Four years ago, Blake Aldridge was competing for Great Britain at the Beijing Olympics, now he’s preparing for his first full season in the pinnacle, literally, of high diving competition, the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.
Diving from 27 metres, as opposed to 10, brings with it a whole new set of challenges - and, obviously, dangers.
Aldridge, who is already looking forward to the August 4 event in Ireland – Blake turns 30 on the day of competition – as well as his home event in the UK in September, admits that his 2011 appearances represented a steep learning curve, particularly when he made his debut on the cliff diving platform, appearing as a wildcard in France last June.
“It's been a rollercoaster of a ride – everything’s been happening so fast,” he says. “The first one in La Rochelle, I was so scared... I’ve learnt so much in a short space of time.”
An impressive sixth-placed finish in his first event in La Rochelle suggested Aldridge had what it takes to compete with the best cliff divers and, having travelled to Australia in January to try and earn a spot for 2012, he finished second in qualifying to secure a place in the fourth season of the World Series.
Blake has been in Dubai since, using the warm weather to help continue his training and perfect the sport's mechanics. Cliff divers land feet-first to minimise the risk of injury and for Blake, who was used to landing head-first, it’s taken some getting used to.
“The training and technique is similar to Olympic diving – the shapes we get into in the air they’re all the same as in the Olympic sport – but I’ve spent 25 years landing on my head and now not only am I diving from 27 or 28 metres and landing on my feet but all the lead-ups I’m doing for my dives I’m doing to my feet from 10 metres.
"I’ve taken half a somersault off everything I was doing before, to head, to slow it down and now I’m going to feet and that has been just as hard as jumping off a 27 or 28-metre platform. Control is the main thing I’ve had to learn as a cliff diver."
The ever-ambitious Aldridge enjoys competition and pushing English compatriot, and friend, the current World Series champion, Gary Hunt, is his next challenge.
“I think the bar is going to be raised even higher this year. I don’t think Gary needs to push on any further until someone comes and meets him so that’s what I’m looking to do!
“I’ve got a couple of new dives up my sleeve that I want to learn, but Orlando [Duque] won two events last year and he’s got the same tariff [Degree of Difficulty] that I’ve got at the moment so that means that you can win, even if your dives might not be as big as Gary’s, then if you’re doing them for 9s and 10s you’re going to be pushing.
“I’ve got the dives down I’m going to do. I learnt a new dive in Australia, the same one that Orlando’s doing, the reverse double quad twist. I’d only done it twice and I did it for 9s on the first day of competition so that was a confidence boost for me.”
Aldridge is relishing the new head-to-head aspect of this year’s World Series where for the first time athletes will compete one-on-one to see who will advance to the final stage of competition.
"The new format means you’re going to see everything, good and bad, that comes with high-pressure competition. You’ll see some people perform under pressure and other people crack under pressure. There’s no better way of getting it out of athletes than when it’s one-on-one. It becomes a mental battle – it’s going to be good!
"I’ve always enjoyed asking questions of myself. If I’m in a situation where I’m telling myself ‘you’ve got to nail this dive’ then normally I’ve got the minerals to do that.
"To be in a situation where it’s all or nothing, I’m going to enjoy that and perhaps there’ll be some people that won’t. It’s going to be interesting to see how it pans out."
The competitive spirit instilled in him as an athlete competing in the Olympics, Blake believes there is the prospect of cliff diving becoming part of the world’s most celebrated sporting competition.
"I think cliff diving as a sport is only going to get better. There aren’t many people who have got that insane mentality and ability to push boundaries at all costs. It's got the power to grab people’s attention. They can visualise the height. Normal diving is exciting but watching a diver jump off 27 or 28 metres, then see how long they’re flying through the air for and then hear the impact on the water. It’s got a very big future.
"It may become an Olympic sport itself, one day. There have been some meetings with FINA, who are running Olympic diving at the moment, so let’s wait and see."
The first competition in the 2012 World Series takes place in Bonifacio, on the French island of Corsica, on Saturday, June 23. Check redbullcliffdiving.com and facebook.com/redbullcliffdiving for all the news, photos and videos!