THERE is a brief moment, Rhiannan Iffland admits, when her heart skips a beat and she pauses to query what the hell she is doing.
It coincides with her reaching the summit, turning around backwards and balancing precariously over the ledge of the platform, on her toes and the balls of her feet. She’s at the point of no return.
The drop beneath is 20 metres – about the height of a six-storey building – into a lake, or the ocean, or for her training sessions, a swimming pool.
If you think it’s only water, and hence poses no great risk, consider that within seconds her body will reach a descending velocity of about 90 kilometres per hour, and it only takes a minor error in judgment to spiral out of control and land with a tell-tale splat.
Get it wrong, and the lucky ones emerge with bruises or welts, maybe a concussion. Injuries that heal relatively quickly, unlike fractured shoulders, wrists, ankles or backbones.
If you think it’s only water, and hence poses no great risk, consider that within seconds her body will reach a descending velocity of about 90 kilometres per hour.
Long story short, high diving might appear graceful – and fun – but it’s an extreme sport. Dangerous, even for hardened veterans.
But sometimes in life, you just have to jump in at the deep end and hope for the best. So here we go again, Rhiannan thinks to herself, before slowing her breath and focusing intensely.
Then, like a giant sea bird, she launches herself and allows gravity to do its thing.
IT STARTS in the gymnasium at Belmont High School, under the watchful eye of PE teacher Brett Austine, a former world trampolining champion.
Instantly the primary school student from Nords Wharf is hooked on the thrill of bouncing, twisting, spinning, and the magic of being airborne for a few fleeting seconds.
The trampolining skills she develops make the transition to diving a natural one, and soon she is training each day at Lambton Pool under the tuition of Hunter United Diving Academy founder Eric Brooker, who fondly remembers his new recruit’s “nerves of steel’’.
Success at NSW Country, state and national titles help Iffland secure an invitation to join the NSW Institure of Sport, and by her mid-teens she is training with the likes of Matthew Mitcham and Melissa Wu.
Her ultimate goal is to wear the green and gold at the Beijing Olympics and take on the world’s best.
But competition is fierce and there is no place for her on the Australian team.
The realisation starts to dawn on Rhiannan that perhaps her diving career might have run its course.
“When I was training in Sydney with NSWIS, I did a couple of junior competitions for the Australian team and a few nationals,’’ she recalls.
“But I think it all got a bit too repetitive for me. The enjoyment just kind of fell out of it, as can happen as you grow up.’’
IN HER final year of high school, she starts pondering a future career path and fills out applications to join the police force. But then, “through a friend of a friend”, she learns about an opportunity that sounds almost too good to be true.
Royal Caribbean International cruise ships are employing divers for their “aqua theatre” on-board stage shows. “So I went for it,’’ Iffland explains.
For the next three years, she is performing in eight shows a week, alongside divers producing an array of acrobatics using three-metre springboards, 10-metre trampolines and a 17-metre platform.
In between shows, she trains in the gym and spends her free time enjoying life on the high seas, cruising the Caribbean and Mediterranean.
“Of course, it felt like a big holiday,’’ she says with a laugh.
But if the lifestyle sounds idyllic, she is also gaining rare and invaluable experience, above and beyond the 10-metre platform used by Olympic divers.
“I saw the high divers in my show were diving 17 metres,’’ she recalls. “I kind of thought to myself: ‘Wow, I want to do that’.’’
It’s a gradual, wary progression.
“I actually learned to high dive at a theme park in Lyon, France,’’ she says.
“I definitely think it’s something that has to be worked up to. You couldn’t just go from 10 metre to 20 metre in one day. I started diving 14 metre, then 16 metre, then 18 metre and eventually worked my way up to 20. It’s just a matter of doing it hundreds of times and then it just comes naturally.’’
Other than the extra height and hang time, the main difference is high divers land feet first, in a pike position, to cope with the impact upon entry.
EVENTUALLY Iffland reaches the stage where she is one of only a handful of women in the world capable of diving from a height of 20 metres. At which point her attention turns to the next challenge – the Red Bull cliff diving circuit.
“When I first started high diving, I obviously heard about the Red Bull cliff diving and I was attracted to it straight away,’’ she says. “It just looked so amazing, the places they get to dive from and the travel, the athletes and everything about it.
“So basically I just sent a video and I was working with some of the athletes who were competing on the circuit and they recommended me. They got me onto the guys I needed to be in contact with.
“So I sent my videos and at the last contest last year in Italy, I was able to actually go along and use the platforms and do some training and meet everybody. That gave me an idea of what it was like.’’
From that, she secures a belated wildcard entry for the opening event of 2016, held at the dauntingly named Hell’s Gate, in Texas.
“Going in, I wasn’t sure until four weeks prior to the competition when they told me they had a spot for me,’’ she says.
“So I had to train up in those four weeks. I trained really hard … I was just training 10 metres, really. A couple of places we were at, I was able to train 16 metres.
“I didn’t really have much training from 20 metres. I just really had to make the most of the two official training days we had prior to the competition.
“In the meantime, I did a lot of strength training in the gym, just to make sure my body was ready for the impact of the 20-metre diving I was going to do that weekend.’’
The rookie in an eight-woman field, Iffland finds herself competing in front of a backdrop of 10,000 spectators, scattered around on-land vantage points and boats floating in Possum Kingdom Lake.
As she prepares for her fourth and last dive, the result hangs in the balance. She nails a spectacular back triple somersault with a twist to dazzle the judges and finish 10.40 points clear of the runner-up, American Cesilie Carlton.
Video of her winning dive, and celebrations, soon goes viral and at last count had attracted almost 160,000 hits.
“I was completely overwhelmed and couldn’t believe it,’’ she says. “To tell the truth, I still can’t really.’’
WHERE she goes next is still to be decided. She has been invited to compete at the next two Red Bull events, in The Azores, Portugal, and Polignano a Mare, in Italy. She might be added to their contracted team, and more cruise-ship work, this time in Dubai, appears another option.
“I’m really, really glad that it turned out for me the way that it did. I used all the hard work and training and now I’m making a living out of it, which I’m really, really happy about,’’ she says.
As for the career expectancy of a high diver, the 24-year-old says: “Most of them are in their 30s.
“There’s a few of us who are in our 20s and I know some high divers who I was working with who are in their 50s. I guess it all depends on the passion you have for the sport and how you look after your body. That’s going to make the difference between a long career and a short career.’’
No matter how long she continues, Rhiannan doubts she will ever grow immune to the rush of adrenaline that precedes every dive.
“Of course, I still walk out to the end of the platform and wonder what I’m doing there,’’ she says. “It’s not actually until you pull off the dive and you hit the water that I realise why I’m doing it – for the amazing feeling of flying 20 metres.
“For me, when I dive 10 metre, I don’t find it as enjoyable as 20 because basically you don’t have enough time to enjoy the dive, and enjoy the flight … it never looks any lower and it’s always going to be scary.
“But that’s half the fun of it, you know?”