She wanted to be an Olympic platform diver. Now she dives off cliffs for a living

Watch Eleanor Smart dive off cliffs in the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series

Former Shawnee Mission East diver Eleanor Smart moved to Texas to pursue an Olympic career. When that didn’t work out, she eventually retired from the sport. Until she found out about the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.
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Former Shawnee Mission East diver Eleanor Smart moved to Texas to pursue an Olympic career. When that didn’t work out, she eventually retired from the sport. Until she found out about the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.

On a cool, overcast day last October, a former Shawnee Mission East diver stepped onto a cliff’s edge at the Emerald Pools swimming hole in northern California. She faced a drop of about 20 meters, equivalent to a six-story building.

For weeks, Eleanor Smart had battled nerves to reach that spot. But on this day, she felt clear-headed. She quelled the anxiety, did a leadup like she would have done for any standard 10-meter dive and took the plunge.

She did a double half dive, with two forward somersaults and a half twist. She cut feet-first through the water cleanly, and broke the surface of the south fork of the Yuba River beaming.

Adrenaline coursed through Smart’s body. She felt a mix of emotions, but was certain of one thing: She wasn’t ready to quit diving. She had given up the sport more than a year and a half earlier, but suddenly stumbled on a new way to do it.

“Maybe I wasn’t just meant to be another Olympics platform diver,” said Smart, 21, who left SM East after her freshman year to train more seriously with club coaches in Texas. “Maybe I’ll be the first American high diver to compete in the Olympics.

“That’s so much cooler. Maybe that’s really where all this is supposed to lead to.”

A back injury in Texas had limited her chances to become an Olympic diver. Then, after two college seasons at the University of California-Berkeley, she retired from the sport. Smart thought she would never dive into a pool again.

But when a friend goaded her into trying cliff jumping, which she did from from a height of about 12 meters last August, Smart was drawn to the more extreme sport of cliff diving.

Smart’s parents balked when she first discussed her intention to focus on a career that involves weaving acrobatics into a 66-foot freefall, she said. After seeing her leave home to pursue an Olympic dream that didn’t pan out, they seemed hesitant to entertain the idea.

Until they found out cliff diving wasn’t recklessly dangerous and that Red Bull had invested in professionalizing the sport since the first Cliff Diving World Series in 2009. Man-made platforms jut out from cliffs so divers aren’t launching off slippery rocks. Safety teams linger in the water, watching for divers who might crash, lose consciousness or otherwise become injured.

In less than a decade, the sport has attracted enough attention from fans and sponsors alike that FINA, the international governing body for six aquatic events, submitted high diving — a sport that had been widely regarded as little more than a dangerous spectacle, not a sophisticated aquatic discipline — for inclusion at the 2020 Olympics. The proposal failed, but divers remain confident it will be approved for the 2024 Games.

“High diving used to be presented as a performance,” said David Colturi, who is in his sixth year on the series circuit and is ranked fourth on the men’s leaderboard. “(Red Bull) brought a much more technical and complex, acrobatic nature to it … The progression of the sport in the last five to 10 years has been insane.”

After months spent mulling the decision, Smart took a leave of absence from her master’s program in sports psychology. She risked her life savings and joined a group of cliff divers and their coaches at Adrenalin Quarry in Plymouth, England, where she began to train in earnest in May. She submitted a dive list and an application for the Cliff Diving World Series within the month.

She thought Red Bull might reject her or keep her in reserve until the following season. She planned to make her debut at a small competition in July.

But by June’s end, Smart was back in the competitive ring for the first time since March 2015. She made her professional debut in the opening stop of the 2017 Series, placing fifth (195.35 points) in the women’s division as a wild card at Serpent’s Lair in Inos Mor, Ireland.

Despite being one of the youngest and the newest to the field, Smart delivered the third-best dive of the contest on the women’s side when she earned 42.5 points, including a 9 from one of the five judges, on her first attempt.

“She was brought to Ireland and killed it at her first competition,” Colturi said. “If you do that you get invited to more spots as a wild card. Eventually, if you become good enough, you can replace one of the series divers.”

Smart earned about $10,000, she said, over the span of three series contests and three outside competitions this summer. She is fourth among wild cards and ninth out of 13 women on the Red Bull circuit.

Since only two wild cards join the field of six women at each stop in the series, Smart is unlikely to compete in the series finale, where champions in each division will be crowned, at the end of the month.

She’s still a ways from joining Colturi as a regular, but she’s impressed so many on the tour — Red Bull referred to Smart and a few other young divers as the future of the sport in late August — that it may not be too long.

“I want to do dives no one has done yet and I want to push the boundaries of the sport,” Smart said. “I think there are things that can still be done that haven’t been done yet.”