BUDAPEST, Hungary — Against the stunning backdrop of the Hungarian Parliament, looming on the opposite side of the Danube, 10 women spent a glorious summer afternoon climbing up a towering metal structure, all for the purpose of hurling themselves into a temporary pool.
It all seemed like great fun.
They waved to the packed grandstands more than 60 feet below. They shimmied to the music, blaring incessantly from the loudspeakers. One of the divers even donned a bikini instead of the standard one-piece suit the others were wearing.
“We’re kind of like the after-party of diving,” American Tara Tira quipped.
But rest assured — high diving is a terrifying sport, even for those who have made it their life.
“I’m still scared to death,” said American Cesilie Carlton, who finished sixth Saturday at the world championships after diving four times off a 20-meter-high platform on a tower right in the heart of this elegant European capital.
“When you look down, your brain says, ‘Don’t do this.’ You have this self-preservation that kicks in and says, ‘No, you shouldn’t do this.’ It’s always like that, every time I get up there.”
They are a rare breed, this small group of women and men that have brought an X Games-like sense of danger and bravado to the aquatics championships (the men will decide their winner on Sunday, off an even higher perch 27 meters above the water).
This sport is not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.
“It’s very intimidating standing up there, 20 meters up, just looking at your feet,” said Australia’s Rhiannan Iffland, who won the women’s gold medal. “It’s not easy and the fear’s always there. For myself, I’m always scared. There’s never a moment where I walk up to that platform and I’m feeling 100 percent confident.”
For obvious safety reasons, high divers hit the water feet-first. Still, when you’re plunging from that height, going somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 mph, pain is inevitable.
“I mean, especially when you first start doing it, it hurts,” said Ginger Huber, another American who competed in the event. “I’m not going to lie. It hurts a lot. Even if you land correctly, it hurts a lot. But it’s strange. Your body can kind of adjust to it.”
Well, not to everything.
She flashed a smile — revealing several chipped teeth.
“It’s a very risky sport. It’s very dangerous. The impact is very hard,” Huber said. “Sometimes you get punched and you can’t breathe for a while. It knocks the breath out of you. We all have chipped teeth. Some people wear mouth guards because of that. My dentist is like, ‘You just got back from a competition, right? We’ve got another little chip there.'”
Iffland nailed her final dive to claim the gold, beating out Mexico’s Adriana Jimenez. Yana Nestsiarava of Belarus took the bronze, just ahead of Tira.
But not one felt like a loser.
They all survived to dive another day.
“High diving has that extra special camaraderie, that’s for sure,” Tira said. “I wanted to be on the podium, for sure. But I’m so proud of the girls who were on that podium. They dove outstanding. We’re all in this together. We’re a growing sport. We have to keep that camaraderie if we want it to go places.”
They would like it go to the Olympics, but for now the FINA world championships are the pinnacle of the sport. High diving was added to the program four years ago in Barcelona, and it quickly became the most visually appealing sport at the meet.
The setting in Budapest was downright stunning, the divers framed against the imposing Gothic Revival structure that is country’s seat of government.
“The views are awesome,” Tira said. “When you’re 20 meters up, they’re even prettier. You don’t think it can get any better, and then your walk up those stairs and suddenly the whole area is glowing. You have the crowd below who are cheering for us and rooting for us. You look to your right and there’s Parliament. You look out and there’s the Danube River. There’s beautiful architecture all around us. It’s pretty cool.”
For now, this is as good as it gets. The International Olympic Committee passed on a chance to add high diving to the 2020 Tokyo Games, even though it would seem to fit with an effort to make the games more appealing to a younger audience.
“We thought we had a shot at it,” Carlton said. “But they chose things like 3-on-3 basketball, which is insane.”
If there are any hard feelings, they don’t last for long.
That’s just not the vibe you get around the high diving pool.
When Iffland wrapped up the gold, the other nine women quickly rushed over to give her a hug.
“We know the feeling to be standing up there. We know the risks,” Jimenez said. “That’s why we support each other. We try to cheer each other, to encourage each other. For sure, to trust in your job is not enough. You need people supporting you, and you need people with good energy and harmony.”
In the end, that’s the only way to cope with the fear.
Associated Press Writer Ciaran Fahey contributed to this report.