Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

'The Duke' of cliff diving: Orlando Duque

By Chris Murphy and Olivia Yasukawa, CNN
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu October 24, 2013
HIDE CAPTION
High dive: Life on a ledge
High dive: Life on a ledge
High dive: Life on a ledge
High dive: Life on a ledge
High dive: Life on a ledge
High dive: Life on a ledge
High dive: Life on a ledge
High dive: Life on a ledge
High dive: Life on a ledge
High dive: Life on a ledge
High dive: Life on a ledge
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Orlando Duque has won nine cliff diving world championships and two world records
  • Cliff divers can reach speeds of 85 kph when jumping from 27 meter high platforms
  • Known as "The Duke," he also won the first high diving gold at FINA World Championships
  • He recorded a perfect 10 score during a cliff diving competition in Hawaii in 2000

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for videos and features.

(CNN) -- "The Duke" knows within a split second if something is awry. The trouble is, he only has two further seconds to put it right.

Such are the fine margins in Orlando Duque's chosen discipline, cliff diving -- which he lovingly, and understatedly, refers to as "fun" and "intense."

The Colombian is a master of his art, with 11 world high-diving titles and two Guinness world records to his name, including one for a "perfect 10" dive at the World Championships in 2000.

He had started out in conventional Olympic-style diving, but after growing tired of the pool he turned to the cliffs and an adrenaline-fueled pursuit that can thrill and terrify in equal measure.

"When I jump off, immediately I know if things are going well or not," the 39-year-old told CNN's Human to Hero series.

"I know if I'm having a problem or something or if I just need to go through the dive and things should be OK.

"You get information immediately and it's amazing how fast you start processing that and, if needed, trying to make adjustments -- because you can make adjustments in mid-air, but it is just really quick.

"It's nice. As soon as you jump off, you know if it is OK, we're good."

Read: Graffiti artist to BMX bandit

Duque is a permanent fixture on the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series circuit, which this year consists of eight events in glamorous destinations such as Brazil, France, Thailand and Portugal.

Maxime Charveron's BMX masterclass
From civil war to the football pitch
Female judoka breaks new ground

Participants perform four dives from a 27-meter cliff -- two stipulated, two freestyle -- often reaching speeds of 85 kph with every fall.

Every leap is a leap into the unknown; a crash landing from 27m is the equivalent of a 13m fall onto concrete.

But ask Duque for a comparison and he offers an unlikely one.

"When I dive off a cliff, it's too much fun. I have all the control, I decide to jump and the feeling in the air, it's just amazing," he says.

"It's kind of like how your dog feels when he sticks his head out of the window, he's just so happy feeling the wind. That's how we feel.

"When I'm standing up on top, I'm worried. I know this is high. It's going to be some danger involved in the dive but I still want to do it.

"And you're worried, you have a little bit of fear but then when you're in the air, you feel the wind in your face. You hear it. It's really, really intense and then once you're in the water, it's like 'Whoa'. It's just relief.

Read: 'Miracle journey' leads to soccer dream

"In three seconds you went from being really worried and now you're in the water and you're super happy. It just changes really quickly and it's hard to compare to anything else, you know?"

Duque swapped the football pitch for the pool aged just nine and has never looked back.

He made the switch to cliff diving in 1995 and was soon the sport's dominant force.

Human to Hero: Adam van Koeverden
Olympic swimmer feels like a mermaid
Windsurfing brothers' triple act

His first cliff diving world title came in 2000, the season in which he broke a world record after scoring a perfect 10 from all seven judges for a double back somersault with four twists from 24.4m in Hawaii.

He went on to win an incredible nine world titles, the last coming in 2009, the first year of Red Bull's sponsorship. Agonizingly, he lost out to British rival Gary Hunt last year in the very final round of competition.

But he did get his own back on an emotional return to the pool in July, winning gold as high diving made its debut at the 2013 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona, alongside more established disciplines such as swimming, synchro and water polo.

It was fitting reward for a pioneer of the sport who has had much to do with its slipstream into the mainstream -- and one which ranks as his proudest achievement.

"It was the first time our sport was there, so being part of that group that was probably the top there," he says.

"And winning my first cliff diving world championships back in 2000. It was a great competition. It was of course the first one. That stays in your mind, for sure."

Read: 'Beast' of Japan - or Peter Pan?

Easing back into the pool environment -- where in Olympic diving competitors leap from heights between 1-10 meters -- is a much easier transition than the move in the other direction. So apart from the obvious, what takes the most adapting to?

"If you're going higher than 25 meters the speed is much higher so you have to get used to that first, and the height and the speed of the fall," Duque says.

"You cannot train that too much because the impact of the water is so heavy, the body cannot handle it. You have to really trust yourself, trust your skills. Know that you're going to be able to do it."

Duque can still recall the first time he dipped his toe in the cliff diving water, in Switzerland.

How to master 'chess on ice'
North Korean footballer big in Japan
Underground sport hungers for recognition

"It was scary," he explains. "And it's because you don't have that much proper training let's say up until that point. You kind of have to take the leap. You go up and then you know you can control certain dives and then you've just got to do it.

"Luckily, I had really good technique, really good preparation. It was in Switzerland in this little river thing and beautiful place but in those moments when you're like scared, you don't even realize what's around you.

"You forget all of that and you just focus on the dive. It was really nice but I can only remember the dive, let's say."

Read: Meet the 'mermaid' of Barcelona

Duque is currently third in the standings with just one event remaining this season -- inclement weather dealt his championship hopes a blow by forcing the abandonment of the penultimate event in Brazil.

It did, however, save Duque's body the strain of another competition and he admits that even textbook dives tend to hurt in some way shape or form.

"Doing some of the things I've done, I've scared myself a few times but it's more of a natural thing," he says.

"It's just my defense mechanism telling me, 'Listen, be careful', you know? You have to be concentrated to do this.

"I'm fully conscious of what I'm doing and I know I can do it, it's just you have that automatic switch in your head that is telling you be careful, you're not supposed to do this.

"If you make a mistake then deceleration is too quick -- you can have a concussion, you can have a broken coccyx the legs can separate and then you overstretch, separated pelvises -- that's common injury.

"It could be that you have some internal bleeding if you were to land completely flat."

Duque has seen the sport grow in his near 20-year cliff diving career, and after recognition by FINA at the World Championships, there is one more leap for it to make.

"I've been around this for over 15 years and every year is getting better in terms of diving, also the sport is growing," he says.

"We've just been included in FINA (which governs most water sports). Hopefully in the future, it will make it to the Olympics. You know, this is a spectacular sport that would add to the Olympics."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Diving is predictably a sport of highs and lows, but for Matthew Mitcham it goes so much deeper than that.
updated 7:11 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Australia's Matthew Mitcham talks about winning gold at Beijing Olympics in 2008 and overcoming depression.
updated 11:00 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Standing on the winner's podium, she gave hope to millions who suffer from a condition that can crush self-confidence.
updated 11:04 AM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Lionel Messi often moves so fast his opponents struggle to keep up, so spare a thought for the photographers who have to capture his magic moments.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
He mesmerized as a player and, as millions saw at the 2010 World Cup, Diego Maradona the coach was equally entertaining.
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
You don't need special access to get great World Cup photos -- but it helps. Leading sports snapper Shaun Botterill reveals how he has made the most of his insider privileges.
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
It's a World Cup photograph taken over 40 years ago. Shot on film, and after the game, but it still ranks as one of the most memorable football images.
updated 8:44 AM EDT, Wed June 11, 2014
CNN's director of photography Simon Barnett gives tips for amateur snappers hoping to catch a great sporting image.
updated 11:04 AM EDT, Wed June 4, 2014
National heroes don't always belong to one country. Ask France's World Cup hero Patrick Vieira, who is rediscovering his roots.
updated 10:26 AM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
By the age of just 29, he was recognized by many as the greatest footballer Japan had ever produced. But he was also among the most secretive.
updated 9:14 AM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
Former German goalkeeper, Bodo Illgner, communicates with his defence at the European Championships of 1992.
His first act as a pro goalkeeper was to pick the ball out of the back of the net. But before long the football world was in the palm of his hands.
updated 12:51 PM EDT, Fri June 6, 2014
He wasn't built to be the world's greatest center back, and he certainly never expected to be named the world's best player.
ADVERTISEMENT