On the Very Edge with Cliff Diver David Colturi
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About This Episode
David Colturi spent his childhood packing in as many sports as possible. From sunup to sundown he was outside bouncing between basketball, cross country, golf, flag football, or baseball. Because of his smaller size, he gradually moved away from impact sports and really focused on diving, training year round by age eleven. Despite what people assume, David wasn’t necessarily a dare devil or completely free from a fear of heights. In fact, diving didn’t even necessarily come easily to him. He learned the 7m platform at a camp, but when he advanced to the 10m platform for the first time, he landed smacked on his back. “It’s a combination of bravery and having a couple of screws loose,” says David. Though he had his work cut out for him, his enjoyment came from pushing himself, overcoming challenges, and conquering his fears alongside his teammates and coaches.
He continued his diving career at Purdue University in a season when the coach, Adam Soldati, had recruited an impressive string of divers at the school. Not only was Colturi receiving top level athletic instruction, but also intentional emotional and relational support. “He truly wants every athlete to reach their highest potential inside the water and out,” says David of Adam. This holistic approach to coaching proved very successful as Colturi was among the five male divers from Purdue that made it to the NCAA finals – an unprecedented number from a single university. Unfortunately, David’s diving career in college came to an abrupt halt after his junior year, as troubles outside of the pool caught up with him and he was released from the diving team. At a crossroads, he had to decide whether to focus on his Pre-Med studies or transfer to another school to continue diving. In the end, he decided to load up on credits, finish undergrad, and pursue a career in medicine – more or less retiring from diving.
But in a strange turn of events he was invited to Indiana Beach – a vintage amusement park in the middle of rural Indiana with roots dating back to the 1920’s. Build on a lake, the park boasts a water stunt show that includes boats, skies, and also high diving. Resembling circus performing, David dove from 10-20 meter perches made from 2x4’s, taught himself new tricks without a training facility, and even lit himself on fire for the finale. After two summers at Indiana Beach, Colturi tested his abilities at the 27m height of professional cliff diving. After only two small invitational competitions, he entered an International Cliff Diving Competition in Australia and recalls actually having to learn dives in warmups because he didn’t yet have a full repertoire. Call it beginners luck or nerves, but he won the competition, stood atop the podium, and secured himself a spot in the Red Bull International Cliff Diving Circuit for the following year.
The learning curve was steep, however. Cliff divers go from 0 mph to 60 mph in only three seconds, and decelerate from 60-0 mph in just one second – in only 13 feet of water. Competitors can’t even warm up all of their dives or train from competition height because of the sheer impact that it has on their bodies. Without training facilities, coaches, or guidelines, athletes have to experiment with optimal ways to learn new dives that reduced both wear and tear on their bodies and risk of injury. “When I tell people that I cliff dive, their first two comments are always ‘Does it hurt your feet?’ and ‘Oh, your poor mother..’, both of which are true,” jokes Colturi. The sport obviously carries with it extreme risks. “The margin of error is incredibly small,” says David. Divers can walk away from a 10 meter platform bumble and manage to shake it off, but from 27 meters injuries can be devastating or even fatal. There is always a safety team in the water ready to help divers if they become incapable of swimming due to injury on a dive. It’s not that they compete without fear, however. David admits to regularly being terrified and white knuckled climbing up to the platform. Perhaps the risk of it all unites the community, though. Without a wide network of coaches and trainers, cliff divers help one another, give each other pointers, and share the emotional burden of the experience.
Very unlike diving in aquatic facilities in front of hushed spectators perched on the edges of their seats, cliff diving takes place in a wide variety of places in front of fans on yachts, kayaks, and rafts partying and cheering. Locations can range from remote islands to urban centers. David has dived from the Boston Art Museum, the Copenhagen Opera House, the Dubai Arena, and from a whole range of cliffs and scenic outlooks. His personal favorite was his tour of Thailand in 2014, which included famous locations that had been captured in movies.
Coming off of his amateur win in Australia, David recalls being humbled by his first competition of the circuit in France. Backdropped by the Mediterranean and emboldened by adrenaline, he threw his first dive far too hard and landed on his backside. The impact tore the rear of his suit, bruised him badly, and waves sent him into the rocks on the way out of the water. Sore and embarrassed, he headed back up to the platform realizing that he “apparently did not have it all figured out.” Eventually he got into a groove with training, competing, and traveling and added several first place finishes to his resume.
But his streak of successes came to a screeching halt in the summer of 2018. Gearing up to compete in Lucerne, Switzerland, Colturi was filming a “teaser video” for the Red Bull series that aimed to capture a dive in front of a place of historic significance, as a way to attract attention for the upcoming competition. The dive was to be performed in front of the Tell’s Chapel on the shore of Lake Lucene. Without a natural platform to dive from, the team decided to enlist renowned Swiss paraglider Christian Maurer to fly David over the water for the stunt. With only two practice paragliding attempts, Colturi strapped himself to Maurer and they launched over the water with only a 2x4 secured with hiking rope as his platform. The changing winds, uncooperative boats, and wobbly perch created a situation in which it was hard to determine the actual height to gauge which type of dive to do. In the first attempt they were far too low and both Colturi and Maurer crashed. But they brushed it off and climbed back up to the launch point for another attempt. Unfortunately the next attempt was from far too high of a point and David landed on his side. Thinking he just had the wind knocked out of him, he took some Advil and went for two more attempts before they wrapped up the project with a successful take. As the day went on, however, his appearance and demeanor continued to go downhill. Dizzy and unstable, he was taken to the hospital in the evening where doctors could hardly believe how he sustained the injury, as it’s not every day that people attempt to dive from a paraglider nearly 100 feet in the air. He barely made it out of the CT scan before doctors where scrubbing up for emergency surgery, rushing him into the operating room to remove his spleen which had been completely split in half on impact. By the time they got him into surgery more than half of his blood supply had pooled into his abdomen; if he had waited another twenty or thirty minutes, the situation would likely have been fatal.
Colturi spent a week in the hospital before heading home for a long recovery. Six months later he was finally cleared to start training again and has his first official competition in April of 2019. According to him, he probably won’t be fully over the whole saga until he competes again and gets a few successful dives under his belt. But the experience has taught him a lot about his priorities and what he considers a victory. “Being lucky to be alive has made me really appreciate what I have,” he shares. The injury made him come to terms with the fact that he will not cliff dive forever and as he says, “I still need to be David on the other side of this.” Despite the trauma and fear from his accident, he plans to continue diving and has big dreams for the expansion of cliff diving as a sport. In addition to the Red Bull circuit, Colturi is a founding member of USA Cliff Diving and hopes to develop training camps, national tours, and events to draw fans and athletes to the sport while enriching the community of athletes that already exist. “Success – no matter how you define it – is usually just a fleeting moment,” he says. He has proven time and time again that he is willing to take big risks, and, more than ever before, he’s investing those efforts into improving the sport, supporting up and coming athletes, and seeing the sport as a whole become both established and recognized.
To follow more of David’s incredible journey, be sure to check him out on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. In addition, learn more about USA Cliff Diving and the Red Bull Cliff Diving and check out some amazing videos on YouTube.