A few years ago, Fairway native Ellie Smart thought she was done with diving for good.
Since falling in love with the sport at age 5 at Carriage Club, Smart had been working toward bigger and bigger goals for herself in the diving world. She started working with coaches at the University of Kansas before moving to Texas at age 15 to train with platform diving experts. She chose the University of California — Berkeley for college in part because of the excellence of its diving program. The ultimate dream was to compete in the 2016 Olympic games.
But when she failed to qualify, she decided it was time to focus her energies elsewhere. She quit the college team at Berkeley, and focused on finishing her degree. After graduating in 2016, she decided to enroll in a master’s degree program in sports psychology.
“I kind of thought that would be my new role,” she said. “I’d gotten to the point where I thought, ‘Okay, there’s nothing left for me in the sport, and I’ve accepted that. Maybe I can help other people in the same situation.’”
But when I friend alerted her that a new cliff diving circuit sponsored by Red Bull was opening up to women, she decided to give it a go. Almost on a whim, she booked a ticket to England last year for a Red Bull cliff diving training camp.
The dives were a little different than what she had done in college, with divers adding an extra half a flip or twist so that they land feet first instead of head first.
“Your lower body is so much stronger than your upper body that it can absorb the impact from that height much better,” she said.
She found the new dives came easily to her. She qualified to join the Red Bull circuit, and began traveling all over to compete in meets.
But she and her fellow divers on the circuit quickly noticed a trend.
“There was plastic everywhere we would dive,” she said. “You’d land in the water, and when you came up you’d have a plastic bag around your ankle.”
In response, Smart founded an initiative called the Clean Cliffs Project. After the Red Bull season had concluded, a group of divers organized trips to cliff diving locations like Crotia, Bali and Costa Rica. They put on diving performances, but also execute site clean ups, removing bag after bag of plastic from the site.
Now, she’s gearing up for her second season on the Red Bull circuit, with planned stops in Austria, Greece, Portugal and the Czech Republic. And she’s relishing the chance to get to travel the world to share her passion for diving — and the environment.
“There aren’t a lot of places where you can do what we do, so it’s an exciting thing just to go to a new cliff or waterfall to jump,” she said. “But we thought, why not incorporate something else behind it and see if we can help find solutions to pollution problems?”
Smart said she thinks she’ll continue diving as a professional for at least a couple more years. After that, it’s anybody’s guess — though she’s reopened herself to the idea of pursuing her Olympic dreams. The International Olympic Committee is considering adding a cliff-diving style event to the 2024 games.
“That would be super cool,” she said. “I’m not 100 percent sure about what’s next, though. I’m just kind of enjoying it.”
Here’s a video Smart put together of her in cliff diving training last year: