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Why do belly flops hurt so much? Ask 'Professor Splash'

Mark Martin

Darren Taylor, also known as "Professor Splash" takes one his big plunges at a water park.

Let’s talk smack. As pool season perks up, you may witness or suffer one of the summer’s most stinging moments: the dreaded belly flop. To learn why they smart so back-flippin’ much, we asked — of course — a professor.

Professor Splash.

“They hurt a great deal, but the pain lasts a minute. The glory lasts a lifetime,” said Darren Taylor, who’s built an international career executing lofty belly flops under the stage name “Professor Splash.” Sunday night, in Istanbul, Turkey, broke his height record by leaping from a 37-foot-4-inch-tall platform and landing gut-first in a small, shallow pool.

“I hate it but I love it. It brings me joy but keeps me awake for two days before I perform — and scared to death,” Taylor said via email from Turkey. “Yeah I said it: It scares me like nothing EVER has!!!!! I can't eat ‘til after a big dive and that is a huge strain on the mind and body. This is a train wreck — a FrankenDive!”

At age 52, the ex-professional high diver turned belly-flop phenom — (he appeared on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent”) — has never broken a bone but says he has sustained eight concussions, what he described as internal swelling near his pancreas, and “repeated blows to the chest.”

Amateurs and klutzes alike, however, a pancake collision between an abdomen and a pool surface is generally a harmless event, said Dr. Sonu Ahluwalia, clinical chief of orthopedic surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

“Most of the time, other than ego and the skin, nothing will happen,” Ahluwalia said.

Courtesy of Darren Taylor

"Professor Splash" is not fond of night jumps like this belly flop because he can lose his orientation in the bright lights.

But at lakes with high ledges or cliffs that beckon brazen jumpers, if a plunge ends in a belly flop or a back landing, that type of impact can cause bruises, skin breaks, hematomas (collections of blood internally) — or worse, Ahluwalia said.

“Once in a while, because of the jarring, you can injure your liver and your bowels and all the things that sit inside your belly,” he said. A doctor should be seen by a belly-flopper if blood subsequently appears in their urine or stool, or if it hurts to walk or cough.

Even the shortest, most innocent belly flops cause a loud crack and an instant wince, however. For that brief pain, blame simple physics: the larger the surface area of the object slapping the water — like your stomach and chest — the greater the force of resistance from the liquid, Ahluwalia said.

“Although water seems pretty soft when we’re in it, when you enter the water at a certain speed, the surface is actually pretty hard. When you dive from a 10-meter platform, you’re probably entering the water at over 40 miles per hour,” the doctor said.

“When you hit the water, you have to break the water to enter. When you dive, you part the water with your hands, and it’s not an issue. If you fall on your belly, the same surface area has to break the water to enter it, and all that force goes into the body. It’s not quite like falling on concrete, but it’s a similar sensation,” Ahluwalia said.

To survive a belly flop from 37-plus feet — into a small, 275-gallon pool — Taylor plans to repeat his usual pattern: jumping up and out from the platform, creating forward energy. He hopes to strike the surface with his hands in front of his face to disturb the water tension. He also aims to keep his chin “way” up to protect his eyes and throat.

Courtesy of Darren Taylor

Splash down for belly-flop king Darren Taylor

“I must land flat, and keep in the layout position. A ‘leapfrog’ hit on the knees and hands will dislocate the hips and shoulders,” Taylor said.

For some stunts — typically for televised falls before crowds — he has earned paydays in the “mid five figures,” he said. A resident of Denver, Colo., he never practices. He typically performs every three weeks, often abroad.

His Sunday night leap was made under under dark skies and in the blazing glow of TV and show-production lights. 

"it was the best dive of my life. I was so scared my hands were shaking badly. I was dizzy with fear," Taylor said via email. "But I did my job. I am very glad to finally get something to eat and get some sleep."