April 26, 2002, 7:00 AM
They waved goodbye as I pulled away from the departures terminal at Fort Lauderdale International Airport, a strikingly attractive, slightly exotic young couple. Patrick Musimu, the new Constant Ballast champion of the world, tall, slender, faintly African features and mocha complexion. Isabelle Hamel’s earnestness tempered by her blonde, blue-eyed cover-girl looks and svelte figure. She’ll talk them out of the excess baggage charge, I predicted, waving back. Great kids. Bye for now, but we’ll definitely be hearing from these people going forward. Stay tuned.
April 26, 2002, 12:32 AM – A few hours earlier. . .
The phone call came in from Belize confirming most, but not quite all of the arrangements. Patrick Musimu and Isabelle Hamel would fly down in the morning, and Patrick would begin work immediately with a new dive resort there. The Israeli owner is interested in building a global reputation as a freediving and tek diving venue. Isabelle would have to look for work after arriving in Belize. Never mind – a minor obstacle, in the grand scheme of things. A long way from Zaire, from Brussels, from Holland, worlds away from the pressure cooker that was the finale of the record event in the D.R.. Nine-to-five. Free at last.
April 25, 2002, 9:24 PM - The night before . . .
” It is as if an angel pissed on my tongue.”
Isabelle opened her eyes, sighed mightily, and took another sip of the 1995 Leroy Mersault “Les Narvaux” we opened to complement the brilliant dinner she had prepared. She’s also a skilled chef, it turns out. She approved of the wine.
We were back in Florida, seated around my dining room table, finally celebrating the new world record in a manner suited to the bashful champion’s character. No crowds, no cameras, no chaos, just two couples having a quiet dinner at home. The Zairian hip-hop he’d mounted on the CD player made us all smile. Patrick let the cat out of the bag: “This is what I had in my walkman just before the dive!”
At long last, everything was right with the world. Health on the mend, spirits high, fevers low, savoring victory and rare white Burgundy.
Patrick Musimu and Isabelle Hamel were ready for the next chapter in their lives.
” Now that you’ve had some experience working with Pipin”, I observed, perhaps a bit slyly, “You’ll know what to expect next time you decide to set a world record.”
Isabelle’s fork froze in mid-air, the morsel of her crepe a l’orange a-quiver. Patrick’s eyes rolled up. They turned and met each others’ gaze. We all burst out laughing.
” Never mind that !” declared Isabelle. ” For now it is back to the nine -to-five for us.”
April 23, 2002 7:40 PM - Two days before that . . .
Patrick and Isabelle are sick, Isabelle more so than Patrick. She has a fever, and the sinus infection that everybody was fighting in the D.R. has overwhelmed her defenses and is inside the gates. The only question is how bad it is going to get and how long it will last. Patrick still has the upper hand in his struggle with the bug, but then, he’s the one who trained himself to swim down to a depth of 87 meters and back to the surface on a single breath of air. He is rebuilding, quickly, from the post-climactic crash-and-burn. He will live.
There was, to be sure, glory in his victory, an incomparable high known only by those rare human beings who, even if only for a while, surpass all others in their chosen endeavor. The bill, however, was….big, bigger than they could have imagined.
Part of it had to be paid in advance, during the final weeks of preparation. The taxes were levied in the form of relentless scrutiny and intervention by advisors, promoters, reporters, and spectators. The admiring, the envious, the solicitous and the anxious. The higher regions of commercial athletics support a rich ecosystem, a food chain based on sponsorship dollars, rather than on plankton. It harbors the usual herbivores, parasites, symbiotes, scavengers and bottom-feeders but is ruled by the apex predators. Freedivers are comrades, but not of the communist sort.
It can be very rewarding, but you pay to play.
And now, the event behind them, Patrick and Isabelle learned that the bills would continue to come due. Some were presented in electronic media, exacting a price that would be paid over and over. That which is published cannot be unpublished. For better or for worse, a person once characterized in the public arena is in some sense permanently altered in his own view of himself. They say all publicity is good as long as they spell your name right, but they forget to say how much it can hurt.
It was time to pay up.
I had found Patrick and Isabelle outside the International Arrivals area at Miami International Airport, running on empty, the last of their resolve having been burned sometime during the overnight journey from the hinterland of the Dominican Republic.
April 22, 2002 9:30 AM - One day earlier. . .
They were slouched forlornly among their backpacks and gearbags, alone, the rest of the IAFD entourage having gone on home.
Patrick and Isabelle, just two days after victory, were still en route, sleepless and visibly suffering the effects of the epidemic that had swept through the group during the two weeks in the D.R. They were ascending from a two-year immersion into a world defined and delimited by a quest for supremacy in the purest of freediving disciplines, and now, struggling toward the surface, had run out of O2.
Nonetheless, the two long years of sacrifice, discipline and singleminded determination had yielded the prize, a new world record of 87 meters, 285 feet, constant ballast.
April 20, 2002 11:41 AM - 48 hours earlier . . .
Isabelle, as always the safety freediver, and Patrick, the challenger, burst through the surface together exuberantly, Patrick’s fist and the tag high in the air. His triumphal cry was heard over the pandemonium that erupted when 6 boatloads of spectators and media realized the deed was done.
Patrick swam victory laps around the fleet, and the cameras clicked and whirred. Isabelle climbed back in the dive boat and thanked the crew and the IAFD officials, who were already working the final countdown to the next event, a no-limits tandem dive by Pipin and Audrey. Patrick thrust the tag – “87” in black on white – toward the thicket of cameras, hooting and enumerating himself with his other hand, a delicate index finger : Number One.
Carlos Serra, on the dive boat, called minus 5 minutes for the tandem dive, and Patrick finally climbed back aboard. Isabelle draped a towel over his shoulders and he closed his eyes, seeming to press some kind of spiritual “pause” button, trying to freeze himself in the moment. Isabelle moved over to the port gunwale and joined the rest of us observing Pipin and Audrey on the sled.
I had a bad feeling about this sled dive. These people were ill, Pipin coughing incessantly all during the week and Audrey barely keeping the bug at bay. Pipin had coughed, 50 meters down, on a training dive. This is impossible.
The scuba team descends, Emmy Castro and Wiky having switched stations and tanks at the last minute. Emmy, fighting off the bug, takes air down to the 55 meter mark while Wiky on trimix heads for the bottom.
A few minutes later it was all over, Pipin and Audrey safely returned from over 100 meters down, smiling and waving to the crowd. We are once again reminded that these are not ordinary people.
April 20, 2002 11:40:20 AM - A few minutes before that. . .
Pipin, coming up from a facial immersion at the bow of the dive boat, was the first to recognize the imminent catastrophe. He began to shout at the Dominican captain of the spectator boat, which had drifted to within a few meters of the descent line and was closing on Isabelle and Lionel, who, heads in the water and staring down into the blue for a first glimpse of the ascending Patrick Musimu, were unaware of their peril.
The boat was coming at them stern first, the twin outboards now perhaps only one meter from Isabelle’s head. Carlos raised the megaphone, while, incredibly, the engines sprang to life, belching a cloud of acrid white smoke. The safety divers’ concentration was broken. Both heads popped up to the impossible nightmare of Carlos’ amplified pleas to kill the engines, two-stroke fumes, shouting spectators and twin props churning the water column where, in only a few seconds, one hypoxic constant ballast champion would desperately seek air. The captain nonchalantly killed the motors. Lionel’s head was instantly back in the water, scanning for Patrick. Isabelle took charge of the surface, laying hands on the threatening boat and with superhuman thrusts of her long fins pushed it away. She turned and was back on station at the line, head down, next to Lionel.
Seconds later, she and Lionel had visual contact with Patrick and dropped down to the rendevous at 10 meters.
April 20, 2002 9:20 AM - Earlier that morning . . .
The descent line had been layed out and measured, snaking across the manicured lawns of the resort, threaded through sculptured shrubs and guarded by a group of solemn IAFD intructor-trainees as curious European tourists made their way to breakfast.
Everything must be perfect, nothing about this event was to be open to doubt.
IAFD President Carlos Serra registered Patrick as the challenger, recording his personal familiars in the event register and methodically reviewing the regulations and procedures for a constant ballast dive. Patrick, retreating from time to time behind the earphones of his walkman, seemed at times puzzled by the routine, once again – again! – having to state his date and place of birth….. but Isabelle was always there, reassuring, interpreting, the angelic buffer hovering between a primed thoroughbred and the maddening but indispensable officiating machine. Name, rank and serial number.
The world came at him from every direction, all at once, without letup.
What, the instructor-trainees demanded, does Patrick Musimu listen to in the last hours before challenging a world freediving record ? Do you understand that you will be required to give a urine specimen after the dive for an anti-doping test ? Carlos inscribes. Patrick nods. What is it like to be the first person of African origin to be setting a world freediving record ? Various print, broadcast and web journalists ply their trades. Resort guests peer at the legendary Pipin and his new protégé. Isabelle is animated, deftly engaging the inquisitors while Patrick maintains a Sphinx-like repose.
The organizational and logistical complexity is nearly overwhelming. Pipin is certain Isabelle is not listed with the safety divers for Patrick’s attempt, Isabelle is somehow there, on top of it, patiently reminding him that she has been Patrick’s safety freediver throughout the training. Pipin has personally blended the helium mixture for the deep safety diver, shouldering the tank and trucking it down to the boat. H e is still coughing, but is outwardly calm and assured.
Carlos, the meticulous architect of it all, somehow conducts the entire orchestra while also playing several instruments at once.
The sky was unexpectedly overcast, with intermittent drizzle. There is, however, almost no breeze, and the sea is flat calm. Perfect conditions for competitive freediving, but, as Carlos noted, bad light for filming.
I came across a fidgeting Emmy Castro, assigned to the deep safety diver mission for the event, the missing end-user of Pipin’s trimix, who said: “I can’t wait to get in the water and get all this over with.”
I think she spoke for everyone involved.
April 19, 2002 7:30 PM - The previous evening . . .
The press conference got off to a late start, but none of the 100-odd attendees and participants seemed to mind. The lavish buffet and wet bar, cheerfully administered by Viva Dominicus staff, was an event in itself which continued to draw people away from the conference room and out onto the veranda. An exasperated Carlos Serra glanced at his watch and updated his schedule calculations for the 14 or so hours remaining until curtain up.
The suspense, for me, was almost unbearable, although I think that few if any of the other people outside the IAFD inner circle were aware that the stress of the previous weeks had brought relations between the key players to the breaking point and beyond. At this point, pure professionalism was all that was holding it together. It seemed to me that it would not take much to make it all fall apart.
I was wrong. These people are seasoned , and the show would go on no matter what.
A lull in the feeding frenzy, a critical mass in their seats, and Laura the Italian queen of Viva Dominicus dive operations tapped the microphone and, in Spanish, called the press conference to order. Carlos continued, in Spanish, introducing the IAFD and resort crews and giving Emmy Castro her media debut as a rising no-limits star.
He handed the mike off to Pipin, who seamlessly switched to English and introduced a short video backgrounder on Patrick Musimu. The IAFD instructor-trainees, preening in their new IAFDUSA.COM tee shirts, poked and nudged each other as the record challenger’s on-screen 73m dive showcased his technique. Patrick’s voiceover is in English, with a light and not unpleasant Euro accent.
A second video, trailers from a Pipin production for the Discovery Channel, featured footage of the Ferreras husband and wife freediving with humpback whales in Dominican waters. The enthusiasm in the room was infectious, and when the lights went back on, Laura urged the boaters in the room to volunteer their craft to ferry spectators out to the event site. A good number answered her call. Nobody will be left behind.
There were no questions taken. The crowd drifted back to the veranda, to the bar and the buffet. Audrey fielded interviews, Patrick and Isabelle huddled. Teenaged French girls lined up for Pipin’s autograph.
I wondered how the people diving the next day, Patrick, Pipin and Audrey, meant to get a good night’s sleep after all this. I wished I were a drinking man.
April 15, 2002 - Earlier in the week . . .
The Viva Dominicus Resort turned out to be an all-inclusive beachfront property on the southeastern shore of the Dominican Republic, a short taxi ride from the La Romana airport. It is one of a handful of oceanside hotels surrounded by a semi-arrid and sparsely populated plain, the mountains barely visible to the north. The resort itself is beautifully landscaped, the beach sand sugar white and immaculate. My pink plastic bracelet identified my preferred language as English, and would authenticate my status as a guest entitled to everything the resort offers to eat, drink, sail, dive, swipe, ping, pong or shoot.
Strolling along the shore , I noted that most of the bracelets on the beach represented the European languages, and that a decidedly European standard of modesty was in effect with respect to swimsuit configurations. It was altogether quite pleasing.
I settled into a back-row seat in the hotel’s cavernous conference center, watching the International Association of Free Divers instructor-trainees filing in for the first session of a 5-day course offered during the run-up to the record events. The course instructor is Carlos Serra, who introduced himself as a Venezuelan transplant to Miami and informed us that the course academics would be delivered in the English language. Most of the students are, it turns out, native Spanish speakers, but I am not and so am grateful for the break. Carlos introduced the only female student as Emmy Castro, a tek diver from Miami and new protégée of Pipin and Audrey who has been training for a record attempt in the no-limits discipline.
Carlos Serra is an unapologetic American capitalist, which immediately wins me over.
“Some people have accused us of being in freediving for the money” he intones. “Well, they are right. As instructors, you will be, too. One of the objectives of this course is to teach you how to make money from freediving. If you don’t like the idea of making money, then we can help you there, too: go work in Cuba.”
I thought that Carlos looked awfully tired, but he nonetheless delivered a workmanlike class session. He remarked in passing that the entire IAFD party had come down with a bug. Head colds. The bane of a diver’s existence.
Pipin and Audrey joined us . Pipin had a nasty cough, and Audrey looked beaten down and out of sorts. Upper respiratory infections, I thought. How is anybody going to do any serious diving ?
April 6, 2002 – 10 days before . . .
The e-mail from Carlos Serra, International Association of Freedivers, confirmed his earlier invitation to come to the Dominican Republic and cover an attempt on the world record for constant ballast by one Patrick Musimu. I was directed to check in to the Viva Dominicus resort near La Romana.
I reviewed the key points : Dominican Republic, La Romana, Viva Dominicus, and Patrick Musimu. Never been there, never heard of it, don’t like resorts, and who ?
Well, if it involves Pipin then I’m down for it. In the world of freediving, he is, after all, The Man. A quick search of my files turned up a few references to Patrick : AIDA competitor, Belgian. I suppose he might pull it off. Go and see.
March 10, 2002 - The previous month. . .
Patrick Musimu had lost faith. It was all coming to naught, everything, the two years of aerobic monasticism, unaffordable trips from Brussels for open water training in the Caribbean and the Red Sea, the sacrifices of Isabelle – not the least of which was 7 bedridden months following a pelvic injury she sustained in a fall on the pitching deck of a dive boat. She had jumped off the corporate ladder to dedicate herself to this thing, and they had gotten Patrick down to depths that were within whispering distance of gold.
They thought that the only thing stopping him was lack of sponsorship.
Sponsorship, the engine, the enabler . Pipin Ferreras is the undisputed commercial titan of the freediving world, and he had offered Patrick Musimu the means by which to do that thing for which Patrick knew he was made : to swim down to a depth no man had reached before, and swim back to the surface, on one breath of air. Sitting in Brussels that day, when Pipin called, it seemed as though the last chapter of the story had just been written. It was a fait accompli, or so it had seemed.
It was not long after landing in Miami that Patrick Musimu and Isabelle Hamel knew in their bones that nothing could be further from the truth. Sponsorship, you see, involves money, money in significant quantities, which tows after it personal and corporate interests that are jealously guarded and often conflicting. It takes a lot of money and a lot of people to make a world record happen, and whenever a lot of people and a lot of money are combined under high temperatures and pressures, the results are exactly what any high-school chemistry student would know to predict.
For every great freediver there is a great theory of freediving. Monofin vs. bifins. Fast vs. slow breathing patterns. Hands -up ascent, hands – down ascent. When to stop kicking and free-fall ? How long should the dive take ? Diet, training, recovery, genes, schedules…….and by what margin should one try to break the record ? In the focussed, rarified milieu of a world record campaign, these technical debates become apocalyptic confrontations.
And then, too, there were the financial, promotional, logistical and political issues.
On this day, Patrick Musimu suddenly knew that all of this was simply not going to work.
He would not set a world record for constant ballast freediving at this time, and, since these were, he supposed, the best possible circumstances under which to do so, it meant that he never would.
He decided to give up and go home.
And at that moment, Isabelle Hamel produced a pen and a sheet of paper, and the contract was drafted, witnessed and signed.
This is what the contract said:
“I, Patrick Musimu, hereby confirm that for the Constant Ballast WR I will ONLY use my proper finning and equalization techniques.”
“I, Patrick Musimu, will not allow ANYBODY to influence me on these matters.”
“I, Patrick Musimu, will achieve and succeed and never take myself in any doubts about my performances.”
Patrick Musimu and Isabelle Hamel signed and executed this most solemn of contracts then and there. It was the turning point. The engines of this extraordinary partnership roared back to life, turbocharged, and unstoppable.
It was a done deal.