For most people, jumping off a platform which hangs 66-feet in the air from a cliff with just deep open water below is a terrifying prospect, but for high diver and influencer Molly Carlson it is a chance to be free. It is her time to fly.
For the self-described “professional athlete with anxiety,” these dizzying heights are where she feels most at peace. Cliff diving helped the 25-year-old recover from what she calls a “year from hell,” overcoming loneliness and a binge eating disorder. It is, she says, “almost like free therapy.”
“I’ve enjoyed diving my whole life because it’s that one time where you have to be so in the moment to dive safely and to survive that you can’t be thinking of anything else,” she told CNN Sport.
“My brain shuts out for the first time and it’s finally silence up here where I can enjoy what I’m doing.
“When I’m cliff diving, nothing matters other than me and the air, really. It’s like you’re flying.”
It is not just the spectacular high dives that make Carlson unique – the 25-year-old has gained almost four million followers on TikTok and over 250,000 followers on Instagram not only by documenting her career but also by talking openly about her mental health while encouraging others to do the same.
“I have the biggest passion for mental health, and I’ve learned so much from my personal experience that now it’s kind of become like my future,” she said.
“I really want to public speak to athletes on how to prioritize your self-care and ask for help when you need it, because I never want anyone to go through the year of hell that I went through and to feel isolated and alone.”
Carlson refers to her lowest point as her “mental injury” and is unwaveringly direct about her immense personal battles, which include anxiety and body dysmorphia. Her journey to this more positive current stage has been arduous, but she is determined to support others.
Love at first dive
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario, Canada and raised in Thunder Bay, Carlson originally started out as a gymnast but soon turned her attention to the water, or rather, what was above the water.
“My sister was a swimmer, and I would have to go and watch her practises and they were so boring,” said Carlson. “But in the corner of the pool was the dive team and they were jumping off these crazy heights. I looked at my mom and I was like, ‘I need to do this sport.’”
She started diving aged nine and two years later was representing Canada, progressing quickly because, she says, she was a “little daredevil.”
A decorated junior diver, Carlson won two Pan American Game titles and dived for Team Canada at Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympics.
Olympic heartbreak ‘a blessing in disguise’
It is every athlete’s dream to represent their country at an Olympic Games, and Carlson was no exception, aspiring to compete on the biggest stage of all since she was four years old.
However, her determination to make the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games took a toll on the then 17-year-old. Making the Canadian team became her everything, leading her down a “dark path.”
She developed a binge eating disorder and other mental health issues which stemmed, she said, from being taller than her diving peers.
“I was 5-foot-8-inches, and my competitors were 5-foot-2-inches,” Carlson explained. “In my head, I was like, ‘I need to be smaller to go to the Olympics.’
“Believing this negative thought led me down that dark path and I missed out on the Olympics – top two go and I was fourth place.”
Falling short of a lifelong goal was a wake-up call. She “hated” herself at the time and realized that her love for diving was diminishing.
“What I thought would have been devastation was relief,” she admitted. “It was the first time I realized ‘Okay, I do need help, and maybe if I ask for help, I can learn to love myself and diving all over again.’
“It was a blessing in disguise not making that Olympic team.”
‘We were the guinea pigs!’
Carlson continued diving at college, heading to Florida State University (FSU).
Still on her path to recovery, she opened up to her diving coach, John Proctor, about her mental health as soon as she appeared on campus as she “did not want to start her four years at the university with a lie.” Proctor immediately put her in touch with a nutritionist and a mental health coach.
That conversation left Carlson feeling empowered, she said, and was a catalyst for her success. She had a decorated career as a Florida State Seminole, winning NCAA All-American and Atlantic Coast Conference Diver of the Year honors three times.
After her college career was put on hold by the pandemic, Proctor suggested the switch to high diving, in which you enter the water feet first, after indoor diving became impractical due to multiple wrist injuries.
Initially apprehensive and seeking further opinions, Carlson put the question to her Instagram followers, posting a poll on her story asking if she should give cliff diving a try. The results were 99% in favor, with the lone vote against the idea coming from her mother.
“Being the first in the world to do a lot of things does not sit easy with my mum,” Carlson laughed.
“She couldn’t watch me do regular diving, she would wait to hear the clapping and then celebrate – ‘You didn’t even watch it!’
“I send her videos just to build her confidence, but she’s physically been to an event and watch me do a dive, so that is progress.”
After impressing during practise sessions, she was offered the opportunity to take part in the 2021 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series as a wild card. Carlson finished second in her debut event, and third in the overall table that season.
She improved the next year, this time on a full-time basis as one of 12 female professionals, placing second behind five-time winner Rhiannan Iffland. She is currently second in the championship heading into the final event next month.
Carlson trains in Montreal, which houses a 20-meter indoor platform, the city where she “fell in love” with the sport.
“[At first] My coach and I didn’t know what we were doing, because so few people do this sport that we were the guinea pigs,” she said “We were trying every dive ever, and some dives that we shouldn’t have been doing!”
‘Everyone has their brave story’
Alongside a successful start to her cliff diving career, Carlson has also built a substantial following on social media, where she documents her daily life to millions of people.
The uniqueness of her content is what stands out: from standing on a podium with a medal around her neck to having a panic attack in the build-up of an important competition, Carlson shares her cliff diving and mental health journey in detail.
Inspired by the conversation she had with her diving coach at college and her upbringing, where the “stigma around mental health was massive,” Carlson wants to use her platform to raise awareness about a taboo so many people are scared to talk about.
“What I learned during my experience was as soon as you talk about mental health with one person, it becomes real,” Carlson said.
“I used to think Instagram had to be perfect. I grew up when it came out and everything was a highlight of your life, and if it’s not your best moments, you can’t post it.
“Every time I post that today is not a good day, I didn’t feel I was in the right mindset to do a dive from 66 feet, and I share that story with four million people and they’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could say no’, that’s so exciting.
“When I’m vulnerable, I feel like I also help my followers to be vulnerable,” she added.
After a 12-year-old girl messaged Carlson and shared her struggles to go to school because of her anxiety, the high diver realized the power her videos have on young people’s lives.
“I feel like a mom watching my kids, it’s so inspirational,” Carlson said.
“It reminds me that what I’m doing is impacting lives and I should keep going.”
She is the founder of the #BraveGang – videos with this hashtag have over one billion views on TikTok. She describes the tag as a community where her followers can support each other by sharing their experiences about overcoming their fears and opening up about mental health.
“Everyone has their own brave story,” Carlson believes.
“#BraveGang started in the kitchen with my mum. I was brainstorming in my comments, the amount of times I read ‘brave,’ I was like, ‘We need to incorporate this.’
“I told all my followers to use this hashtag to share their own brave story, and everyone in the community will be there to support you.
“And it’s all these inspirational videos of little girls learning their first cartwheel or coming out to their parents – that’s such a big deal and they’re using my hashtag!”
Dealing with fears is nothing new to the Canadian. Carlson grew up terrified of sharks and still struggles with the phobia to this day, despite regularly jumping into open water. She went shark cage diving in South Africa in an unsuccessful attempt to conquer her fears.
“I will forever be scared,” she said.
“I think it’s okay to have fears. If it was limiting me from actually jumping into the water and diving, then I would try to work on it.”
High diving at the Olympics would be ‘a full circle moment’
Though it is yet to fully break into the mainstream, high diving is a growing sport.
It made its debut at the World Aquatics Championships in 2013 and there were calls for it to be added to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, with Carlson one of the most vocal among them, though it was not one of the five new sports added to the program this month.
“The more we go viral, the more people learn about this sport,” says Carlson. “We’ve created this excitement around the sport, and we’ve showed how fun it can really be.”
For Carlson, competing in high diving at the Olympics would be more than just representing her country on the national stage.
“It would be a full circle moment because when I was trying to achieve my dream of the Olympics back in 2016, I didn’t love myself and I wasn’t enjoying it. But now that I do love myself and I’ve worked on myself, it would show that you can love yourself and achieve your dreams.”
Getting her sport into the Games is just one of the 25-year-old’s long-term ambitions – she aims to finally dethrone Iffland and clinch the World Series title, and wants to make a splash outside of the water as well.
Making Brave Gang into its own brand and starting a foundation is a goal of hers, as is public speaking. She is just as focused on her legacy as she is on her next dive.
“When I’m done diving, it doesn’t mean the Brave Gang’s over and I want to keep it alive as long as I can.”