Lorens Listo’s name may not headline the world’s sports pages, but on the streets of his native Mostar he is hailed as a champion among champions in a sport that is central to the Bosnian city’s identity: high diving.
Mostar is home to the Stari Most, a 16th-century Ottoman peaked bridge that spans the river Neretva and, at its highest point, stands 79 feet (24 m) above the water.
The picturesque town has become famous for the diving competition from the white bridge, rebuilt in 2004 and a symbol of reconciliation after it was destroyed by Bosnian Croat artillery in 1993 during the Bosnian war.
Listo won the competition’s head-first diving category for the eleventh time on Sunday with his trade-mark swan dive, before a crowd of about 5,000 people. It was the 451st contest held since the first in 1556.
“Jumps are the identity of Mostar,” he said. The plunge from the bridge is a ritual for local youths to signal their transition into manhood. It is also a major tourist attraction, and a unifying force in a divided city.
Croats and Muslims, known as Bosniaks, live on opposite sides of the river and tensions linger from Bosnia’s 1990s war that saw fierce fighting between the two communities. But post-war, Croats and Bosniaks come together for the diving contest.
“Jumps connect both sides because we are together, looking forward to see who is winning. Boundaries are just in people’s mind, they actually don’t exist,” he said.
Approaching 40, Listo has a muscular physique, adorned with tattoos on his arms and thigh, and a buzz-cut hairstyle.
“I could say that everything that I do, my business, my life, my family, everything is dedicated to jumping off the bridge for at least 18 years”, he said, adding that he saw diving as a second full-time job, rather than a hobby.
Listo, who works as the local director of a fuel company, says the threat of injury hangs over the sport. “We fly, we don’t just jump,” Listo said, adding he had broken a finger and injured his back over the years diving from the bridge.
Others have not been so lucky. Listo said a handful of people have died jumping from the bridge over the years, though never during the competition. Listo’s friend Andrej Beuc also died last year diving in a different competition in Bosnia.