Tom Sietas is the most active and most successful freediver of 2004. He has broken the world record in Static Apnea no fewere than five times, and his German national records in Dynamic (with fins and without fins) exceed the the official world records. The following interview reveals some of his secrets, frustrations, his relief, and gives a closer look at this workaholic German freediver.
AK – You reached 8’56” in Wiesbaden, Germany in October, and then in Eindhoven, on December 11th, you did 8’58”. Since the minimum amount of time you have to improve on the world record is two seconds, I was wondering whether you did the smallest step allowed, on purpose. Like Sergey Bubka did when he was improving his pole vaulting world records by one meter at a time, because he was getting paid after each record.
TS- I know what you mean, but unfortunately I don’t get his kind of paycheck to do world records. I did not improve on the world record by two seconds intentionally. I start to receive signs every 15 seconds after the 6-minute mark, but after a while, I lost count on exactly how many times I received the sign. I do not look at my watch either. I know approximately where I am, and I come up when I cannot hold my breath any longer; later I get the exact time I have spent down in the water. In Eindhoven, I was a bit frustrated when I heard that I would have needed two more seconds to reach the 9-minute mark. Well, next time.
AK- The most common question I get from people who hear about your records is whether you are worried about the possible long-term effects, since the territory you are stepping into has not been reached by any human being before. It is a blank sheet for physicians.
TS- I have been asked that question many times. There is no doctor regularly checking me, even though it would be nice to have one. I am going to go to a serious examination in February, and I hope it will shed some light on some of these issues. Generally, I think that my body would indicate, if it was not reacting well to my extended stays under water. However, I have not had any BO’s during static.
AK- In September 2003, in Millstatt, Austria, where I first saw you at a competition, your PB was 7’15”. How could you have improved so dramatically?
TS- The secret of that is very simple. I regard freediving as a competitive sport, therefore I train very hard,almost every day. When I reached the point last year when my new goal became Martin Stepanek’s world record of 8’06”, I realized that I had to change my training routine. I had to increase my training intensity. For two weeks I trained every day. I had to organize helpers for my training, so I asked my friends and I rounded up a helper for each day. Like other parts of the body, lungs can be trained, too.
I stretched my lungs, and they adapted to it. I packed 20-30 times, and after two weeks of intensive training, I reached 8’06". Then, in February 2004, I trained for three weeks, packed 40 times, and I did 8’58”. Now my personal best is 9’46”. It all comes down to training hard enough. However, maybe that packing can have a long-term effect on me. That’s the thing I am most worried about. Hopefully, I will know more after the February medical checks.
AK- How do you suppress the mental and physical urges to come up and take a deep breath?
TS- My dives can be divided into two sections. The first five minutes, and the four following ones. In the first five minutes, the focus is on the mental relaxation. It’s like trying to go to sleep at night. First, the thought about your dinner with your girlfriend last night pops up, then you slowly try to clear your mind. You try to relax, you take a deep breath – well, the latter does not apply in my case… after about five minutes the mind is clear and I concentrate solely on my body. That’s when the body starts to give signs, my muscles start to contract. Interestingly, it is most intensive in my left calf. I try to focus on relaxing every muscle – during the second section of my dive, my main focus is on the body.
AK- As your results have become better and better, didn’t you feel that you were getting trapped in your own successes? You said after your world record in October that you needed a break because of mental exhaustion, but then you did another world record in Eindhoven. It may sound a far-fetched comparision, but your case reminds me of Celine Dion. She wanted to have a baby because her biological clock was ticking, and then came Titanic, with the song My Heart will Go On, and it was such a huge success that she simply did not have time to have a baby for another two years.
TS- I see what you mean, but you know, I’m afraid of taking a break now when I am on a winning streak, because something might happen to me, and then maybe I would not be able to compete at the highest level anymore. Therefore, I try to set the bar as high as I can, to make it harder for others to break my records in the future.
AK- I am sure there is one goal ahead of you that is more important than any other right now: that mythical 10-minute mark.
TS- Despite some private goals in my life – yes, I am not particularly interested in the nine-minute mark, but I definitely wanna be the person who breaks the 10-minute barrier. I plan to reach it in 2005, but in order to be able to do that officially, I need to do 11 minutes in training. Besides that, I want to become a world record holder in the two dynamic disciplines – finally. My personal best in Dynamic without fins is 200 meters, and my PB in Dynamic with fins is 210 meters. [The interview was made on the 16h of December, before Tom’s dive in Hamburg on the 18th-19th of December, where he reached 175 m without fins, and 215 with fins. These two have become national records, since there was no international judge at the scene.]
AK- That means that you basically swim as far during training without fins as the existing record with fins? Unbelievable! You know, I start to understand why people said after your A-sample result came out in September, and it was positive, that they had "known" Tom could not have done so much without doping, etc. It is hard to accept that you are capable of such results. On the other hand, it is your sheer determination that made me believe in your innocence all the way. You needed three months to prove your innocence. Could you tell me more about this?
TS- In a nutshell, a week ago I received an official document stating that my B-sample was negative. The lab told me that they had used three different methods to examine my sample and that although it would had been easily detected, they hadn’t found a trace – nothing. It seems that the first laboratory made a mistake, and the A-sample was contaminated in the lab.
AK- When your A-sample result was published on the AIDA website, everybody was talking about your doping case, but now, there is no buzz about the B-sample. The only "proof” of it I found was that the "pending” note disappeared from the AIDA record page, and you have become the official world record holder with 8’47”. Did you receive any appologies?
TS- Oh, not really. Nowadays, doping allegations are part of sports, and it is guilty until proven innocent, not innocent until proven guilty, as it should be. When my A-sample result was published, first I did not even feel like going to events, because everybody was asking me about my "doping case”. On the other hand, I was angry, and it made me wanna show the world how good and how innocent I was. I received many negative emails, and I was pretty depressed. Although the majority believed me, many people had their doubts. Just a small number, outside of family and friends, believed and supported me all the way. You were one of them. These people helped me to overcome my depression and continue my work. Nonetheless, it was probably this urge to "take a revenge” that made me stronger and made me break the record again and again.
AK- How much have these world records changed your life?
TS- It is still strange for me that so many people are interested in my opinion. I have a huge amount of emails to answer all the time, but I do not want to reach the point when I do not have the time to answer them personally.
AK- I have heard that you want to become world champion in 2005. I guess you are not taking a break any soon.
TS- No, I have big plans for 2005 so I guess, I have to postpone "having a baby” for another year at least!