You can't just take the stairs to the top of a 66-foot-tall cliff overlooking the beautiful coastline of Ponte Brolla, Switzerland. There's no gondola or chairlift either. The only way up is to climb the vertical wall, which requires strategically shoving your fingers and feet into tiny crevices in the rock and pulling yourself up. That's not the most daring part, though. Once you've courageously free-climbed (read: no anchors, ropes, or safety nets to prevent a serious fall) the jagged cliff, your next big feat is getting back down. One way is to launch yourself off a platform and let gravity take hold of you until you plunge into the cold, crisp ocean.
Sound terrifying? It's all in a day's work (and play) for Anna Bader.
“I like that it's a nice challenge to climb up. You really have to deserve your dives,” says Bader, a 30-year-old German pro diver. While scaling the rough rock, she likes to feed off the energy of the crowd gathered on the shoreline below. But when it comes time to jump (she gets three rounds in a competition), everything fades into the background. “Once I've decided that I'm ready to go and I'm standing at the edge all by myself, I let total concentration take over,” she says. “For those three seconds when I'm free-falling, I'm in my own world.”
While hurling through the air at 15 miles per hour, she often experiences that slow-motion effect that happens to many of us right before an accident, like when you trip and fall. “You're so hyper-aware of the moment and so focused that you can perceive many things at once, from how the dive feels to how fast you're rotating to how far you are from the ocean's surface,” explains Bader, who recognizes these as sensations more than thoughts. “I'm really not thinking as much as feeling, and in general, I have a very good feeling when I dive.”
There's no running start or cannon-balling off a cliff. This sport is all about grace—as well as insane concentration and cojones. Bader's preferred method of diving is from a backward handstand position (shown), which gets her mega-bonus points for difficulty. Another way to score from zero to 10 points from the five international judges at these events is raise the bar in terms of aesthetics. That includes the number of twists, pikes, tucks and rotations she completes before hitting the freezing 53-degree water, which Bader describes as 1,000 needles piercing your skin at once. How she enters the water—from her body alignment to the position of her arms to splashing as little as possible—all factor into her score, too.
Becoming a death-defying cliff diver isn't something Bader dreamed about as kid, though she admits her parents aren't one bit surprised. Gymnastics was her first passion, and that's what eventually led her to a springboard at age 13. Wanting to combine her love of gymnastics and water, she thought doing acrobats into a pool was the ideal sport for her. Soon enough, she started participating in competitive diving (soaring from as high as 33 feet into chlorinated H2O) and continued on this path—making the German national team along the way—for the next seven years.
While at university, Bader found herself venturing more into nature, seeking fresh air and new heights (three times higher than Olympic platforms), something not many of her female peers were doing. Testing the new waters and loving them, she signed up for her first elite cliff diving competition, the 2005 World High Diving Federation (WHDF) European Championships in Ponte Brolla, Switzerland.
“There were only three women, myself included, at the event,” she recalls. “I didn't care. I was happy to compete with the guys.” With so few females in this sport (it's very risky if you're not totally conditioned and trained to do this), Bader had no choice but to look up to her male contemporaries, including six-time World Cup-winner and three-time WHDF world champion Orlando Duque of Colombia.
“I think he's the best and biggest daredevil,” says Bader, who doesn't consider herself nearly as daring. “I see myself as very cautious. I always make sure I'm 100-percent focused and prepared to dive before I go up to the platform. I've never been the type to say 'Let's try it and see what happens' when it comes to diving.”
Last July, Bader finally had her chance to compete with just the girls when the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series debuted a female competition as part of it's five-year-old tour, which travels to breathtaking locations around the globe. At the inaugural women's event in Malcesine, Italy, Bader took home the top prize while humbly acknowledging she had to fight for it. Two Americans, Ginger Huber and Tara Hyer-Tira, came in second and third, respectively.
A year later, Bader returns to defend her title in the event's first women's division tour. She and four fierce female divers plus three wildcards will vie for the women's crown in a circuit competition that kicks off in Possum Kingdom Lake in Texas on June 7, followed by two more international stops, including Norway and Brazil (the cumulative results will dictate the victor). With her conditioning, concentration, and confidence, Bader is ready to make a big splash in a sport that she's thrilled to see gaining momentum. Since it's inception in 2009, the Red Bull World Series has drawn in more than 650,000 spectators. The addition of this new discipline will likely attract more people, continuing to grow the cool sport.
“It's about your training, not pushing your limits or proving your courage,” Bader says. She’s had an injury-free career so far and plans to keep it that way with her cautious attitude. “If you're doubtful or hesitating, then it's likely you can get hurt. That's when you have to step back, no matter what people say,” says Bader, who admits this nerve-racking factor is part of the attraction to the physical challenge.
Running, swimming, practicing gymnastics, trampoline work, and cliff diving all make up Bader's fitness routine, which takes up about 12 hours per week. She wishes she could dedicate more time to training, but diving isn't her day job. The superstar athlete is also a middle school and high school teacher (her subjects are English and geography) in her hometown in Germany. But if the Olympics picks up her sport in time for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio (a real possibility!), she may need to consider putting her 9-to-5 on pause for a bit to go for the first-ever Olympic gold in cliff diving. In the meantime, she'll continue to enjoy her exhilarating hobby in some of the most stunning settings earth has to offer.
Check out the video below to get a better sense of what diving is like for Bader.