To make the 2024 Olympic team, he is competing solo on 10m (not in synchro like Gary Hunt) and must place in the top 12 to guarantee Romania a berth in Paris. (Hunt now competes for France and the host nation automatically gets a spot.) Popovici’s been winning on 27m, but his path defies belief.

Romanian diver Constantin Popovici is in for a hectic week at the World Aquatics Championships – Fukuoka 2023. If all goes well, he will make 22 competitive dives over six days. The first 18 will be pressure-filled (and head-first) as he tries to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics in the men’s 10m platform event. (If he earns a top-12 finish, he would make his first Olympic team in 16 years.) 

Image Source: David Balogh/World Aquatics

A few days later, he will land four more dives (feet-first) from 27 meters in pursuit of his first world championship title at age 34.

He’s favoured to win the gold in high diving, but he only started competing on cliffs and eight-story towers at age 29.

Constantin grew up doing callisthenics and running four to six kilometres every weekend at age 5, prompted by his father, Remus. Through his father’s athletic enthusiasm, he and his two older sisters became “sports people in the house,” he said.

The eldest, Simona, eventually pursued running and the two younger ones, Corina and “Costa,” became divers, partly because their father had one athletic weakness: He wasn’t very successful at teaching his kids to swim. So he enrolled them in lessons and Constantin was quickly recruited to swim at a first-grade sports school. While there, a different coach pursued him for diving.

Apparently, the 6½-year-old had the perfect body for diving.

“I was short and very fit,” recalled Popovici, who now stands 172 cm (5-foot-7).

“My dad said, ‘Okay, you can do both, but I don’t want you to quit swimming.”

Just one problem: the diving coach wanted him to specialize.

“He promised my dad that within a year, I’d win a medal in the diving nationals,” Popovici said. And so he did, on age-appropriate 5- and 7-meter platforms.

Image Source: Popovici diving at the Beijing 2008 Games (Phil Walter/Getty Images)

At 19, Popovici made his Olympic debut in 10-meter diving at Beijing 2008, and one year later, scored a career-best eighth place at the World Championships in Rome, seven spots behind Tom Daley of Great Britain on 10m.

But it soon came to a halt. In 2011, Popovici unexpectedly quit competitive diving.

On Facebook, he got a random message from someone seeking talent for diving shows on a cruise ship. Popovici didn’t even know such a thing existed so, naturally, he wasn’t interested – until he learned it paid about $3,000 to $4,000 US dollars per month, “way-way-way more than I was making at home.”

When Popovici told the Romanian federation about his enticing job offer, he didn’t expect a salary match, but he asked if they could do something to make him stay.

Nope. So Popovici became a show diver on the Royal Caribbean Cruise line where he met American high diver Steven LoBue.

“Constantin was, by far, clearly one of the most talented athletes there,” LoBue said of his co-worker. “Everybody knew it. But one of the beautiful things about transitioning to the entertainment side is that you're no longer judged. It's okay to do things that are a little bit easier; maybe the audience won’t be able to tell. But here's Costa [on 10m], still doing – not just hard dives – but some of the hardest dives in the world in less-than-favourable conditions: on the back of a cruise ship, with people yelling, or maybe the lighting is funny.”

One day, Popovici asked LoBue about the Barani: ‘What is this half-twist you do? Why do you do it? To land feet first? I want to try.”

“I have to tell you,” LoBue said, “it was a painful start. Trying to get him to Barani was really ugly – in the nicest way possible. He had such a strong foundation of technical diving, this idea of a Barani was just so foreign to him. He really-really struggled with it but Costa's a tremendous athlete. We knew he would continue to have a great career, whatever he did. So we kind of wrote it off like, ‘Oh, Costa probably won't be doing any high diving.’”

But he was determined – and completely undeterred.

In 2017, Popovici dove from 20 meters at a show in France, hit the bottom of the pool, and broke the two major bones in his right leg (tibia and femur). Despite surgery to insert plates and months of recovery, he drove 10 hours from Bucharest to Budapest to check out high diving at the  World Championships in Hungary. On crutches, he watched LoBue win the 27m title for the US. 

Now thoroughly inspired, Popovici – in less than a year – not only qualified for his first high diving competition in 2018, he also took silver at the 2018 FINA World Cup (6.9 points behind the 2015 high diving world champ Gary Hunt), and made his Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series debut.

Image Source: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

He began the 2019 tour with a win and a second place, then broke four metatarsal bones in his feet.  “Everyone thought I was done for the year,” he said.

Yet he competed in 10m at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, (in pain) and pulled out of the 27m three days later.

Image Source: A peak of a Popovici dive in Mostar. (Romina Amato/Getty Images)

But in true Popovici style, just three months after shattering his foot, he showed up for another Red Bull event, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and not only won but he became the second athlete in series history to score a perfect dive – on a combination he invented, a handstand back 3½ somersaults with two twists in pike position (for a 5.2 degree of difficulty). 

Image Source: Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images

“When I did it, they were like, ‘That’s not possible,” he said.

In 2021, he scored another perfect 10 on the same dive, at a Red Bull event in Polignano a Mare, Italy.

The 6274B is not on his dive list anymore, however. He’s doing a more difficult maneuver instead that includes one more twist, for a 6.0 degree of difficulty.

“Again, they thought it was impossible,” Popovici said of his 6276B, “but now I’m on my way to master this dive as well. It’s my favourite dive. I score a ridiculous number of points.” Indeed, it helped him win the 2023 World Cup in May and the first two stops of this year’s Red Bull tour.

Image Source: Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images

The fact that Popovici is even competing this year defies logic (again) because just last year, he punctured a lung while landing a back four somersaults with three twists during Red Bull training in Switzerland. In the hospital, they diagnosed it as a pneumothorax; Every time he breathed, air in his lung would exit through the hole and get trapped in the lining of his chest. More air meant more pressure on the outside of his lung and there was a high risk that his lung could collapse.

Was it his worst injury?  “One of them,” he said, but “I didn’t stop.” He was diving again two or three weeks later despite the severe pain.

Image Source: Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

He also resumed training on 10 meters and added a second discipline to his workload for Fukuoka, where he hopes to qualify for his second Olympic team in 10m in addition to vying for gold on the 27m tower.

His steely resolve, he said, “is what makes me special maybe? There’s really no secret. I just focus more. I push more. I dedicate my time more. And it pays off.”

Image Source: Popovici in Paris (Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

Popovici’s fellow high divers are fully aware of his M.O.

For example, two-time world champion Gary Hunt (who’s also competing in 10m and 27m at worlds) said Popovici will often go to Area 47 in Austria (a Mecca for high divers between competitions) even when there’s no upcoming competition.

“He’s there, putting in the numbers. It’s really the only way. Even when you’re super-talented,  if you’re not taking every opportunity to practice, to train, you’re not going to improve and you’re not going to get consistent. That’s what he’s been doing over the last few years.”

Another detail: Area 47 is most weather-friendly in May or June but, Hunt said, “I think Constantin’s been there even before that and done dives in a wetsuit.”  There’s another notorious high-diving spot in England, and Hunt said Popovici’s been there as well “to do dives in real tough weather conditions, just to push himself.”

LoBue, too, says Popovici’s work ethic is “one of his standout features. A lot of people that approach high diving are very passionate about it. For him, it is very much a full-time job. Because he's training diving and high diving, he really is training ALL the time. He really lives it day in and day out. And it shows – in his physique, in the dives he's doing, and the consistency in which he's doing these hard dives. It's been incredible to watch, honestly.”

Image Source: Romina Amato/Getty Images
"His work ethic one of his standout features. A lot of people that approach high diving are very passionate about it. For him, it is very much a full-time job. Because he's training diving and high diving, he really is training ALL the time. He really lives it day in and day out."
By Steven LoBue on Constantin Popovici

The Popovici show isn’t over. On Friday, July 21, Japan he will compete in the men’s 10m prelims and semifinals in Fukuoka. If he makes the 10m final, he will compete Saturday, July 22. Three days later, he’ll contest the first two rounds outdoors on 27m, followed by the men’s 27m final on Thursday, July 27.

After that, he will contest the last three stops of the Red Bull tour, where Popovici is leading the standings on his quest to win his first overall title in his five-year high diving career.  

Although the 34-year-old has been diving nearly all his life, if he can finally stay healthy, he may just be getting started.