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Taking a dive

Restaurant performers make a big splash with customers

SANDY — Surrounded by rock cliffs, waterfalls and onlooking toucans, a Bluffdale resident prepares to dive 40 feet into a pool of water.

But Billy Howe isn't getting ready to perform in Italy, Singapore, China or Saudi Arabia as he used to; he is bracing up to showcase his daredevil dives indoors at a Sandy restaurant. After he plunges into the water, a family eating a Mexican-style dinner cheers.

"It's pretty amazing," said Brad Martinez of Mesa, Ariz. He and his family sat at a balcony table waiting for another dive show.

But Howe's daring career began long before he started working at the Mayan in Sandy.

"I actually traveled the world for 12 years before I came here to the Mayan," he said.

Howe began performing gymnastics, trampoline and high-diving tricks with Brown Entertainment, a company based out of Florida, in 1992.

"We would light ourselves on fire; that was one of the highlights of the show," he said. "We would do tricks from an 80-foot platform into a 9 1/2-foot-deep pool."

Howe said his fire-blazing stunts were pretty involved.

"Basically you have a special suit on, and you have a cape that's full of flammable liquid, and that's what's on fire," Howe said. "But depending on the wind, you are completely engulfed in flames. It reaches, like, 1,200 degrees immediately."

The pool of water would normally extinguish the flames, but the divers were still wearing the cape of flammable liquid. Some of the divers caught on fire again, but Howe said he was smart about it and waited underwater until all the flames were out.

Howe's experiences with Brown Entertainment took him across the world from Canada to France to South Africa. But he stopped traveling with the company about a year and a half ago and moved back to Utah.

"I never got sick of it. It's just hard to live out of a suitcase, and you don't have any roots anywhere. It'sjust kind of hard," Howe said.

Now he performs his dauntless dives in Utah, where he grew up, at the Mayan. But there isn't any fire involved.

Another diver, Ernie Higbee of Herriman, also plunges into the Mayan's artificial pool for work.

Higbee started diving when he was in elementary school. He dove for four years at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, Calif. After high school, he got a gymnastics scholarship to Brigham Young University and moved to Utah. After graduating from BYU, he was hired at the Mayan in 2000.

"Because of that background, I saw this and thought it would be a fun part-time job, and so I got hired on and have been working here since," Higbee said.

Now Higbee works as a full-time diver at the restaurant, along with Howe. The other five Mayan divers work part time.

The divers arrive at work half an hour before their first dive in order to change into Speedos and warm up their muscles. After each show, they shower in the back room to get off all the pool chemicals. Then, on a busy night, the divers will go out into the restaurant and talk to people.

Howe said he uses the time in between shows to unwind and mentally prepare for his next show.

"It's not like you can just walk up there and — bam — do it," he said. "I mean, if you aren't thinking about it, then you better not come to work."

The divers perform every 30 minutes, and Higbee said each of them averages 50-55 dives when working from opening to closing and 25 dives when working a five-hour shift. Before each dive, the performers have to climb up three stories on a ladder. Higbee said each diver walks about one mile of ladder steps each week.

The cliffs at the Mayan range from 5 feet to 40 feet high, and the pool of water is 14 feet deep. The divers have to jump inside a narrow opening.

"The furthest place that you have to clear, that you have to stay inside of, is just under 14 feet out," Howe said.

He said it takes practice to be able to not jump that far, and the openings into the pool just get smaller from the 14-foot mark.

The first week Higbee was diving at the Mayan he had to get stitches.

"I wasn't oriented to the pool, because it was new to me, and when I dove in I was actually closer to the back side, the back wall, than I thought, and as I swam underwater to swim through the hole, I hit the side of the pool rather than the hole you are supposed to go in," Higbee said.

In July 2001, two Mayan divers collided, sending both of them to the hospital, and a couple of other divers have scratched their heads while diving.

"We've had our share of injuries," Higbee said. "Only once have divers had to go to the hospital in the ambulance, and that was when they collided."

Howe and Higbee said communication with other divers could prevent accidents.

"That was the main reason for those injuries is because of poor communication," Higbee said.

Two of the divers' shows are scripted and choreographed and usually performed Friday and Saturday nights. The other shows are improvised.

"That's why it takes so long for us to dive, because we need to say what's going on as we are going out," Howe said.

As someone comes up the ladder they communicate what their next dive will be.

Howe's favorite dive, where he would jump out of the ceiling rafters, got taken out of the shows.

"Public safety didn't like it," Howe said. "They stopped me from doing that."

Higbee said handstand dives are his favorite.

"Because I'm a gymnast, I like to start almost any dive from on my hands," he said.

The Mayan divers practice every other week to try out new dives and polish up their routines. Both the divers agree that diving is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical.

Higbee said sometimes he gets scared while practicing new dives. He said the atmosphere at the Mayan, including theatrical lights, music and a live crowd, make the surroundings more difficult to dive.

"Everything is so much different than diving in a normal diving pool or dive tank like at Cottonwood Heights or the one in Kearns," Higbee said.

Although he isn't touring the world over, Howe said he still enjoys diving because he's an adrenaline junkie.

"Every time I get really high, well, high up in the air, it's intimidating," Howe said. "It gives you that factor of fear."

Higbee said diving is a personal challenge.

"You feel a sense of accomplishment having gotten over this fear," Higbee said. "Giving yourself this challenge and completing it is kind of a personal high, an adrenaline rush, all those things."

Howe said that when the audience cheers, it makes all of his work worth it.

Martinez said the divers add to the experience of the restaurant.

"We probably wouldn't come again if it wasn't for the divers," he said while finishing up his meal. "The kids really like it."