Matt Cooper has no illusions about the dangers of jumping from a 27-meter platform — about 90 feet, or the height of a nine-story building — into the ocean, lake, or plunge pool.
“Even if it’s a good dive, the impact from 27 meters is like a car crash at 85 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour),” said Cooper, who is preparing for the high diving competition at the World Aquatics Championships in southwest Japan this week.
Cooper is dented.
When he jumped into a pool that was too shallow in Australia, he injured his left heel. The heel is now attached to each other with metal plates, screws and rods.
In Switzerland, he was rescued by divers who pulled him unconscious from a lake after a belly flop.
“I practically landed on my chest and chin and got an uppercut punch,” the American said. “I didn’t pass out right away. But I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that didn’t feel good.'”
His Dutch wife Ginni van Katwijk – yes, she’s also a high diver competing in Japan this week – has her own injury record.
She tore ligaments in her left elbow on a warm-up dive and had to undergo Tommy John surgery, a procedure normally reserved for baseball players. Or the day she practiced a new dive, but didn’t land correctly when entering. Her face paid.
“I had two black eyes and a bruise under my chin and a bruise on my arm,” she said. “But I had to get back up because I didn’t want to be traumatized by that dive.”
So why do they tease danger, test mortality and threaten incompetence? Men compete from 27 meters and women from 20 (66 feet). You land feet first. If they were to dive headfirst, the shoulders, head, and neck could collapse from the impact.
“There’s something about high diving that you can’t get anywhere else in the world and that’s the adrenaline,” Matt said. “It’s something that no other drug in the world can give you.”
Matt admitted his parents had sleepless nights while their son and daughter-in-law tempted fate.
“They support us, but they really don’t like what we’re doing,” Matt said of his parents, Bill and Nancy Cooper.
Ginni agreed, laughing. “I’m sure they blame me.”
Matt said his father watched on TV as he was pulled limp out of the water in Switzerland.
“He probably took a five-hour walk because he was so stressed,” Matt said. “So my parents are counting down the days we’ll be done.”
Of course it looks dangerous. But the sound is also frightening when divers hit the water from a great height. The loud bang on impact is reminiscent of a shot from a large caliber weapon.
“I hope they have good insurance,” said Yuko Matsuda, who helps manage the dive site.
Matt had the same reaction as most people when he first looked up at the platform or, even worse, when he stood there looking down.
“I went up first and said it couldn’t be done. I’m just going to stick with the standard 10 meter platform which most people think is high enough.”
Danger has another appeal. Diving pays the bills – and then some.
For several years, the two have worked for Royal Caribbean Cruises as the main performers on the ship’s water shows. They met as college divers – Ginni at the University of Houston and Matt at the University of Texas at Austin – and took part in the show at the suggestion of a friend.
“After only eight months of dating, we got a couple’s cabin on the ship and we didn’t kill each other,” Ginni said. “If you can live in a crew cabin for 11 months, you can take on the world.”
After paying for the ship, Ginni said they could save their salaries to buy a house at the end of their careers. A big house.
“Besides, we weren’t ready for real jobs yet,” Ginni added.
The diving platform on the ship is only 17 meters (55 feet) long, but poses major problems when the sea is rough and the water in the pool begins to slosh.
“It gets very windy, but in the winter it can get very rocky at times,” said Ginni. “The water can literally flow out of the basin. Sometimes we have to change or move the show because it’s just too rough.”
Shortly after breaking his heel, Matt proposed in 2016 and they married two years later. Ginni joked that he got her vote of sympathy.
“I was practically on one leg, so I had to propose on crutches,” Matt said.
Matt had not yet made the jump from the 27m platform and was still working at lower altitudes when he crushed his heel.
The injury, of course, pushed him further up the ranks.
“They told me I wouldn’t walk normally anymore,” Matt said. “I had to work my butt off in physical therapy and prove I could walk and dive again.”
“That’s what prompted me to do my first 27-meter dive to show the orthopedic community that there are success stories,” he added. “Then when you make one, you’re excited.”
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