Can you overcome a lifelong fear of jumping into water from a height? Anne-Celine Jaeger puts it to the test with the help of Bavarian diving coach Michael Kemenater at the Olympic Diving Tower in Munich.
“How big is your fear exactly?” Michael Kemenater, the coach of the Bavarian youth diving team asks me in an email before we agree to meet. “Because jumping from 10 metres can end in two ways.” He kindly attaches two video clips. In the first, a novice jumps from the 10-metre board, lands beautifully, is elated. In the second, another candidate overthinks it, gets it royally wrong and ends up with an impact injury that turns his leg black.
How do you quantify fear? I’m not sure how to answer his question. But I try. “My fear is such,” I say, “that for the last five summers, my own children now aged 9, 13 and 15, have tried to coax me to give it a go. They lovingly look up at me from the water as I stand on the lowest of the options – the 3-metre board – and say: “It’s ok mummy, you can do it. We believe in you.” But despite their gentle encouragement, I walk back down the ladder head lowered in shame, crippled by my own fear every time.
A fear that only seems to latch itself onto my otherwise intrepid being like some terror barnacle when I stand on the edge of a diving board. I have spent nights fantasizing about a triumph. What’s there to be afraid of? Next summer will be different, I say to myself. And yet it never is.
A fear that only seems to latch itself onto my otherwise intrepid being like some terror barnacle when I stand on the edge of a diving board. I have spent nights fantasizing about a triumph.
“Jumping from great heights is not really something you pick up from one day to the next,” Kemenater adds kindly, “particularly when there is fear involved.” We agree to meet at the Olympic Swimming pool in Munich’s Olympiapark (Olympic Park) one afternoon in early summer to see if there’s any hope.
Built 50 years ago for the Olympic Summer Games in 1972, with its iconic Alps-inspired Plexiglass roof designed by Günter Behnisch and a giant wall of glass that looks onto the Olympia Lake allowing the feeling of nature to ooze right in, the pool is not your average community swimming pool. Aside from numerous 50-metre lane pools and teaching pools, there are multiple diving platforms (3, 5, 7 and 10 metres) and 7 diving boards. Steeped in Olympic history and glory, it’s the perfect place for me to attempt the impossible. It is in this very pool that Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in 1972, a record that remained unsurpassed until Michael Phelps in 2008. What’s more, the pool is familiar to me, as I’ve been coming here since I was a kid in the 80s to swim, hang out on the big outdoor lawn with friends or play kiss-chase underwater with teen crushes.
Kemenater, ready in his swim-shorts, greets me at the side of the pool. He takes his time to explain the physics of bad landings and why landing incorrectly when hurtling down a 10-metre board is not a good idea. He lists all the things that could go wrong, when you as you hit the water at 60 km per hour: torn ligaments, hematomas, punching yourself in the face, broken coccyx ... Nothing like a bit of positive reinforcement.
To start – and I have to say I am relieved by this – my coach has me jumping off the side of the pool into the water. Yay. I can do this. This I can do. No problem. Turns out I do even this incorrectly.
To start – and I have to say I am relieved by this – my coach has me jumping off the side of the pool into the water. Yay. I can do this. This I can do. No problem. Turns out I do even this incorrectly. My feet are in the wrong position making water come up my nose, I have no body tension and just generally, he looks puzzled when I emerge from the water spluttering. Either that or he’s thinking, we have a long way to go. He takes me onto dry land and shows me how to jump correctly on a mat on the floor. Wow, we really are going back to basics here. But I want to get it right. So I do as I’m told.
After the humbling mat experience, we spend a good 30-minutes practising from the 1-metre. This height is agreeable to me, but I’m still not doing it right. Kemenater advises I use my feet as a blocker when landing to create a natural bubble. This, he says, will prevent all the water entering my nose. “Can I just hold my nose instead?” I say. “It’s fine from the 1-metre, but the higher you get, the higher the velocity and the more chances of not getting your balance right and your hand hitting your face on impact.” Mmm. OK. Once we feel confident with my entry technique, he suggests we head up to the 3-metre. I look up to it. It’s not that high at all. Yeah sure. I can do that.
Despite being “only” 3 metres high, it feels like I’m 8 metres up, as the water is so still, my only reference point is the bottom of the pool which is 5 metres deep.
Turns out, everything looks different up here. Immediately, my fear response kicks in. Adrenaline surges through my body, my heartbeat increases, my legs are shaking enough to make the diving board wobble under my feet. Ah shit. Here we go. “I choose love. I choose love,” I say to myself. The aptly titled “letting go of fear” meditation I had done that morning as a boost clearly isn’t working. “You can choose your own reality. You can choose fear. Or you can choose love,” the voice in the app had said helpfully. All I can hear now though is a rushing in my ears and a loud voice that says: Nope, forget it, it’s not happening.
Despite being “only” 3 metres high, it feels like I’m 8 metres up, as the water is so still, my only reference point is the bottom of the pool which is 5 metres deep. Kemenater reads my mind and creates splashes on the water so I can see where the water begins. Even with the splashes, it feels like an impossibility.
My hands are clutching the railing. My knuckles are white. I can’t let go of the sodding banister. Why the hell am I so scared of this? What’s the worst that can happen? Nothing? So, jump woman! Jump! But my subconscious, automatic body is overruling any rational thought. Ask me to swim 10 km in a river, ask me to hike across three countries carrying my own supplies. No fear. No problem. I’ll do it all. Oh wait, I have done it. So, what is it about stepping off a ledge to jump into water that has me in a state of paralytic fear?
My hands are clutching the railing. My knuckles are white. I can’t let go of the sodding banister. Why the hell am I so scared of this? What’s the worst that can happen?
Kemenater suggests we go up to the 10-metre. It’s a technique he uses with his own protegees, when they are afraid, so that the lower boards suddenly don’t look so high. We give it a go. Up on the 10-metre, I can’t even look over the edge. You’ve got to be a lunatic.
How the hell did my nine-year-old do this last summer? She stepped into nothingness, her body wafting down like a feather, barely making a splash. Then we head down to seven, where I plead Kemenater to step away from the ledge so worried am I he might accidentally fall in and tear his ligaments. Next is the 5-metre. By the time we get to the 3-metre, it does indeed feel less high, but my body doesn’t seem to agree with my head.
At the edge of the pool, Frank, the photographer, waits patiently for me to jump. He was hoping to catch me jumping off the 10-metre. I laugh at the thought of it. What was I thinking? A young mother looks onto me with kind eyes as if I was her own child. I don’t want to disappoint her. Next to me, a child is crying on the 3-metre board parallel to mine, saying “I don’t want to,” over and over, his snot and tears slowly forming a puddle under his feet. I shout over at Frank, “See that kid. That’s me. On the inside.” The child is four at best. I’m still clutching the railing. Then he jumps. He emerges: “Ouuuuch!” he says. Excellent publicity.
But I know, that coming down those steps one more time is no longer an option. Shit. I feel like that 10-year-old at the pool again.
Behind me Kemenater says something, I’m not even sure what, but I know, that coming down those steps one more time is no longer an option. Shit. I feel like that 10-year-old at the pool again, kids behind me egging me on. Then it was about honour. About not losing face. Now it’s about jumping over my own shadow. About facing that fear.
I turn to Kemenater. “If I jump, I can’t promise I won’t make a sound.” He gestures that it’s ok. Do what you got to do. Before I can change my mind, I let go of the railing and step into the void.
„Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh …“ I scream. All the way down. It is the physical manifestation of all the amassed fear being expelled from my body. It’s so loud, that the entire pool area begins to clap when I emerge. I come up from the water and punch the air as if I’d conquered Everest. I am the Edmund Hillary of the diving world.
It’s so loud, that the entire pool area begins to clap when I emerge. I come up from the water and punch the air as if I’d conquered Everest.
“Best thing is to do it again right away,” says Kemenater. I jump again. Again it is not silent or indeed very elegant, but that’s fine, I have no more dignity to lose at this point. Instinctively I hold my nose. The second time round actually does feel a little less scary. I think they call this exposure therapy. “Do you want to try the 5-metre?” In my head I hear the voice of Glennon Doyle, the presenter of the We Can Do Hard Things podcast: “Brave does not mean being afraid and doing it anyway. Brave means living from the inside out. Brave means, in every uncertain moment, turning inward, feeling for the Knowing and speaking it out loud.”
“I’m good.” I say, “Today was a triumph. Next summer.” On the way home I text my teenage son. “I did it, Bobby, I jumped from the 3m!!” His reply is immediate: “I’m so proud of you mama.” So am I, son, so am I.