A world-class cliff-diver’s letter to his younger self
June 19, 2017
Orlando Duque is every bit the archetypal legend of his sport. For two decades, the Colombian native has been at the top of the international high-diving scene, moving from contests to performance shows to the globetrotting Red Bull Cliff Diving Series. Now, at 42 years old, he is preparing for yet another season in the Red Bull series, where he'll face fellow phenoms like seven-time champion Gary Hunt.
Ahead of the season opener on June 24 in Inis Mór, Ireland, Duque gives his younger self — and all aspiring pro cliff divers, mountain bikers, snowboarders and more — a pep talk:
You'll enjoy life more than you can possibly imagine and diving will be a part of it almost from the very start.
At age 10, you'll be doing lots of other sports — football mainly, because that's always king in Colombia — but then you'll watch the diving at the local swimming pool and be curious. You'll try it and, from the moment you first plunge into the water, you'll love it.
But listen, concentrate and learn everything you can. I know that all your thoughts when you have those first lessons will be on the final 15 minutes when you're allowed to do what you like, let loose and enjoy yourself in the water.
But listen and pay attention to what you're hearing. Your thinking will be: You're only doing the class for that glorious 15 minutes at the end, but the stuff before — it's important. Also, those 15 minutes are important because they'll teach you to be free. They'll give you that cliff-diving mindset, that little bit of crazy required to compete at the very top later in your life.
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And the thing is, from those first dives, within a year you'll be winning gold, silver and bronze medals in competitions and your coach will keep on telling you that if you pay attention, you could be a lot better. He's right — and then you'll start winning everything. But people will tell you that diving isn't a career, and of course it isn't. People just don't do that. You'll have aspirations for a proper job, tell people (and think it, too) that diving's just something you do for fun.
So instead you'll study, work hard and go to university. That's important too. It's a public university, and in Colombia that means you study a bit, then there's a strike. School stops, starts again, you study some more, there's another strike and so on. You won't have the money then for private university, so there will be frustration that's too much to bear.
Then, the opportunity will come to go to Europe to join a diving show at an amusement park on a three-year contract. Your family will be worried and friends will think you're off to join the circus, but you'll reassure them you'll earn enough money to pay to go to a private university on your return and study properly.
But the truth is: You'll never go back to study. Diving will take you on a journey you never thought possible, and the whole time diving will always feel good. From the age of 10 to 42 and hopefully beyond, you'll love the freedom of running and jumping in the water.
But also, you'll do well in competitions and suddenly sponsors will follow you. You'll have to train hard, harder then you ever have done before. You'll do four or five hours of training a day — that's needed to win with this sport.
When you're at the top for a competition, the fear will always be there, no matter what, and it always makes you think twice. But the fear is a good thing. It's your mind's way of protecting your body, just to think twice before diving, but know this: You'll always be able to do it.
Sure, you'll get hurt. You'll go skydiving in 2011 and end up with a broken foot, and from this time on, when you felt invincible, suddenly everything comes crashing down around you. The doctor will tell you, "Of course you can walk again," and that you will make a full recovery. But then you ask about diving and he'll be like, "I'm not so sure about the diving." That will be the biggest low. You were diving the best of your entire career, and then bam! The realization you may never dive again.
Be patient, though, as everything will be OK. It will take one-and-a-half years to get back to the top and win the World Championships in 2013, when everything that you've worked for and lived for will come back, and all will be OK. And even when you get to 42, you'll still be competing and rank in the top 10 in the world, but even then you won't retire. You'll want to go on for at least two more years after that point, but you'll never retire from diving. You'll forever have that urge to jump in the water — that will never leave you.
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