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Cliff Diving returns to Possum Kingdom

Simpson ready to defend women's crown

The sport of cliff diving is made for adrenaline junkies and the most daring of athletes. Red Bull’s Cliff Diving World Series is a testament to athleticism. The Cliff Diving World Series returns to Possum Kingdom Lake on June 3 and 4, and Rachelle “Rocco” Simpson will be defending her championship. 

Simpson is the two-time defending Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series women’s champion, and is competing for a third straight year on her home turf.

Simpson resides in San Antonio. Possum Kingdom is the only U.S. stop for the Cliff Diving World Series in 2016. The women will be competing in seven events in 2016, four more than last season.

The path to cliff diving for Simpson started as a child in gymnastics. Simpson’s parents owned a gymnastics school in Texas. She started gymnastics shortly after she started walking and stuck with it until she was 14.

Gymnastics provided a strong foundation for Simpson to transition toward diving.

“I can’t say enough great things about gymnastics, especially as a child,” Simpson said. “It’s great for hand and eye coordination and motor skills. I think for me it laid a foundation to be able to move into diving fairly easily. I really think gymnastics played a key role in building a foundation for flipping, for my body awareness, for strength, for my core. All around, I think it has helped in my success.”

At the age of 14, Simpson’s family sold the gymnastics school and moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In Wyoming, the local gymnastics coach was also the high school diving coach. He convinced her to try out diving.

“He really wanted me to try out diving,” she said. “So, I did and I loved it, and eventually I stopped gymnastics and I started to do diving full-time. I dove all through high school for a club team, and after high school I didn’t really want to dive. I was a little burnt out, so I started doing a show here in San Antonio at Sea World, and that’s kind of where that whole cliff diving path started.”

The shows at Sea World introduced Simpson to a different kind of diving. This experience opened up her eventual path to cliff diving.

“In shows you tend to do a lot of feet first, kind of trick dives, instead of landing on your head like traditional diving,” she said. “I did that show for about six years here in San Antonio. Then, I got offered a position in China. It was like a Cirque du Soleil type of show called House of the Dancing Waters, and that show had high diving in it. That was my first taste of high diving in 2012. I went to that show and did that for two and a half years.”

In 2014, Red Bull began taking applications for women to join the Cliff Diving World Series. Simpson sent in videos of the high dives she could do, and Red Bull decided she would be one of the original women for the series.

The athletes on the Red Bull circuit are world class and internationally renowned. At the end of the day, everyone is rooting for the other competitors.

“It’s so crazy. These are crazy, you know, technically amazing athletes, but at the same time they are just really down to earth,” Simpson said. “Talking to them, you wouldn’t know that we throw ourselves off of like eight-story buildings, things like that. It’s easy to forget that you are one of a few doing this in the world, because everyone is so nice and so friendly, and we have such a great support with each other. There is friendly competition, but for the most part, it’s too dangerous and nerve wracking of a sport to have any animosity. It’s a really cool little group.”

Watching the events you can see the camaraderie that exists between the athletes, and it gives the event a unique and neat vibe.

“Obviously everyone wants to win and do their best, but they’re so pumped up when someone tries a new dive or someone does it perfectly or you know something like that,” Simpson said. “It’s just so amazing to see because you know how hard it is personally to even just jump off and do a simple dive...There is no need for animosity. We are all in this together, and we need to be as supportive as possible.”

Cliff diving is certainly not for everyone. The sport is death defying but also has its own thrills, as well as set of challenges. Simpson is attracted to the feeling of accomplishment in the sport that parallels nothing else.

“I think about that a lot, like why am I doing this, because it’s pretty scary every time,” Simpson said. “I think it’s a little mixture of (things). There are people who are more physically talented than me. Lots of people in the world. Not everyone is willing to jump from that height. So, I think it’s a little bit of proving yourself to the world. Yes, I love the adrenaline rush at the end and overcoming my fear, but I think for a lot of us, (it’s about) being one of the few who are willing to go and jump off of something so extreme.”

The height of the dive is unparalleled, and the inherent danger in the sport makes it as mentally difficult as it is physically. There is a thought process Simpson goes through when approaching the dive on the platform.

“Well, now that I am more used to it I have a very set routine. When I was first coming off you just have to talk yourself into it,” she said. “Now, I do the same thing.  You get up on the platform and immediately your heart rate elevates. You feel it. The adrenaline starts coming. You get shaky. So for me, it’s really important that I do a lot of yoga, meditation and breathing. That helps keep my heart rate regulated. I take deep breaths up on the platform. I also do a lot of visualization. For me, if you picture it perfect in your head you are more likely to execute it perfectly. I am a strong believer in that.”

Simpson’s coach used to tell her the story of Lara Wilkinson. Wilkinson won the gold for the U.S. in the 10-meter dive in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Eight months before the Olympics Wilkinson broke her foot, and was unable to train until three months before the Olympics. Her coach brought her out to the platform everyday to visualize the performance for hours. 

“I always think of that story from my coach when I was younger, and I really take that to heart because with cliff diving, we don’t have the luxury of practicing from a cliff every day.  I don’t have Possum Kingdom in my backyard, it’s pretty close, but you either need to be doing a show or you need to live in the perfect location. Even then, you need safety divers if you want to do it correctly and safe,” Simpson said. “We go a long period of time without actually getting to dive from that height. So for me, visualization is key. I even do it when I am up on the platform about to go. After I am about to set up for a dive, for me less is more. I count to three and I go. If I stand up there too long that’s when doubt starts creeping into my mind, and I start second guessing myself. For me, I picture it in my head perfectly, get up there count to three and let muscle memory take over.”

In spite of her experience with the dives, Simpson still gets afraid every time she attempts a dive.

“I tell everyone, some of them are surprised that I am afraid every time,”  she said. “I get more comfortable with being afraid, and so I guess in that sense it’s not as scary as the competition goes on. As the week goes by, getting to train I get less anxious, but I am still afraid.”

To attend the event at Possum Kingdom Lake you must have a boat or other watercraft. The event will start on Friday, June 3 at 1 p.m with the opening rounds, and conclude starting at 1 p.m on Saturday. 

The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series at Possum Kingdom Lake will be televised on Fox Sports 1 on July 9 at 11 a.m. The event will also be streamed on Red Bull TV.

Read the entire story in Saturday's edition of The Graham Leader.

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