How high diver Cesilie Carlton conquered her fears of heights to become world champion

World champion high diver Cesilie Carlton admits to an unlikely fear - heights. But she overcomes her nerves to perform her stunning routines

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 4:54am

A brief quiet envelops the House of Dancing Water Theatre as all eyes turn upwards - way, way upwards - and everyone tries to direct their focus towards the place where Cesilie Carlton is standing.

It appears as though everyone in the crowd has been focusing on the very same thought: "That looks pretty scary."

It turns out they were not the only ones. The next day Carlton is sitting in one of the VIP rooms off stage deep within Macau's City of Dreams and she is about to offer a remarkable confession for a woman who the previous night - and most nights - launches herself from a height of 17 metres into a pool of water below.

It's worth bearing in mind that Carlton has just returned from Barcelona, where the American was crowned the first world champion in the women's high dive - an event which requires competitors to take their leaps of faith from a platform poised 20 metres up.

"Look, I know this is going to sound crazy," the 32-year-old begins, leaning forward as the confession stars to flow. "But I have a pretty good fear of heights going on when I am up there. A lot of people have been saying it's vertigo but it's not - it's a fear of heights. A pretty significant fear of heights."

You would never know it if you watched Carlton in action. It looks - from afar - as though there are nerves of steel at work when she takes her place as part of the House of Dancing Water spectacular. The Franco Dragone-conjured show requires its cast members to throw themselves around at various angles and an assortment of heights. Their bodies look coiled with confidence.

Carlton's efforts in Spain were another matter entirely. As the 15th Fina World Championships was holding high diving for the first time, no one really knew what to expect - least of all the competitors.

While the male side of the sport has a well-documented history - thanks to the breathtaking rock-diving exploits of competitors at venues such as Acapulco in Mexico - the women's side of the sport had never really been explored before.

"The high diving world for women is pretty small. There's not that many of us," says Carlton. "We only learned about the event being in the world championship early this year but, once I knew I would be accepted, there wasn't really any other decision to make. It was historical, it was something I wanted to do."

There had not previously been any opportunities for Carlton to test her mettle on the highest of high dives, so she arranged for a few practice sessions from 20 metres with her colleagues in Macau before heading to Spain.

Once there, the high dive was open for practice for three days prior to the event.

"My warm-ups went really well," says Carlton. "I would say they were actually better than my dives in the competition itself. But I went in feeling that if I dived at my best, I should do pretty well."

Things, however, didn't go quite according to plan. After the first two of three rounds in the competition, Carlton says she was hoping she could just squeeze into the top three to win a medal.

But the pressure had started mounting before her last dive, and suddenly she faced a visit from her little friend - fear.

"I just tried not to think too much. When I am up there I just try to rely on what my body knows, which is the dives," she says. "So I packed the fear away. The things that your body retains are pretty amazing - the things it remembers, like what you need to do in the air. I've done it night after night in House of Dancing Water. So I tried not to think, to tell myself: 'This is just like being part of the show' - and then tried to just get on with it."

With the final dive - a triple-half - completed, Carlton sat back to watch the show.

"I was watching the last girl go in on a TV screen and they have the competitors' placings ticking over as the scores come through. People suddenly came up congratulating me and I was like: "What? I won? Yeah!"

Carlton was raised in San Antonio in the United States one of five swimming sisters, but was looking for a new challenge by the time she had turned 10 and had collected a host of state and local titles. The first that showed up was gymnastics.

"I begged my mum - she didn't want me to do it," she says. "She was scared. I was a hard-core gymnast but I quit because I wanted more of a life. I was doing five hours a day, six days week. But then I started diving when I was around 15 - and I have never stopped."

After winning national junior college titles in the one-metre and three-metre events while representing San Antonio's Palo Alto College, Carlton focused on the sort of performing that could combine all her skills - swimming, gymnastics and diving. It was while watching the high diving at a local fair that her head was really turned - in more ways than one.

"I really started high diving because of my husband - Jason," Carlton says. "He's been high diving for around 20 years. When I first met him, I thought he was insane. I'd never even heard of high diving until I started dating him. He told me he dived off a 90-foot high [27-metre] dive. I think it was to impress me - and it worked. It really did."

The couple are part of the House of Dancing Water troupe - as was Barcelona high dive silver medalist Ginger Huber until recently - and Carlton says there is a friendly rivalry among cast members.

"We are always pushing each other," she says. "If you see someone do something new, or really difficult, you want to try it for yourself. When I first heard about auditions for the show, that it meant using the Russian swing, which is two metres up and you're spinning and flipping - plus diving - and partner work, I just thought this show was made for me. I'm still learning new tricks and this September is our third anniversary. We've done more than 1,000 shows and more than two million people have seen it."

With an extended family back home in Texas - including 11 nieces and nephews - Carlton admits to occasional homesickness. "Watching them grow from Facebook can be tough but this is the life I've chosen - and I love," she says. "I am doing what I love. It's not like a job. It's fun and I can do things I had never envisioned I'd be doing."

The prospects for women's high diving are just starting to be explored. Carlton says her own fame back home has led to a host of media coverage, tributes being paid by her former schools and the possibility of her photo gracing a local hamburger joint.

But, even factoring in the fear, Carlton is hoping Barcelona will prove to be the first step on a whole new adventure.

"I have the itch now," she says. "I feel like I have only just started and I could push the sport of women's diving to the limit. To me I always find just how amazing the human body is.

"Yeah, part of the attraction in the adrenalin. When I go up there and do something I have never done before there is a buzz. It was like making the triple-half to win. I was scared to death up there. But being able to conquer something that you're completely afraid of is mind-blowing."