When the sun dawned on the first day of the 2002 Canadian Freediving Nationals, twelve competitors passed through a doorway to an alternate universe, the place where "Anything-Can-Happen."
In the week leading up to competition, local freedivers were joined by the out-of-towners, eager to get in the ocean for precious constant ballast practice. The goal: to set new personal bests and decide what to announce in the competition. Competitors like Brent Pascall and Damiano Angoli surpassed 45m for the first time only days before the competition. To set new personal bests is exhilirating, but the question that nags and torments every freediver is: Can I do it in competition? What should I announce? For the new freedivers like Dan Leus, with only months in the sport, what to announce is a rough guess at best.
And in the back of every freediver’s mind was the fact that the field was wide open. Last year’s Team Canada was absent except for Tom Lightfoot. Mandy-Rae Cruickshank opted not to compete so as to stay fresh for her static apnea world record attempt. Eric Fattah was a spectator and I had volunteered to help as a safety freediver. The coveted spots on the National team would go to the freediver with the most points over three events. It was anyone’s game.
Experienced competitors like Tom Lightfoot are familiar with the Anything-Can-Happen Universe. Confusion, miscues, strange reactions to stress. Eric Fattah recalls his first ever competition: "I got no points at all. It was a learning experience for sure."
Anything can happen…
Day 1: Briefing and Static Apnea
After welcoming competitors from Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton,
Toronto, Italy and Cuba, and special guests from France, Belgium and the USA, Kirk Krack and Ken McCullum remind the nervous crowd that the Nationals will give them a ranking that would enable them to qualify for Team Canada participation in the AIDA Pacific Cup in Kona, Hawaii. "Be conservative, do performances within your capabilities, and you’ll be fine," Kirk advises. "And good luck."
The pool is hot, stuffy and heavily chlorinated. Krack reminds competitors that in any competition, they’ll never have the "ideal"
conditions they’ve practiced in. "But it’s a level playing field for everyone," he says. The pool is a balmy 28C and the walls start to close in on a few competitors. Some decide to stick with what works, wearing a full 5mm wetsuit, while others try to adapt to the new conditions, shedding their neoprene and hoping to stay warm long enough to avoid shivering before their static.
Few competitors hold back, gunning for personal bests. Erik Young, looking to surpass his 5:41 static of 2001 (equaling the Canadian record), puts the pedal to the metal, huge convulsions rippling through his back, and finds himself on Martin Stepanek’s knee, dancing his version of the Samba. "I should have pulled up clean at 5:30," Erik says, a sheepish grin on his face. "I let my ego take over."
Dan Leus, a newcomer to freediving after only one month of training, sets a personal best of 4:54. Perry Gladstone surfaces after a solid 4:02 and exclaims in wonder, "I don’t think I had any contractions." It is the Toronto resident’s first competition.
Tom Lightfoot, two-time Team Canada member and CAFA record holder, shows his experience with the thin line between consciousness and Samba-land, pulling up at 5:05 and taking the early lead.
By 10pm the event is over and the judges meet to survey the carnage:
5 out of 12 competitors disqualified for sambas (loss of motor control) and blackouts. It seems that for the less experienced competitors, trying for personal bests has become more important than getting points. It could have been the chlorine, or the swampy pool water clouding their judgment. One thing for sure is that from the first event, the standings are not what was expected.
Day 2: Constant Ballast
A light rain falls on the organizers and competitors at Sunset Marina, a stone’s throw from Ansell Point, where local freedivers train. An army of technical scuba divers load their tanks and
full drysuits on to the dock, ready for pick up.
On the competition boat, the freedivers try to relax, ribbing each other as the boat plows through the green waters of Howe Sound towards the dive site. Erik Young, rueful after his static, is looking forward to his dive. He has announced 45m, a more conservative depth compared to last year’s 50m, but it would still be a personal best by one metre. Damiano Angoli, the Italian, will try to equal his personal best. Diane Price will attempt a conservative 20m, but knows that she will earn a spot on the team with points in all categories.
The competitors prepare to dive in a feeling of camaraderie, wishing each other the best, but hoping for the best in themselves. Of all the events, constant ballast is the most gratifying. Plucking a tag from the line and bringing it back to the surface makes sense. It is an accomplishment with a lasting record of its occurrence.
The day goes smoothly, thanks to the excellent organization of CAFA volunteers. Wrangling two large boats, the 85-foot Emerald Tide and the Cross-Current Diver, 12 competitors and over 30 volunteers, including redundant technical safety scuba divers from H20 Madness, judges, safety freedivers, timers, competitor-rustlers, and media and spectators, is a feat comparable to coordinating a death-defying stunt for a Hollywood action feature.
Tom Lightfoot keeps the lead with a solid dive to 60m, showing the same powerhouse form he used in Ibiza, Spain. Damiano Angoli grabs his tag at 50m and thrills the spectators with the best arm-pumping victory yell of any competition.
Brent Pascal, still riding high from two dives of 46m and 48m in training the week before and a personal best in static of 4:23 on Day 1, feels the altered physics of the "Anything-Can-Happen" Universe and suffers a blackout at the surface. Thankfully, he is smiling moments later, surrounded by his friends and safety divers.
The freedivers that opted for a more conservative strategy overall are in the driver’s seat. Tony Gray, Peter Pazdera, Diane Price and Tom Light maintain their early lead on the rest of the field. There is still a chance for the followers, as they start to understand that anything can happen…
Back at the pub–no one drinking yet–the competitors get a chance to see the surface video of their dives, while the organizers congratulate each other on a safe and successful constant ballast event.
Day 3: Dynamic Apnea
In the airy and bright Watermania pool, fifty metres of glassy water just waiting to be rippled, it is obvious that competitors are more relaxed and ready to enjoy the final event of the CAFA Nationals.
Greg Fee, recovering from a burst eardrum in April and a blackout in static apnea two days before, sets a personal best in dynamic with a distance of 64.5m. He catches the attention of the crowd with his unorthodox Enzo breathe-up style and his black rubber cave-diving scuba fins. When he surfaces, the smile is irrepressible.
Brent Pascal, showing how true grit can overcome the setback of a blackout, sets a personal best of 88.5m. Erik Young, coming off a disappointing 37m dive due to equalizing problems, was one of two competitors to make 100m. Not stopping there, he equals the Canadian dynamic record of 108m, after the official competition.
Diane Price, another newcomer and the lone woman competing, shows how cool she is with full points in all disciplines and a fourth place finish overall. This consistency will lead to success in Kona. She also came within 10m of Mandy-Rae Cruickshank’s Canadian record for no-fins dynamic apnea.
At the awards ceremony, The competitors, returned from the alternate universe, were happy to eat and drink and make merry in the aftermath of their excellent performances. Tom Lightfoot and Diane Price won the overall National titles. Our European friends, including AIDA Vice-President, Fred Buyle, expressed their eagerness to get back in the emerald sea. And it was obvious to all the guests, volunteers, and competitors that when it comes to freediving, Canada has great depth.
For official competition results, please visit:
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