Molly Carlson dreamed of being an Olympic diver, but the process of trying to make the Canadian team led her to a dark place of anxiety and insecurity and caused an eating disorder.
She got through her mental health struggles with counselling and found her way in diving by going up — way up.
Carlson now dives off cliffs, bridges and platforms at least 20 metres high — twice the height of an Olympic platform — and is one of the best in the world at an extreme version of the sport that combines precision with the variables of wind and waves.
The 24-year-old from Thunder Bay, Ont., is in second place heading into the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series final on Friday and Saturday in Sydney, Australia, and she hopes to perfect the world’s hardest dive for women: a front quad half pike.
As always, she will bring more than 3.5 million social media followers with her to the top of the platform. Her TikTok stream is a mix of behind-the-scenes videos from locations around the world, fun ones (with a side of scary) of diving from dizzying heights, and a heavy dose of positivity, urging everyone to be brave in their own way.
“I don’t want anyone to go through what I did … comparing yourself to other athletes and not feeling good enough,” she says.
Carlson started diving when she was 10 and, after competing for Canada on the junior stage, had the 2016 Rio Olympics in her sights. She moved from Thunder Bay to Toronto for the final year of high school to ramp up her training and her odds of making the Olympic team. It didn’t happen; she finished fifth.
“You work your whole life to make that team, and when you don’t make it you feel like a failure even though you’re fifth in the country — which is impressive, right?” Carlson says. “But you don’t see it like that. I’m doing these dives and they’re not as good as everyone else, so I just felt lesser than them and I really took that pressure badly.
“It’s such a mental game, and in sports that are judged you just think that, oh, losing a couple pounds will help me go to the Olympics, or being this type of person will help me go. At the end of the day, confidence is what helps you go, and I want everyone to learn that.”
Carlson got help for the eating disorder at Florida State University, where she pursued a degree in psychology and was a star diver. Two years ago, a switch to high diving, which is still developing as a global sport, rekindled her passion.
“Just because you’re a good diver doesn’t mean you’ll be a good high diver,” Canadian national team coach Stéphane Lapointe says. “It’s not for everybody.”
Even for athletes accustomed to the 10-metre platform, going higher — it’s generally 20 metres for women, 27 for men — can be scary. They need to train differently (bodies can’t handle repeated impact from such a height), adapt to changing outdoor conditions and hit the water feet first, the opposite of regular diving.
A vertical, flat-footed entry, with the low splash judges look for, punches a hole in the water to make room for the rest of the body. Off the 20-metre platform, divers hit the surface at about 70 km/h; from 27 metres, it’s around 85 km/h. (From a 10-metre platform, it’s 50 km/h and divers enter hands first.)
Ask Carlson what it feels like to hit the water at such high speed and she wants to be specific about what kind of landing we’re talking about.
“Let’s use a perfect entry, because if you land flat in any direction you’re going straight to the hospital,” she says, adding that three divers did just that among a field of 24 in Switzerland a month ago.
A perfect landing still feels “like hitting cement. It definitely rocks your brain a little bit.”
Says Lapointe: “It is a risky sport, but we can do it in a safe way.”
Diving Canada is leading the way in that regard, he says, with its high diving program in Montreal. It’s the only federation that regularly sends a coach on the circuit, and has the only training facility in the world with an indoor 20-metre platform.
Lapointe coaches three women ranked among the top 12 in the Red Bull series: Carlson, Jessica Macaulay (third) and Aimee Harrison (12th), who can also do the hardest dive but won’t be at the final.
There is no indoor 27-metre training facility, making safe development on the men’s side more difficult. But increasingly, male and female high divers are going to Montreal to train, the coach says.
Because high diving isn’t part of the Olympics or any other major games, it doesn’t receive Sport Canada funding. Diving Canada pays for the small program on its own.
“It’s an investment in the future,” Lapointe says. “We want to push the sport.”
High diving is part of the FINA world aquatics championships, and backers hope to see it included in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.
“L.A. 2028. Which is, you know, ideally how long I want to dive for, if my body is nice to me,” Carlson says, laughing.
If it does make the Olympic menu — something that Carlson is actively encouraging by promoting the sport to millions of followers — she’ll once again face the pressure of trying to make Canada’s team.
“There’s going to be strong Canadian girls coming up with the facilities that we have,” she says. “Am I going to beat them? Who knows when the time comes? But I definitely know that I have the confidence in myself to challenge that dark side again and face it.”
Kerry Gillespie is a Toronto-based sports reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org