AUSSIE cliff diving world champion Rhiannan Iffland takes a leap of faith every time she propels herself 20m off a cliff face. And it doesn’t get any easier the more she does it.
The 26-year-old says jumping from the equivalent of five storeys high is as nerve-racking now as when she did it for the first time four years ago.
“It’s scary. The build-up is just as scary too, training to go up there and thinking about it for a few days before. You have that fear there in your head a few days prior until the moment you jump,” Iffland says.
“That’s something about extreme sports: you have to be very passionate about it to be able to put up with those feelings and fears. I don’t think it’s a matter of overcoming it because it’s always there until you successfully pull off a dive. It’s just a matter of getting used to it.
“I think the amount that I wanted it helped to make it an easier process to get into high diving, but you do find little ways to overcome the fear and deal with it.”
Iffland, who came second in competition in Switzerland earlier this month, has mastered the art of the successful dive, taking out the title in her first ever competition in 2016 after being awarded a wildcard entry to compete in the RedBull Cliff Diving World Series.
She won the Red Bull series again in 2017, as well as the FINA world championships in 2017.
At last month’s Red Bull cliff diving event in Portugal, she became only the second woman in the world to score a perfect 10 for a jump, successfully completing a forward two somersaults with a 1½ twist.
“That was quite a shock. To begin with I was in awe and didn’t believe it, but as I went on I just enjoyed myself so much that I was that successful,” she says.
While she has enjoyed success from day one of competing on the international stage, Iffland is far from an overnight success. She credits a childhood and adolescence of trampolining and 10m diving for giving her the foundations needed to mix it with the best.
Iffland, who lives in Newcastle, trained at the Hunter United Diving Academy before joining the NSW Institute of Sport, training with future Olympic medallists Melissa Wu and Matt Mitcham.
“I learnt a lot from my trampoline background (about) a lot of the appropriate techniques. I was diving 10m for at least 10 years and there was a gradual progression,” Iffland says. “It’s not like you go straight from 10m and look down and think you’re going to be OK. I went from 10 to 14, to 16, to 18, to 20m.”
Iffland decided to quit competitive diving in her teens and moved into show diving and entertainment, first on a cruise ship and then at a theme park in Lyon, France.
“That’s where I saw the higher boards and the higher dives. And then I heard about Red Bull cliff diving and saw some footage and watching some of the guys on 17m when I was working on a cruise ship on a show,” she says. “Basically from that moment on I thought, ‘I want to do that’.
“I was able to learn from shows when I was working in the theme park in Lyon. They have a ladder there with a platform or perch that can be moved to different heights and I was lucky enough to work there for a season.
“I just wanted to be challenged and I still had a passion to learn different skills and head off in a different direction with diving.”
Iffland hits the water at anywhere between a staggering 77-80km/h, which makes her training regimen and pre-competition preparation crucial.
“Unlike regular diving we’re landing feet first and from a higher height, which is more impact, which takes a lot of conditioning to be able to withstand in terms of legs, lower back and lower body strength,” Iffland says.
“It is hard to train for a high dive because your body just can’t take it, so what I do is break the dive up into different parts so we do the first half of the dive from lower heights, which is a lot of rotation, just drilling them off.
“The second half of the training is the diving off and the flight, and once you get to the high dive, you’re putting all of that together.”
The stakes are high when diving from such great heights, so the mental preparation is as crucial as the physical training.
“I do a lot of visualisation before I walk out onto the platform, just running through the dive in my head, making sure I convince myself everything is going to go OK,” she says.
“I also do a little bit of mindfulness, forgetting about everything and remembering why I’m there. It makes it a lot easier to step onto the platform with a clear mind to dive.”
Iffland has been fortunate not to have sustained any serious injuries to date.
“It’s part of the sport, any sport – unfortunately injuries happen – but for that I’ve been pretty lucky, touch wood,” she says. “I haven’t had a bad spill, and I’ve seen a fair few, but we try not to think about those.
“It’s like anything, it’s a progression, you start small and work your way up. You’re always pushing yourself to the limit when it comes to high diving.”
“But I think it’s really important to respect the height and respect how dangerous it can actually be, otherwise things can go wrong. Repetition is key, you practise the dive. You don’t step out onto that platform to do a dive that mentally you’re not ready for.”
Iffland travels the world practising and diving in competitions, but finding the perfect location can be difficult.
“In terms of cliff diving it’s mixing it around. I like to travel to different destinations and make sure that I’m 100 per cent enjoying myself in the sport and making the most out of it,” she says. “My favourite is Portugal. I’ve dived in Japan, which was unforgettable, Malta, Mexico, there are so many places. Italy is a great one too.
“It’s a lot tricker than it seems to find a suitable location to dive. There are a lot of elements to think of when you’re diving off a cliff. Obviously the first one would be the height; the second one is accessibility: how hard or easy it is to get out of the water and up to the cliff. Then you’ve got the water depth and all the other things to do with the water and the ocean.”
While 20m is the standard height for female cliff diving competition, and 27m for men, Iffland’s highest-ever dive is 24m.
“That was from a cliff in France. It wasn’t a competition, just a training trip,” she says.
Every metre makes a massive difference to the dive and the landing.
“It does. Once you get past around 16m, then every metre is a big difference. It doesn’t seem a lot, but in terms of impact and the flight, you have to change your rotation.
“Obviously when you hit the water bad, then yes, it hurts. You hit the water at 77-80km/h, but honestly you never know, you can hit perfectly and still have a muscle or something not switched on and you go, ‘Ouch’, or your leg gets ripped out from underneath you. You just never know when hitting the water at that speed.”
Iffland strained both knees after diving 21m off the historic Stari Most bridge in Bosnia in September last year.
She says overcoming that injury and taking out the world championship for the third time a month later are among her career highlights.
“Definitely pushing through an injury and winning the World Series in 2017 in Chile, going into the competition not knowing if I was even going to be able to compete and then overcoming that challenge and ending up on top and on the podium and the World Series champion last year was amazing,” she says.
“Dealing with all of the self-doubt and putting in all the work from the rehabilitation, it was a really nice feeling.”
She credits consistency and hard work with keeping her at the top of her game.
I don’t think I have a speciality, but everyone has their own style,” she says.
“I think it’s been my consistency that’s helped me in the competition. It’s anybody’s game especially in diving, it’s all about consistency. Whoever is at their best on the day turning up to competition.”
Iffland’s family is supportive of her extreme sport, never missing a competition, whether watching it in person or live-streamed from an event.
“My dad didn’t believe me at first that I was actually going to be a part of a sport like this, but they absolutely love it,” she says. “They’re so proud and it’s a great sport to spectate and watch. There have been lots of opportunities to take great holidays. They’re rapt.”
However, Iffland concedes it’s been a little more difficult for her mum to embrace than her dad, brother and sister.
“It is a bit scary for my mum to see her little girl standing 21m perched above the ocean, but she never shows me that,” Iffland says. “They know my background and how I train for it and I think they have to trust me as much as I trust myself.”
Iffland has found a true passion in the sport and the people who participate in it, and hopes to continue to compete for as long as she can.
“It’s everything that comes with it, not only the lifestyle and everything that comes with it as an athlete. We travel around the world as a group of people with the same passion, we dive from amazing places,” she says. “We get to experience so much culture and the people are just awesome, so that’s what’s inspired me to keep on going.
“It’s the challenge as well. I really enjoy pushing myself and overcoming great fears and challenges on a day-to-day basis – it’s something that draws you back up that ladder and standing on the platform.
“I haven’t put an expiry date on it yet, which is a good sign. In terms of participation, when my body has had enough of physical diving. I think I’ll try and stay in the sport as long as possible.”