Weekend Warriors: How Rachelle Simpson, world champion cliff diver, stares down fear every day

Dean Treml / Red Bull Cliff Diving

In cliff diving, athletes start at heights that are often twice as high as the Olympic platform.

Rachelle Simpson makes her way to the end of the platform as it sways ever so slightly. She doesn't focus on the thousands of screaming fans below, or the waves slamming against the rock face or the wind roaring past her ears.

Instead, she has tunnel vision.

Her heartbeat rises. She gives the OK to the safety divers 60 feet below. Her hands raise overhead. The familiar grip tape is rough beneath her toes. After a deep inhale, she counts to three and lurches forward into her first somersault.

"The best way I can explain it is that my body takes over while my brain takes a back seat and enjoys the ride," she says. "I don't hear anything as I move into my second flip. I'm only aware of spotting the water as I complete each rotation."

Romina Amato / Red Bull Cliff Diving

Rachelle Simpson won the Women's Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in both 2014 and 2015.

She extends out of the pike position and nails a half twist during the third somersault. Her feet smack the surface of the water at 53 mph. The tingle of pain in her arches is forgotten as the force of the impact drags the rest of her body below the surface.

In cliff-diving competitions, Simpson dives from heights of 62 to 72 feet on a regular basis. That's double or more the height of Olympic platform diving. It's a legit sport. Just ask Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis who judges some of the competitions. Cliff divers do similar skills, with similar technique, as Olympic platform divers -- just always to a feet-first entry.

And since 2012, Simpson has had a charmed career in her sport. For starters, she was the first champion of the Women's Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in 2014. She landed that title again in 2015. She was also the 2015 FINA High Diving World Champion.

Simply put: She rocks. So it comes as no surprise that most know her as "Rocco," a nickname she earned in high school for being a hard-core diver. Many, she suspects, don't even know her real name is Rachelle.

Fast forward to today and she has upped the stakes a bit. When Simpson hits the water during a cliff dive, it can feel like landing on concrete. "If you land perfectly up and down you usually feel the water pound the bottom of your feet," she says. "Sometimes it bruises the feet depending on the density and temperature of the water. And that's on a good entry."

Bad landings, of course, can end in hospitalization or even death.

"I've slammed my face into the water and given myself a wicked concussion," she said. "People have dislocated hips and shoulders, pulled groins and lower backs, displaced ribs or broken them and ruptured organs. It is truly an extreme and dangerous sport."

It's in her nature, however. Her willingness to take risks was clear early on. As a child, her parents owned a gymnastics school, which served as her playground. It's where she showed the hallmarks of a true daredevil and laid the foundation for her gonzo adventures in the future.

"My dad is an encourager and an affirmer," she says. "He didn't like laziness or half-hearted efforts, but he encouraged every step in the right direction, thus creating a home where we were motivated to do our very best. I wouldn't be cliff diving today if it wasn't for that perseverance and faith instilled in me."

As an adult she landed a gig as a professional acrobat in 2012. As part of "The House of Dancing Water," a Chinese theatrical show, she performed her first high dive on stage. Two years later, she noticed Red Bull was searching for cliff divers, so she sent in a video. Red Bull snagged her up. And at the first stop of the series, in her home state of Texas, she did her first cliff dive.

These days, she trains five to six days per week, squeezing in 1-2 hours of yoga a day, 2-3 hours per day at the gym and 1-2 hours each day actually diving in a pool.

"I run, do HIIT (high-intensity interval training) circuits and compound lifts for power and endurance," she says. "Yoga is a must for me every day, though. It's the most important part of my training. It's where I let go of stress, stay limber and where I push myself just for me."

It's clear that she tackles things head on. But does fear ever enter the picture? Indeed it does. Every single time she's on the platform, she says, her heart rate elevates like crazy and her palms sweat. But she knows the rush of throwing herself off of the platform is worth it.

"It's at this moment that I convince myself to go," she says. "I'm addicted to that feeling of soaring and the sense of empowerment I feel after every dive. It's not quite flying, but it sure feels like it."

Sarah Sekula is a Florida-based freelance journalist and video host who covers adventure travel, health, wellness and fitness.

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