How Shallow Diving Works

A Deep History
Roy Fransen practicing his diving technique in 1937
Roy Fransen practicing his diving technique in 1937
© Imagno/Getty Images

Water acts have been a part of circuses for many decades. It all started, perhaps, when performers began executing their tricks and acrobatics above pools, adding a watery element to their already impressive feats; for example, when high-wire walkers strode cautiously over bodies of water as the waves swirled below. Synchronized swimmers brought the water directly into the show, conducting graceful and splashy acts for their audiences. More recently, the Las Vegas show from Cirque de Soleil, called O, incorporated a 1.5-million gallon pool with dozens of acrobats and gymnasts all swimming, floating, dancing, swinging and much more, with dozens of physically demanding and sometimes personally hazardous elements.

In early circuses, it was only natural that diving would eventually debut. It wasn't necessarily shallow diving, though. The pools were long and deep. Like Olympic athletes, the divers concocted all sorts of fancy twists and turns to astound viewers before their splashdowns. It was a fulfilling addition to the circus atmosphere, but it wasn't necessarily jaw dropping.

Then came shallow diving. Shallow diving wasn't just an impressive feat. It was a showstopper. Many circuses built towards the shallow dive as the ultimate climax to their show.

Roy Fransen was the first truly famous shallow diver. In the 1930s and '40s, he developed a name for himself as a first-rate stuntman, first flopping into water from lower heights and gradually working his way higher. He practiced using both pools and safety nets and did so nearly every day, training his body to arc through the air to a specific spot below. At the same time, he was conditioning his mind to conquer his fears of missing his target and splattering himself all over the ground below.

Fransen was a savvy showman, too. He'd pour fuel on his body and the surface of the water below, light himself on fire and then leap to extinguish the flames. Obviously, burns were a severe risk, but so was the fact that billowing smoke made it harder for him to see exactly where he needed to fall. He eventually called his act "The Dive of Death" and traveled the world, showing off his bravado and skills to crowds everywhere.

In 1948, Fransen flung himself from a 110 feet (34 meters) high into water measuring only 8 feet (2.4 meters) deep, a record that stood for nearly half a century. It was, ahem, the apex of his career. But it didn't last. After four decades of his death-defying feats, Fransen finally ran out of good fortune. He died during a performance in 1985.

Yet shallow divers keep right on diving, and they push the heights higher and the water shallower.