Skip to main content

Toronto The Canadian National Exhibition’s history of death-defying leaps of faith

Barney Cipriani does a full gainor with tuck on way to winning world high diving championships at CNE.

Alexandra Studios

In the seconds before his body hit the water, Barney Cipriani pictured his family.

Tumbling and rolling through the air as he dropped 110 feet from the top of a scaffold, the 41-year-old from Detroit called to mind the faces of his three kids – two teenage boys and a 10-month-old, also named Barney.

"I hope they find an easier way to earn a living," he thought as he splashed into the cold water of Lake Ontario at the Canadian National Exhibition waterfront.

Story continues below advertisement

It was 1967 and Mr. Cipriani was competing in the high-dive world championships at the CNE. The event, then in its fourth year in Toronto, was part of the Aquarama, which also included boat races and swimming events. Although the event was new to the city, high divers such as Mr. Cipriani had been leaping into the water at the CNE for decades.

Mr. Cipriani was up against about a dozen other high divers from Canada, the United States, and Mexico. The stress of beating his rivals and impressing the judges before his jump wasn’t his only concern, however, because he was also terrified of heights.

“I even hate to climb a five-foot stepladder,” he admitted to The Globe and Mail at the time. “When I climb up that tower I don’t waste many seconds [standing at the top before] diving.”

Had he taken time to really consider his situation, Mr. Cipriani might never have dived. As with his fellow competitors, he was uninsured against the very real chance of injury, or even death.

“I tried Lloyds of London, but when they read on the application form that I was a high diver they said the risk involved was too much and regretted they couldn’t issue a policy,” he said.

By the time the world championships came to the CNE in 1963, people had been leaping into the water from great heights in Toronto and across North America for several decades.

In 1924, the American daredevil Beatrice Kyle stunned her Toronto audience by plunging from a terrifying 80 feet into a tiny pool of water shallow enough for her to stand in.

Story continues below advertisement

“Fearfully, the crowds watch the slight young girl balanced on the tips of her toes shoot down through space and gracefully strike the water in the narrow, five-foot deep tank,” The Globe and Mail reported.

Ms. Kyle’s father taught her to swim in the St. Croix River on the Bay of Fundy in Maine. “His method was the simple one of just throwing the small pupils in and letting them take care of themselves,” the paper wrote.

Aged 13, Ms. Kyle was diving off bridges into the water. At 14 she was making controlled falls into a practice net. By the time she reached Toronto, she was the reigning world champion and a household name in Canada.

Others took high diving a step further, lighting themselves on fire before leaping into the water. One of the first to do it at the CNE was Marian Liljens, a 26-year-old Russian billed as a Swede who first appeared in 1907.

Her diving costume stuffed with oil-soaked cotton, Ms. Liljens was dramatically set on fire by an assistant high above the ground on the diving pole.

"When she leaped," wrote the Toronto Star, "sixty feet high, with her costume ablaze, there was a cry of alarm from the grand stand, which broke into a shout of applause when the plucky woman reappeared upon the surface of the pool of water below, unharmed."

Story continues below advertisement

"At night her act is most thrilling ... she dives, a human firebrand, from the top of the pole into the pool."

Ms. Liljens, who used a pseudonym, was a medical student in Chicago. The fiery high dives, she said, were paying her tuition.

It's unlikely to be Ms. Liljens, but a photo in the City of Toronto Archives taken in the 1910s shows a burning diver like her falling to the ground, their torso engulfed in roaring flames. It captures perfectly the terrifying beauty of the fire dive.

The dangers of diving – flames or none – were very real. In 1929, a fire diver was badly burned at the CNE when he became tangled in a guy-wire above the water during his jump. Another diver was left paralyzed from the waist down in 1934 after striking her head on a diving board in a training accident.

Landing awkwardly, especially flat on the water, could break bones, shatter vertebrae, or rip and welt human skin. Just one half-completed turn or a moment of hesitation off the board could end in disaster.

In 1937, Chris Hayes of Toronto became a sensation at the Midway for diving 75 feet into a tiny pool just 16-feet across and 8-feet deep. His “death dive,” as it was billed, drew groans and gasps of horror.

Story continues below advertisement

“It’s just like diving into a milk bottle,” his trainer Alfie Phillips told the Star.

Mr. Hayes recognized the dangers better than most. While diving in Florida, he saw a fellow competitor miss the water from a height of 100 feet. "He was instantly killed," he said. "It was a gruesome experience."

Thrilling high dives remained a part of the Canadian National Exhibition and summer fairs across North America for much of the 20th century, but it wasn't until 1963 that the event ceased to be a novelty act in Toronto.

That year, the city hosted its first world championships. Thirty-year-old Don Webb, a Scarborough native and product of the Leaside Aquatic Club, took home the inaugural $2,500 first prize, beating even his trainer, Pete La Tona.

He sealed victory with a flying back somersault, scoring 192 out of a possible 240 points and cementing his place at the top of the leaderboard.

High dives are no longer a part of the annual CNE festivities. The world championships went elsewhere in the 1970s when event organizers could no longer afford to pay the star competitors. But the Aquarama remains an annual waterborne circus, featuring water skiing, boat races, and even water jet packs.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter