Steven LoBue was a three-time state diving champion for Ewing High School, but he never could have foreseen the heights he’d reach—or dive from—nearly 15 years later.
The EHS graduate became the first U.S. male high diver to win a gold medal at 2017 FINA High Diving World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, on July 30. FINA is the international swimming federation.
“In the moment,” LoBue says, “it’s a super surreal feeling where a lifetime of training and hard work and experience came together to finally come away with a big win at World Championships.”
LoBue was the most consistent competitor to win the 27-meter diving event. He trailed Gary Hunt of Great Britain until the final dive. LoBue put pressure on with a successful inward five somersault half-twist dive that vaulted him to the gold medal when Hunt failed on his final dive.
“I’ve been on that stage and had some limited success here and there,” LoBue says. “It wasn’t really until this year that everything started to click together and I had a successful World Cup and was second there.”
LoBue says he thought the event was a good opportunity to appreciate all the time he’s put into the sport and his journey in getting to this point.
“It comes together and that’s where I got that surreal feeling,” he says. “I felt like I was watching a movie, like a flashback of all the training and then here’s this super sweet moment.”
High diving, or cliff diving as it is marketed outside of FINA circles, is held off platforms or cliffs approximately 27 meters high. The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series has its next stop Sept. 3 at Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas.
“It’s obviously terrifying every time you step on a platform, even as a professional who’s now done it for seven years,” LoBue says.
Unlike 3-meter or 10-meter diving, high diving competitors try to enter the water feet-first because of the force generated from such a high jump. And until he won the world championship, LoBue was most famous for a video that went viral of a dive in France in 2015 in which he hit his head but suffered only minor facial injuries and returned to competition.
“A lot of time my diving is not as consistent so I have the potential to be up there and win an event, and I have the ability to crash and burn,” LoBue says. “I don’t know if that plays into how I’m viewed.”
He adds that he has worked hard to establish himself as a top-tier competitor, and he believes that he has achieved that, for the most part in recent years.
LoBue was never one to back down from a challenge on the board. He began diving as a 7-year-old with the Blue Dolphin Club Diving Team at The College of New Jersey.
“His very first flip, he landed flat back on the board,” recalls Dolphins head coach Candace Gottlieb. “His parents sat in the stands and never moved. I tell younger divers about it. He got back up and said, ‘I know I can do this.’ We thought he was amazing as a young diver and he got better and better and better.”
Says LoBue: “That really translates to who the successful athletes are in the sport. It’s super overwhelmingly mental. There are so many physical things that go with it, but if you don’t have the mental capacity, it’s not even worth it.”
LoBue knew immediately that he liked diving more than baseball or soccer. He grew more serious about diving in his high school years. He still keeps in touch with Gottlieb and follows the Dolphins.
“I think about that place a lot and that club holds a special place in my heart,” LoBue says. “I think about the years since I graduated there. That’s how I’m judging my time. It’s been so long since I left that team in 2003.”
LoBue, whose parents still live in Ewing, went on to a decorated career at Purdue University before eventually finding high diving and now the top of the podium.
“I’m super proud of him,” Gottlieb says. “It was really exciting to watch him on TV. I put it right up on my website to let everyone on the team know how well he did. It’s exciting for the younger divers to see where they could go if they put in the work. Watching him at that level and the things they do, it flabbergasts me.”
LoBue won three straight New Jersey state titles from 2001-2003 before going on to Purdue, where he was a three-time All-America and named the Big 10 Diver of the Year. He teamed with another Blue Dolphins product, Kyle Mitrione, to finish eighth in synchronized diving in the 2004 Olympic Trials. After his NCAA eligibility was up at Purdue, he found high diving.
“I sort of fell into that crowd my last couple years of school where I wasn’t competing any more, but I had spent such a long time in my life dedicating to a specific skill set and I wasn’t ready to give that up,” LoBue says. “The idea of performing where the audience won’t care if you do a good dive—you perform in a competition and you have that feeling of being judged the entire time—so to get back into the entertainment aspect of it kind of reinvigorated my passion for the sport.”
LoBue found the chance to dive at a live-action stunt show in China for a year. It was the first time he experienced the 27-meter height used for high diving events. LoBue left China for a job diving off a high dive on the back of a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. A friend told him that Red Bull Cliff Diving was holding an open tryout in Australia for the 2011 season, and Mitrione convinced him to give it a try.
“I flew out and qualified and it’s been a full-time thing ever since then,” says LoBue who was the 2011 Red Bull Cliff Diving Rookie of the Year. “Your whole life you’re told there’s no avenue in this sport after college, and to have it is more or less living the dream. That’s pretty much been my mantra—living the dream and keeping it alive.”
‘Steve does the biggest dive in the world… He’s got so much guts.’
Since 2013, FINA has sponsored a world championship event every other year and there is a push to make it an Olympic sport for 2024. Thanks to the support of Red Bull and FINA, the sport has made a comeback to a time like the 1980s when it was a common feature on the weekly Wide World of Sports television show.
“It’s done a very good job of pushing it to the public eye,” LoBue says.
The sport is big in Europe. For example, in France in 2009 there were 68,000 people watching a live competition. In the U.S., the sport has had some success but hasn’t gained as much traction.
“When I first started, the same three or four guys were just trading spots on the podium,” LoBue says. “Nobody else could hang with them. Now there are people coming from diving backgrounds realizing they could give this a shot, entry level dives are things people were just inventing in 2009 and 2010. The progression of the sport has been exponential in the last 10 years. Hopefully it’ll continue to move that way and we can start a grassroots program and help kids realize there is life past competitive diving in college.”
LoBue has been successful in a sport that has challenges beyond just those of the competitions. To meet those challenges requires a special resolve.
“We don’t have a way to train from that height,” LoBue says. “When the season is over, I go six or almost seven months in the winter without doing this thing. Imagine a pro baseball pitcher never throwing for however many months and then stepping up to the World Series. That’s what it’s like. You have all this time off and have to be able to put it all together.
He says that the thing that helped him this year was thet the world championships were at the end of a one-month road trip where they had a competition every weekend. There were two Red Bull events and then an invitational and then the FINA Championship.
“A lot of the guys were feeling that, that it had been a long trip and they were sort of worn down,” LoBue says. “That’s where I start to feel more comfortable because we’ve gone a couple weekends in a row doing this difficult program and I was able to build up to it mentally in the weeks prior.”
Those that knew him as a young diver say they are thrilled to be able to follow his professional diving career. They have seen him cultivate his skills into a world championship.
“Steve does the biggest dive in the world,” Gottlieb says of the 5 somersault dive. “It amazes me. I can remember when Steve did a back 3½ on the 10-meter and crashed one time. He’s got so much guts. He spots extremely well. You have to be able to do it at that height, no matter what. Your dive is done so quick.”
Explains LoBue: “A lot of times the diver will dive to their strengths. Some people do multiple twists. That was never really my strength. I was better at spinning. When you’re up that high, you kind of do anything to create some sort of feeling of comfort, so you dive to your strength. For me, that was always the rotational type things. I always feel more comfortable doing that than a lot of twisting.”
Even though LoBue can’t practice off a 27-meter platform, he gets plenty of practice and has to keep himself fit year-round. The competition season runs June through October. He is in the gym four to six days per week, and works on diving three to five days per week.
“Most of the practice lineups I do from the 10-meter,” LoBue says. “What was once a terrifying competition height in college is a playground, which is interesting. I do a majority of the dives on the platform and working on the mechanics of the dive, the takeoffs, the entry.”
LoBue stays close to diving as an instructor for Fort Lauderdale Diving for children 5-10 years old. LoBue has lived in Florida since 2011, but he returns to Ewing as often as possible, and after his world championship gold he heard from many who knew him growing up.
“It’s just super exciting,” LoBue says. “I had a lot of older friends, people I hadn’t kept in touch with, and people from that area reaching out and offering their congratulations. It really is amazing to see that so many people still follow what you’re doing even if you’re not aware of it. It’s a nice feeling.”
Hearing from the Ewing community reminds him of where his diving career began with the Blue Dolphins before he began to make waves on the state level, then national and finally now international level. It’s been a long journey with his love for diving steadily increasing from that innocent start.
“For a while, it was just pure passion for diving and the love of jumping off the board and making your body do new things, or the feeling of joy when you take however long to learn a new skill and overcoming that fear,” LoBue says. “Those are the sorts of things that keep you going.”