Diving into Asia

Kiwi Simon Latimer has spent most of his life in the world of diving - at 13 he was representing New Zealand on a global stage and now he's spending his time travelling the world judging in the extreme sport of cliff diving, with the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. Kirsty Sharp sat down with him to learn more.

‘Oh, the places you’ll go‘ could have been said to thirteen-year-old Simon Latimer as he packed his bags for his first World Junior Diving Championships in 1995. 

Competing in the platform and springboard format, he went on to win many New Zealand titles. He represented New Zealand internationally for eight years, before retiring due to a back injury in 2002. But there was more to come. 

“I always wanted to have a life outside of diving,” Latimer says, “And officiating did not have the time commitments of a coach and I could contribute around my main job.” 

A man stands smiling with his arm around a person dressed in traditional Japanese garb, including a mask.

Simon Latimer (right) at the traditional welcome dinner to Takachiho, prior to the event kicking off. Image: Supplied

So, in 2004 Latimer returned to the sport as a qualified judge, officiating both platform and springboard diving. This included being the only Kiwi diving judge at the Olympic Games in London 2012 and Rio 2016, as well as being a judge at the Tokyo 2020 Games. 

Then, in 2022, Latimer joined the Red Bull Cliff Diving judging team and has worked with them since. 

And so, it was on my daily commute along the Wynyard Quarter wharf when diving, particularly the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, caught my attention. Over a week, an extremely high diving platform was erected: the Red Bull Cliff Diving Series had arrived in New Zealand for the first time. The series takes place at cliff diving events held around the world, with a winner crowned at the final event of the season.

A man leaps from the side of a gorge and into the water.

Aidan Heslop of the UK dives from the 16.5 metre waterfall during the first competition day of the fourth stop of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in Takachiho, Japan. Image: Ricardo Nascimento / Red Bull Content Pool

Keen to find out more, I soon discovered Latimer was one of five international judges in the series. 

I caught up with him to hear about the series, his latest trip to Japan and the sport of diving in Asia. Firstly, we spoke about the difference between cliff (or high) diving and traditional diving. 

Traditional diving is performed off springboards (3 metres) or platforms (10 metres). Divers enter the water headfirst. 

In contrast, cliff diving is held outdoors, with divers entering the water feet first. Women dive from heights of 20-21 metres, and men 27 metres. 

Framed between two sides of a gorge, a diver jumps from a platform spanning the gorge top.

Diver Aidan Heslop of the UK dives from the 27 metre platform in Takachiho Gorge, Japan. Image: Ricardo Nascimento / Red Bull Content Pool

“High and cliff diving is evolving because it is so spectacular and so exciting. So many opportunities in really remote and cool locations, and that includes places in Asia,” Latimer says. 

When we talked, he had just returned from Japan, where he had spent several weeks judging, first at the 2023 World Diving Championships in Fukuoka and then at the penultimate event for the 2023 Red Bull Cliff Diving World season in Takachiho. 

‘I spent three days in the big Japanese urban environment, with all the nice food, shopping, crowds and heat. It was my first time to Fukuoka and I really enjoyed it.’ 

Then he took a four-hour bus ride to the Takachiho Gorge, one of the most spiritual locations in Japan. 

Takachiho Gorge, in Japan. Image: Photo by Ken Li on Unsplash

Takachiho in southern Kyushu is steeped in Japanese mythology, as the spot where the gods descended from heaven and created the Japanese archipelago. Nestled in the heart of its deep forests is Takachiho Gorge, an awe-inspiring ravine encompassing the cobalt-blue Gokase River, born of a massive lava flow from Mount Aso about 90 to 120 millennia ago. 

“It became obvious that this area was of profound religious and spiritual importance,” Latimer says. 

Usually tourists are not permitted to enter the waters. But the divers in the Red Bull series were gifted the honour. 

As part of the local tradition, the divers were invited to a welcome ceremony at the Takachiho temple before the competition. The ceremony, led by a Shinshoku (shinto priest) shared the area's myths, as well as a blessing and purification ceremony for each of the 24 divers, in preparation for them entering the sacred waters. 

One of the Red Bull divers, Rhiannan Iffland from Australia, dives from a 16.5 metre waterfall in Takachiho Gorge, Japan. Image: Dean Treml / Red Bull Content Pool

The two-day Red Bull competitions are usually run from the same diving platform, where each diver performs two dives a day. Given the gorge’s unique setting, two diving spots were selected instead: Manai Falls and one of the three bridges spanning the gorge. 

For the judges, it was a challenging location. The gorge had steep sides, meaning there was no natural judging platform and so the five judges had to abseil down the sides, holding a rope to stay in position. 

‘It was wet and slippery, and we had old school flashcards 1-10, no electronic equipment. It was quite challenging.’ 

From the tranquil gorge, Latimer and the Red Bull team moved to the hustle and bustle of Auckland’s waterfront for the season’s last event, where Rhiannan Iffland (Australia) clinched the women’s championship and Constantin Popovici (Romania) the men’s.    

Latimer was unsure where the Red Bull series would take him next, although he’s excited about the possibilities in Asia.  

Latimer and the other judges in the Red Bull series cling to the side of the cliffs of Takachiho Gorge to judge. Image: Dean Treml / Red Bull Content Pool

Diving across Asia has traditionally been strong. China leads in many of the disciplines, while more recently Japan and South Korea have been performing well internationally. Latimer says it won’t be long before more divers from Asia join the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.  

‘There is a very good high diving facility that has been built in the south of China, and they have held international competitions there and I have seen young Chinese divers preparing and training in high diving.’ 

And the likelihood of more Red Bull events in Asia? 

‘There are some many possibilities: Philippines, Thailand, Bali and a return to Japan, there are certainly plenty of beautiful island locations across Asia.’ 

Kiwi diving judge Simon Latimer at the Auckland event for the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. Image: Dean Treml / Red Bull

It is the same curiosity Latimer had as a young diver that excites him about his role with the Red Bull team, and he feels sure there will be more adventures in Asia. 

‘I continue to appreciate the connection that sport gives to people from different countries and the opportunity to explore cultures.’ 

The 2024 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series schedule 

The Foundation has also provided funding through the Sports Knowledge Exchange Fund to investigate new pathways for junior divers in South East Asia. 

Banner image by Romina Amato / Red Bull Content Pool

- Asia Media Centre