We all know the age-old question: "If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?" Well, this one's for the girls who enthusiastically answered "yes."
For most people, cliff diving is usually associated with recklessness and an absence of fear. But for those few brave enough to conjure the gall to take the leap from 70 feet in the air, the preferred description is "peaceful."
Ellie Smart, a bright-eyed, fast-talking American diver has been on the Red Bull Cliff Diving world tour for three years. She admits she still feels nervous before every dive, but the minute her feet leave the platform, she's home.
"It's actually super peaceful — your body just knows what to do," Smart said. "It's not this fast, scary, adrenaline-filled feeling. It's more of this calm, peaceful, full feeling."
Like many other divers on the tour, Smart started as a collegiate diver at the University of California. After graduating, her friend invited her to go cliff jumping near Lake Tahoe. Her dream was realized that day, but the outcome wasn't quite what she expected.
"I stood up there and I walked away. I couldn't do it," Smart said. "And I just thought, maybe this dream was a little too big."
Although she couldn't push herself to jump that day, the idea kept her up at night. Once she had the chance to do it again, she took advantage — and hasn't looked back since.
"In that moment, I could do anything I wanted to do. It was one of those empowering moments," Smart said. "I wish everybody could feel it. Once you overcome that fear and try it, you break through to a new level."
Diving has given Smart a unique perspective on fear, especially the kind that's subconsciously instilled in girls from a young age.
"I think in life, in general, especially with girls, we are taught from a young age to be more cautious," Smart said. "We're not taught to distinguish what is putting us in danger and what we are just scared of and learning how to differentiate the two to be able to make better life choices to grow and excel to our full potential."
The courage to jump from such heights rewards these divers with so much, including the feeling of accomplishment, the opportunity to travel the world — but most importantly — a community that understands their unique lives. This year, ten men and six women from ten different nations traveled to seven global locations — starting in El Nido, Palawan in the Philippines and wrapping up in Bilbao, Spain.
"Here, if you just hang out for a little, you'll notice that it doesn't matter what country you're from, it doesn't matter if you're a girl or boy, it doesn't matter if you're experienced or not — everyone is like a big family," Smart said. "We all know what it takes to do it and we all respect each other and want the best for each other, genuinely."
Next year, the number of men and women on the tour will be equal, along with equal prize money. For a sport that's only in its eleventh year, women's equality has been achieved with ease. Since the tour can only accommodate a certain number of athletes, gender equality means fewer opportunities for men. But Smart says the male divers have been unwaveringly supportive.
"People are getting cut from [the men] so that we can have more people and their prize money is getting lowered so we can have more," Smart said. "They've actually been so supportive of that and I've never once heard someone complain."
Australian Rhiannan Iffland is the most decorated female cliff diver of all-time, having won the series the past three years. She thinks the men benefit greatly from diving alongside the women.
"I think they're learning a thing or two from us. When you watch the women dive compared to the men, it's so much more graceful," Iffland said. "It feels really, really amazing, especially at this point in time, to be a woman involved in an extreme sport."
After conquering the arena of equality, cliff diving has set its sights on the next big obstacle — the Olympics. Smart and Iffland think it's only a matter of time before the extreme sport will earn a spot at the Olympics and believe that the women are the ones to get them there.
"I think this sport has a lot of potential. In the women's field, the sport has progressed really, really quickly," Iffland said. "The really nice thing to see is how passionate the young girls that are coming in are and how much enthusiasm they have towards the sport."