Pedro Adrega, Head of FINA Communications Department

She comes gently and smiling. As she always does. It’s a sunny and hot day, with a blessing breeze. From the 27m platform, the first round of dives has started. The third edition of the FINA High Diving World Cup is on in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. She approaches and says: “These guys are crazy. Just imagine, to dive from 27m!” I look at her, and cannot avoid a smile. “Are you serious?” I ask. “Of course, I could never do this!”

She is Natalya Pankina, one of the great names in the history of open water swimming. Retired in 2009, the Russian star is working since then in the UAE, helping to develop Aquatics in this region of the world. I stare again at her, but she quickly understands my logics and promptly says: “No, it’s not the same thing. They are diving from very high, it can be very dangerous…”

Natalya Pankina - Photo by Giorgio Scala/Deepbluemedia

Pankina used to swim long distances in the water. Her pet event was the 25km (average: five hours in the water), where she got three medals at FINA World Championships; she also excelled in the Open Water Grand Prix competitions, where events can be as long as 88km (around 10 hours swimming); and she was the first Russian woman to successfully cross the English Channel, swimming the 33km between France and England in eight hours and 11 minutes. In comparison, a high diver is three seconds in the air and hits the water (ideally, as vertical as possible) at 90km/h. Any missed entry can mean a serious injury...

“It’s not the same thing”, she repeats. “When we swim, even those huge distances, we have boats with us, we are followed during our way. It’s just a question of endurance”, she explains, looking almost scared to the divers that continue to perform their complicated combinations. “OK, I must admit: I have done once the 88km race in Argentina and when I arrived I said I wouldn’t make it again… And I never swam that distance again”, she concedes. So, 27m or 88km? You decide.

Natalya started her swimming career in the pool, swimming 400m and 800m free, but also 400m IM. “But one day, I changed coach, we started to race in open water and I was winning everything in Russia… It started then, in 1997”, she recalls. But as the majority of high divers train in a 10m platform in the pool (repeating endlessly the same somersaults and twists), the Russian great also spent many hours and kilometres between two lane ropes. “We had a training set consisting of 3x10km in a 25m-pool in the morning, plus 5km in the afternoon”. 35km, a distance that most of us is not doing in a week… walking! In a short course pool, it means 1200 laps in the morning, and another 200 in the afternoon. So, what’s crazier: 27m or 88km? Choose, if you can.

“At least, I see one important common thing between High Diving and Open Water. As we were few swimming very long distances, we were necessarily a small group, very united. We were a good band of friends. Like they are in High Diving!” she admits.

I tell her that two of the athletes present in Abu Dhabi – US Ginger Huber and Colombia’s Orlando Duque – are now 41 years old. “You see, these two are still crazier than the others…” But she stops immediately. She smiles: “OK, Angela Maurer [from Germany, one of the participants at the FINA/HOSA 10km Marathon Swimming World Cup the day before] is also 41 and swimming well”.

After this last bit of conversation, we observe, in silence, the effort of the high divers. We both understood that this had been the best possible way to make the “bridge” between these four days of competition in Abu Dhabi, mixing marathon swimming and high diving. 27m or 88km? Who cares anymore?