Leading Colombian cliff diver Orlando Duque, reigning champion of Red Bull Cliff Diving, tells us about his professional beginnings and his time as a stuntman… and being woken up every morning by sea lions.
Even as a child, there was already only one thing Orlando Duque wanted to do: jump off high places and dive as elegantly as possible into the deep waters below him. In 1992, he qualified as a high diver for the Olympics in Barcelona, but in the end couldn't take part for financial reasons. After this low point in his career, Duque concentrated on cliff diving, and almost two decades on, he has reinvented the sport and now holds nine world championship titles.
High diving isn’t the most obvious career choice for a kid. How did it come about?
When I was a very small child, I wanted to be what everyone else wanted to be – a policeman or fireman, something obvious. I started diving when I was about 10 years old – back then it was only from 10ft [3m] – and I knew immediately that I wanted to do something like that. Later on, after college, I got to try cliff diving and fell in love with it right away.
So you must be a true water baby?
I just love the water. It's not just cliff diving – I also enjoy surfing and canoeing. I just recently started to learn how to spear-fish as well – it's pretty hard, but it improves your concentration.
'We lived next door to sea lions. They always made sure we woke up pretty early each morning'
You’ve had a varied career – any jobs you’d find a nightmare?
A regular office job. At college, I was forced to sit in class the whole day long – that’s just not my kind of thing. I don't feel comfortable without fresh air and sporty activities to do.
You once worked at Vienna’s Safaripark Gänserdorf as a stunt show performer, didn’t you – how was that?
That was a really exciting and formative time. We actually lived in a zoo close to Vienna – in containers, to be precise – where we lived next door to sea lions. They always made sure we woke up pretty early each morning. A lot of my former colleagues are still good friends, and that time was a really important life experience. Living alongside a bunch of different people really improves your life.
How do you deal with the Austrian mentality?
To be honest, we Colombians aren't as well-organised as Austrians and Germans are. We are always late. If you set up an interview at 1.45pm, you’ll be there on time, while I'm still on my way. I've learned a lot from this mentality, especially purposefulness. That helped me a lot in my career and also my private life. But no matter how much I’ve learned, I will never give up my Colombian vitality… or being late!
Did the Austrians’ love of winter sports also rub off during your time there?
You can't avoid winter sports when you live there. Actually, my skiing is not that bad, mainly because of the time between 1997 and 1999 when I lived in Austria – I've just been to Kitzbühel, but I didn't try to ride down the Mausefalle [one of the most famous and dangerous slopes in the world] – that would have been disastrous. [Laughs]
For a long time, you lived the life of a nomad, and during the season you are constantly travelling. What have you learned from all your globetrotting?
Travel makes you become more mature. But there is one major rule: When you visit other countries, you are a guest, and as a guest you must respect the country's traditions, conventions and culture. Never hurt your hosts’ pride.
'I am a natural competitor – I totally look forward to the bigger challenge this year'
How is your wife dealing with your travelling and what you do?
She understands me because she met me when I was already the athlete that I am. She knows how I train and that I calculate my risks very well. If you have someone who loves you the way you are, that's the biggest advantage you can get.
During your career, you've raised cliff diving’s profile like no one else – do you ever think about your time after it?
I do that a lot, and I know how much I owe this sport. It made me the person I am today, which is the reason I want to do it as long as I can. If not as a participant, I would love to be there to mentor young talents or as a member of the organisational team. Most important to me is to continue to work out in the fresh air!
What about an acting career? You've already got some experience from starring in the movie 9 Dives in 2005…
Well, the fact that this movie was about me and about cliff diving made the whole situation a lot easier for me. I just had to play myself. It started to become harder for me when the people on set explained what I had to do in detail. Showing reactions that are totally different from the ones that you feel is tough. But, you never know, maybe one day there will be another screenplay that suits me and gets me to say ‘yes’ again.
The competition have started to catch up in the last few years. Do you think that the next Red Bull Cliff Diving season in 2010 will be your hardest?
I guess so. The other guys have worked tirelessly and increased the difficultiy of their tricks. Furthermore, there are a lot of young divers coming from international level and they are all very promising. But I still feel strong enough to compete and I am more than able to keep up with the guys on a technical level. After all, I am a natural competitor – I totally look forward to the bigger challenge this year.
Relive Orlando’s last successful Red Bull Cliff Diving season and keep up with developments in 2010 at redbullcliffdiving.com