself fall in love with it all over again, with even more passion. Only this time with double the height and adrenaline!
Photo Credit: Romina Amato
You worked as a show diver for Royal Caribbean cruises. How did that come about?
Through other divers. I was so interested in show diving, this job was definitely a dream come true for me. I learnt SO much in my time as a diver there, and I started to branch out with my skills. It involved diving 3 metres and 10 metres, and some trampoline – I guess you could call it dancing; it wasn’t my forte. I did some aerial work and eventually I found myself perched 17 metres above a tiny peanut-shaped pool, although I was only training the high diving while on board [at that time].
So was it a gradual process to go from diving 10 metres to diving 20+ metres?
Yes, it was a gradual process. I was lucky enough to work in a show in a theme park in France which included a ladder that had an adjustable platform, so I started with 10m, then 14m, 16m, 18m, 20m… and now I hope to keep climbing.
But, like anything in life, it all started with a thought process; thinking and imagining dives and just thinking to myself for at least two years: ‘I wonder what that flying feeling feels like?’
How does high diving compare to standard diving?
Double the height, double the impact on the body. It’s just too much impact entering the water [head first] at 77km, and slowing down in a few seconds is just too much on the upper body, so we land feet first.
What goes through your mind as you stand 20m up with your feet over the edge?
Well, often I’m standing there asking myself ‘WHY?’ but actually my mind and body is prepared for only the task at hand in that moment. It’s too dangerous to crowd your head with lots of thoughts.
Do you have any pre-dive rituals to help keep you focused and calm?
I definitely do. It’s hard to pass up those superstitious habits, like standing on my toes or rubbing my hands together or having my lucky charms with me!
But, actually, I always find myself taking a moment of mindfulness up on the platform, taking a few deep breaths and checking out the view. I completely switch off my brain for a minute to have a clear head stepping up to the edge.
Photo Credit: Romina Amato
Have you ever felt scared on top of the platform?
Yes, I don’t think there’s ever any training session or competition that fear doesn’t come into the equation; it’s just that you learn to control that fear. And in a way, I try to let the adrenaline and fear help me, turning it into positive energy as I walk to the end of the platform.
You won the Red Bull Cliff Series last year – congratulations! How did the cliff diving come about?
Yes, I did, it was my first season as a wildcard. The moment I saw Red Bull Cliff Diving I was attracted immediately. I was working closely with Polish diver Kris Kolanus on the Cruise ship – he inspired me and encouraged me to get into to high diving and cliff diving. From there, it was just a matter of training and preparing my mind for the competition.
How did it feel to have won the Red Bull Cliff Diving series?
The whole season was a whirlwind and it wasn’t until the second-to-last competition that I realised I was in with a chance. I was up there because I love everything about the sport, and I still do.
Photo Credit: Balazs Gardi
Can you tell us a bit about how the Red Bull Cliff Diving Series works?
Red Bull Cliff Diving is a series that takes the athletes all over the world to hurl themselves from some of the most amazing and iconic cliffs.
The competitions are structured in a similar way to regular diving. The women complete four dives each – two easy and two difficult. We’re judged on three main parts of the dives: the take off, the execution and flight, and the entry. The judges also take into consideration the degree of difficulty involved in each dive.
What goes through your mind before you dive?
A couple of things come to mind, the first being wow this is high. But to be honest, I’m prepared before I step onto the platform. It’s nice to be in that moment when it’s just you, the platform and the ocean. I’m usually taking in the scenery, and as I walk to the end of the platform then it’s time to switch to ‘dive mode’ and focus entirely on the take-off of the dive, running through the dive in my head.
How much of your dive training is in the pool vs outdoors?
I love to train outdoors but I really train where I can when I’m on the road. But yes, all of the high diving is outdoors.
Photo Credit: Romina Amato
Do you have a strength training programme?
Strength work really involves a little bit of everything, but my main priority is to focus on strengthening the body, and the weak areas, to take the impact time and time again.
What does cliff diving do to your body – what kind of physical shape do you have to be in to compete?
It’s a huge impact hitting the water so the whole body has to be tense, and we’re flipping and twisting and folding our bodies into different shapes, so flexibility is a big focus of mine! I also believe that it requires a lot of mental strength.
So what does a typical week of training look like?
It really depends. It’s such a great life high diving but it’s challenging to have a structured training routine for myself. My training’s pretty standard while I’m training at home in the off-season: gym in the morning and diving in the afternoon; surfing on my days off with some trampoline work in there too.
And while I’m travelling I’m always finding new locations to get the training in, including random cliffs and nice places, gyms and pools. I love it because it keeps training fresh.
Have you got any goals for 2017?
Of course. After last year, I had to re-set my goals as I achieved more than I thought possible. My main goal is to enjoy the season and see as much of the world through my diving as I can. In terms of diving, I have some ideas to work towards, and honestly standing on top of the podium last year only made me hungrier for more!
Photo Credit: Dean Treml
Have you had any scary diving moments?
Yes, a lot. You would have to be crazy not to be a little bit scared up there. The fear changes as you learn to deal with it though; it’s not such an overwhelming fear anymore, however it’s one thing in high diving I think I will never escape. But actually I love the feeling of the adrenaline, and overcoming that fear is one thing that makes me want to go back for more every time!
What are your favourite pieces of kit for training and competing?
Definitely a comfortable and colourful swimsuit. I can’t live without my chamois and flip-flops for rough terrain on the walk to the platform, and a swig of Red Bull for good luck.
Photo Credit: Dean Treml
Do you have sponsors who support your diving?
Yes, I’m partnered with Red Bull which is a big support. Also Delfina Sport have been a huge support, providing me with my favourite and lucky swimsuit!
Follow Rhiannan’s cliff diving journey on Instagram via www.instagram.com/rhiannan_iffland