Mental challenges await male and female athletes at 2017 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series season kick-off in Inis Mór, Ireland, on June 24.

Shaped by Mother Nature and not bigger than a shoebox – at least from the cliff diving platforms high above the mysterious blowhole of Serpent’s Lair on Ireland’s Inis Mór. The almost perfectly rectangular sea-pool makes for an ideal stage for the opening act of this year’s Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. Starting off at the deep end, it’s a premiere in this location for the women and remains a stiff test for body and mind for the men in their third showing on the edge of Europe. The 22 athletes are intent on starting the season strongly, as those who make it through this exposed and elemental venue, are definitely ready for the most unpredictable, six stops strong season.

The previous season saw more competition winners than ever before – six winners in nine events and a complete newcomer to become the first-ever rookie to win the overall championship, competition is guaranteed to be fiercer than ever in the World Series’ ninth edition.

In the men’s it is six-time champion Gary Hunt from England, who is the man to beat: “They are all chasing me, but I’m a good runner! I’m going to keep running!” Close on his heels is 2016 runner-up Jonathan Paredes from Mexico. The title-hopeful has stepped up his game with a new dive in order to challenge the brilliant Brit. Also, the Americans Andy Jones, third overall in 2016, and David Colturi, who’s returning from a gnarly shoulder injury, are amongst the main challengers.

The Serpent’s Lair, however, is the World Series at its wildest and it poses the world’s best cliff divers a unique challenge. “Ireland is one of the most unique and exciting but also terrifying locations,” says Colturi, “but going into my 8th year of cliff diving, I’m relying on the experience that I’ve had over the years, to bring me through and get me over those mental fears and mental challenges of feeling nervous and anxious and scared and not prepared for a tough season ahead.”

Inis Mór was for centuries a local secret, one that’s only been shared with the wider world in the last five years. Standing on the 21m (women) and 27m (men) platforms the divers will look out to a vista of jagged rock and rolling ocean. Below them, the target: a natural sea-pool formed by thousands of years of the push and pull of the sea. Thanks to a network of underwater tunnels and caverns the ocean flows in and out of the pool meaning that the water rises and falls with every crashing wave.

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The result for the cliff divers is a moving target: “Because it’s a blowhole you have water coming in and then the level is going up and down a little bit,” explains cliff diving legend Orlando Duque, “it’s really slow but you have to be aware of that, because at one point you can be diving at one metre more or less and if you miss that and you’re miscalculating, it can be pretty bad.”

While the Colombian and his co-competitors are no strangers to the bruising Atlantic coast of Ireland, the women will be tackling one of the sport’s iconic locations for the first time in June. For Anna Bader, the leading female ambassador of the sport and currently training for her first appearance after a baby-break in stop 3, it is “the ultimate challenge. I don’t think we’ve ever had anything like this in the women’s series. It might be a little bit rougher maybe than other spots but I think definitely that the girls are ready for it.”

Reigning champion Rhiannan Iffland from Australia, can look forward to fierce competition from the likes of American diver Cesilie Carlton and Adriana Jimenez from Mexico City, who’s enjoying the best form of her career at just the right time. Jimenez was victorious at April’s FINA High Diving World Cup in Abu Dhabi, edging Iffland into second place.

After months of training, preparation and exciting build-up, the 2017 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series will start in ten days’ time. The sell-out crowd at Inis Mór will witness 14 men and 8 women of 12 nationalities, including wildcard invitations, taking to the air in pursuit of victory.

The 60th event of the World Series will be the first for Greg Louganis, four-time Olympic gold medallist and the greatest diver of all time, as sports director. The US diving legend follows Niki Stajkovic in this position, after the Austrian sadly passed away in February.