Mineral Wells Index, Mineral Wells, TX

June 10, 2014

Earning their wings

Texan Rachelle Simpson, UK's Gary Hunt win cliff diving crowns at PK Lake


Mineral Wells Index

By CLINT FOSTER

POSSUM KINGDOM LAKE – On a beautiful Texas Saturday, 19 of the world's best divers and 6,700 fans converged on Hell's Gate Cove in Possum Kingdom Lake for the finale of the second stop on the international Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.

On its first trip to the Lone Star State for the American leg of competition, the series took a turn for the legendary as only a Texas location could. From perches atop the picturesque natural cliffs at PK, 12 men and seven women plunged 90 feet and 60 feet, respectively, at 53 mph into the cool lake waters. 

Once the ripples subsided, none other than a Brit and a native Texan had claimed the North American championships.

With the first-ever North American women's competition as the stage for her first-ever professional cliff diving event, San Antonio's own Rachelle "Rocco" Simpson claimed top honors with a front triple somersault with one-and-a-half-twist pike.

"I love you, Texas!" she triumphantly shouted after securing the title.

"It's surreal," she told the Index after receiving her first-place trophy. "I was so excited to be in Texas. Now that I've won, it's even better.

"I can't describe the feeling. Just seeing my family and my husband out there cheering for me, it made the setting really relaxed, but at the same time even more exciting.

"I was really nervous coming in. I had some high expectations for myself. I'm so excited right now."

Earning the men's title for the 16th time in his career was Gary Hunt of the United Kingdom. The three-time series champion employed a front triple somersault three-and-a-half twist pike to elicit a strong reaction from the crowd and a first-place score from the judges.

Hunt was the second British man to finish atop the podium so far in this year's World Series, as Blake Aldridge took the title in the competition's first stop, May 10, in Havana, Cuba.

"It was amazing," Hunt told the Index about winning in Possum Kingdom. "It was a really good competition. To be in a competition like that is fun and then to win it is incredible."

Having never visited Texas before, Hunt said he was wowed by the beautiful landscape in and around Hell's Gate.

"It was really cool," he said. "I couldn't believe this location. I just thought [Texas] was very dry and hot, but this place is perfect for cliff diving. [The water] was lovely."

Other American divers David Colturi and Steven LoBue reached the final round of competition and earned seventh and third place finished, respectively. 

American diving legend and four-time Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis served as a judge for the event. He remarked that many of the more experienced divers reaped the benefits by going out of their way to attempt more challenging dives at the Texas location.

“The divers are really upping their game,” Louganis said.  “It’s a lot more technical and they are going beyond what they are doing in the Olympic Games.  Adding the women’s competition just furthers that cause.“

Perhaps that classic Texas grandeur had something to do with it.

The Brazos River Authority reported no incidents as 600 boats and personal water craft carried the nearly 7,000 spectators who journeyed to Hell's Gate sporting Texas and American flags to take in the spectacle and cheer primarily for the US diving contingent. Cody Robbins Band and 106.1 KISS FM's Billy the Kid were also on hand to provide music and ambiance. 

For the third round of competition, the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series will head across the pond to Serpent's Lair in Ireland, where the water is expected to be a chilly 53 degrees. It will be the first of two colder-weather stops, as the series will then head to Norway before turning southwest to Portugal and Spain and finishing up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Oct. 19.

Hunt said he will need to be at the top of his game to have a shot at the title of "World's Best Diver" in four months.

"It's getting really tough," he said. "I'm hoping to stay on the podium. But if I can stay on the level of diving that I produced here, I'll be over the moon."

Simpson said she feels confident that if she continues to work hard and refine her dives, she will have as good a chance as anyone to be the inaugural women's champion of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.

"I've had a really good training season," she said. "If I keep training like I've been, I think I'll just do even better next time around."

If you missed the festivities at Possum Kingdom or simply want to give them another watch, don't miss the Texas leg of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series when it airs on Fox Sports 1 at 6 p.m., July 21. Follow the rest of the competition at www.redbullcliffdiving.com.

Index writer Tyler Mask contributed to this article.