The “real feel” temperature in Fukuoka was 41 degrees on Thursday as 23 men dove from a 27m tower and hit a saltwater pool at 85 kph. It was midday at Momochi Beach and a men’s world high diving title was on the line – the first one in four years.

Here’s what led to the climactic finish.

Image Source: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The first two dives were completed on Tuesday, so when the day began, Romania’s Constantin Popovici and Catalin-Petru Preda stood 1-2, followed by Oleksiy Prygorov of Ukraine. Two-time world champ and sentimental favourite Gary Hunt was fifth, and the 21-year-old with the hardest dive in the world, Aidan Heslop, was 13th.

Popovici saw his 24.6-point lead from Day 1 shrink to 8.4 points after he quasi-botched his third dive, an inward triple with half-twist pike that, uncharacteristically, scored 7.5s and 8.0s. Preda also threw a triple with the same degree of difficulty as his countryman, but his forward-facing one featured a full twist more. It was a beauty. It scored 9.5, 9.5 and 9.0 for 100.80 points total – the highest single-dive score of the round. Hunt, too, was on the rise – firmly in fourth after starting in 12th and advancing to fifth in the earlier rounds. Heslop, however, was in 11th, more than 45 points away from podium contention.

But the fourth/final round could – and would – change (almost) everything. In it, the men were allowed to do a dive with unlimited difficulty. Heslop had been pushing the limits of human capability all year. His famous 6.6 DD dive, however, wasn’t on his Bingo card. Not today. Instead, the Brit opted for a “more comfortable” quad with 3½ twists (instead of four), with 6.2 DD.  It earned straight 9s (even a couple 9.5s) for a massive 167.40 points. Suddenly, he was in the lead and no one could catch him – until Hunt nailed what had – for years – been the highest DD dive in the world: a back quad-twisting triple (with 5.2 DD). It scored 143.00 points. Only three divers remained.

Prygorov finished between Hunt and Heslop (with a 5.4 DD dive). Next, Preda took the lead with his double-twisting back quad which had 5.1 DD.

Image Source: Popovici in flight on his final day of dives (Istvan Derencsenyi/World Aquatics)

Only one man remained: Popovici, the man who said he wanted to win everything this year. 

And, on his final dive, he did – 34.35 points ahead of silver medalist Preda.

Of all his titles (2022 European champion, 2023 World Cup winner) Popovici, 34, said that becoming world champion meant the most.

“You’re in the history books, you know?” he said.

“Definitely, this was the hardest one and the most desirable one,” he added. “There was much greater pressure. World Cup is almost every year. You have Red Bull events six, seven, eight times per year. But this one was four years ago.”

Image Source: Istvan Derencsenyi/World Aquatics

Preda, 32, the Romanian runner-up, had only been high diving competitively for four years. The last high diving world championships, in 2019, was just his third competition. Since then, he said Thursday’s silver medal taught him that “hard work pays off [but] the real riches are in the process. The good, the bad, they’re all bricks to everything I’m building. Constantin has the stronger technical program, but I have my eyes on the future. I know what to work on. There’s more in store and I’ll be back for gold, for sure.”

Hunt, the British-born defending champion who now represents France, took the 2023 bronze. It was his fourth medal in all five editions of the high diving world championships. (He also won 2015 gold, 2019 gold, and 2013 silver.)

Image Source: Istvan Derencsenyi/World Aquatics

Since high diving is not an Olympic discipline, both Hunt and Popovici are aiming to compete on the 10m platform in Paris 2024.  They both did double duty in Fukuoka.

Hunt, however, plans to take next year off from high diving to focus on his Olympic quest. As a result, he wasn’t sure how many more world championships were in his future. The next ones are in Doha, Qatar, in February 2024, and if qualifying depends on World Cup performance, he’ll be absent so he would need a special invitation to contest his sixth world championships.

“I hope they invite me,” Hunt said. “I’ll be in Doha anyway for 10m synchro so hopefully I’ll be able to do both.”

Image Source: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

After the medal ceremony, Heslop, who placed fifth in his world championship debut, was crowned World Aquatics Best Male High Diver of the Year for his excellence in 2022.

Now what? 

Popovici said, “I will rest, for sure. My body needs it. My brain needs it.”

Heslop said, “Yeah, we’re going to party!” The karaoke bar awaited.