Canadian Molly Carlson goes into this weekend's final stop of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in New Zealand in second place and with a smile in her face.
Whether it's diving off a bridge, bungee-jumping or skydiving, the 25-year-old from Thunder Bay, Ont., who now makes her home in Montreal, enjoys testing herself. Even if most extreme sports scare her more than diving off a platform seven storeys high.
"I've done them all," Carlson said from Auckland, where the divers will compete Sunday (New Zealand time). "And honestly, I am way more scared of trusting someone else with my life than diving. Roller-coasters too. There's something off, because I'm not in control.
"Every time I jump off a platform, I know I've done the training, I'm 100 per cent ready for this. But trusting a bungee? Like no way. Those actually pushed me out of my comfort zone. I would say they're way scarier than cliff diving."
Whatever she does, Carlson has an audience. She has 3.8 million followers (and 155.3 million likes) on TikTok and 1.41 million subscribers on YouTube.
Carlson says she wanted to use social media for more than just highlights.
"Even if you jump off 20 metres, you're still terrified and vulnerable and you still have your own challenges. So even though my life might look incredibly awesome, I still go through mental health struggles and fears. So I really decided to be vulnerable in myself on social media. I did not expect it to grow into six million followers across all my platforms, but I'm honoured."
The 2023 Red Bull series already featured stops in Boston, Paris, Polignano A Mare (Italy), Takachiho (Japan) and Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina). The season finale in Auckland was originally set for Nov. 19 but was pushed back after a 13-metre suburban sinkhole allowed raw wastewater to flow directly into Waitemata Harbour.
Australian star Rhiannan Iffland leads the overall women's standings with 990 points, ahead of Carlson's 860. While the Canadian mathematically has a shot at overtaking Iffland, it would require the Australian to finish well down in Auckland.
Carlson does not expect that to her happen from her rival, who is a model of consistency. But she continues to push.
"It just depends on the day. Now we have very equal dives where whoever is hitting them better that day is going to be the (event) champion. So I feel it's definitely in my grasp for the 2024 season."
Carlson has made the podium in 15 of her 17 Red Bull events, including two wins. Iffland has dominated the women's side of the sport, winning the last six season titles.
After Carlson won the opening stop of the 2022 season in Boston, Iffland took the next 11 events. The Canadian ended that run last time out in September when she scored two perfect 10s on her final dive off Mostar's 16th-century bridge, Stari Most,to win the competition.
"I finally found my groove in the fifth competition and won it," Carlson said. "With the current dives that I do now — they're very very good — I think I can win again if I'm in the right mindset."
The sport has come a long way since 1968 when ABC’s "Wide World of Sports" aired the International Cliff Diving Championship in Acapulco, Mexico. Red Bull has gone well beyond cliffs.
In Boston, competitors dove into the harbour off the Contemporary Institute of Art’s cantilever rooftop. In Paris, they launched themselves into the River Seine near Pont d'Iena, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
In Japan, they dove into the Takachiho Gorge. And in Italy, competitors made some of their dives off "a cute little lady's" balcony" into the Adriatic Sea
Carlson has also enjoyed success in the pool. She and fellow Canadian cliff diver Jessica Macaulay won silver and bronze, respectively, off the high-diving (20-metre) board at the aquatics world championships in July in Fukuoka, Japan.
Carlson will be gunning for the podium next month at the worlds in Doha.
High diving has yet to make the Olympics. Competitors had hoped it would be added to the 2028 Games in Los Angeles but the likes of flag football won the day.
Carlson has worked her way up, literally, in diving. A former gymnast, she spent 12 years doing traditional diving (10 metres and three-metre springboard).
"I was always a daredevil. I would keeping jumping off the highest platform and love it," she said.
After attending Florida State on a diving scholarship, the pandemic hit. Carlson, named diver of the year in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in 2017 and 2020, was not ready to quit.
She wanted to go higher "to see how brave I can truly be."
She moved to Montreal, drawn by the Olympic Sports Centre's 20-metre diving platform, and started high-diving training under coach Stephane Lapointe.
A year later, she was competing on the Red Bull cliff diving circuit, which came with new challenges — waves, a higher platform and cold water, to name a few, after diving indoors where conditions never change.
As a cliff diver, Carlson hits the water at speeds of 65 to 70 km/h. The sport takes a toll even if you get the dive right.
"It hurts the day after," she said. "It's not an immediate 'Oh my God, I'm in pain.' But your joints, over time, are going to feel it."
Getting it wrong comes with a cost.
After a training drive went wrong in Japan last year, Ukraine diver Oleksiy Prygorov was taken out of the water on a spine board stretcher. He was later diagnosed with a concussion, returning to compete in Mostar.
Carlson was out for two months after hyperextending her knee early on in cliff diving, soon learning that her body can only take so many repetitions from that height. In Mostar, she dove with both knees wrapped.
And she was sidelined for six weeks after suffering concussion last May when a landing went awry.
Iffland and Carlson, who dates British diver Aidan Heslop, went 1-2 in the first four stops this season before Carlson reversed that order in Mostar.
Also competing this weekend are Montreal's Macaulay and Simone Leathead. The 31-year-old Macaulay, who is retiring after Auckland, stands seventh in the standings while the 20-year-old Leathead is 11th.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2024.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press