2004 CAFA Nationals: Fun in the Sun (Really !)

AIDA judge/ CAFA President Kirk Krack’s soothing voice rose as he led us through the first competitor’s’ briefing for the 2004 CAFA Nationals. Behind him and through an open door came the screams and squeals of children splashing in the pool at the University of British Columbia. Looking around me, it was obvious that I wasn’t the only one who felt like bolting from the room and joining those kids in their mayhem.

Restraint, though, was the order of the day, with static apnea up first.

Eric Fattah stared unblinkingly at the floor. The usually effusive Ananda Escudero was quiet. Even Mandy-Rae Cruickshank was a lighter shade of pale. We had done the training, paid the $150 registration fee and, like Matt Charlton (who had flown in all the way from Toronto) we had all made the commitment to give it a shot. The “it” varied from person to person. It was either good, clean performances, the chance at a new personal best, or, for some, the chance to represent Canada at the World Championships in August.

Despite training since January, despite having “been there, done that” at the last regional competition and many others, despite being sick with a chest cold and having announced conservative performances- so why should I worry?– and despite the knowledge that there were rookie competitors, probably, with worse nerves than mine, my heart was already pounding as Kirk finished the rigmarole of rules, safety and procedure. The worst is over, I thought, as the briefing wrapped up and we walked out onto the pool deck.  It can only get better from here.

Static apnea is where it all gets decided. Athletes are bound to their constant weight announcements–unless they turn early–but not so for static. The question on my mind was how much further might each person go beyond his announced performance? The suspense was palpable in the air. Eric Fattah had done an 8:20 dry static the night before but had come down with a mysterious fever the morning of the competition. Luc Gosselin, current Canadian static record holder, would likely try to amass as many points in static as possible, given his expertise in the discipline and because he had suffered a lung squeeze some weeks before and so was playing it safe with a announced performance of 28 metres in constant weight. Matt Charlton from Toronto was also a threat to pull off 6 minutes as he had done at the Eastern Regional Competition the week before. Would seasoned competitor Mandy-Rae Cruickshank hold off the rapidly improving challengers Ananda Escudero and first-time competitor Jessica Apedaile?

I had only time enough to trade a few jokes with Mandy-Rae, see Ananda lying on the pool deck curled up into the fetal position while waiting for her official warm-up to start, and wish the always-shivering Greg Fee good luck before I entered the competition zone for my warm-up. It went well, considering my battered immune system, but as my official countdown approached, I knew that all was not well. By five minutes into my static, I could feel the telltale signs of hypocapnia, the unusual delay of contractions, the fluttering of the diaphragm, the subtle retreat of clarity from my mind. I pulled up at 5:06, playing it safe. Annoyed by my uncooperative physiology, I gave the okay and then hoisted myself on the edge of the pool and made a run for it. Judge Kirk corralled me back into the water until I had been observed for 30 seconds. I felt like a caught fish waiting to be released.

Meanwhile, other dramas were being written by my fellow competitors. Adam Lein won the spectacular black out prize with his girlfriend looking on. He received a nice hug from the missus for his artistry. Gabrielle Legendre made a valiant effort to 4:31, but had an LMC at the end of her static. And Matt Charlton, thrown off guard by the deepness of the “shallow end” and the unfamiliar setting of the pool, tussled with a borderline recovery until he was disqualified.  Luc Gosselin was last to go and he didn’t realize until the results were read out afterwards how close Eric Fattah came to breaking his national record of 7:14. Only 2 seconds!  With mock relief he congratulated Mr. Fattah on a job well done. Greg Fee conquered his shivering long enough to exceed his announced time. His shivering is really something. I bet there’s no one in the whole wide world that can make 3:35 with his teeth clattering like typewriter keys!

On the women’s side, Mandy-Rae pulled off a sparkling 6:07 with her trademark aplomb and gleaming smile for the judges, followed by Ananda Escudero, who is fast rising up the AIDA ranking list with a crisp 5:32 and okay signals that were so strong as to leave no doubt that she can go much, much further. Add Jessica’s easy 5:04, Jade Leutenegger’s 4:44 and Gabrielle’s potential once she fine-tunes her static apnea and the Canadian women have never been stronger. Word has it that Ananda is trying to get her Canadian citizenship in time for Worlds. Desculpe, Brasil. She’ll be ours soon.

The pool event is always a little foggy in the memory –- maybe it’s the chlorine fumes—- but I left that night with a clear picture of Matt Charlton’s profound chagrin at not making a clean static. I told him that it’s not over until the sweet mermaid sings. But even so, already there was a distinct release of tension among us all.

The forecast for the next day was for a small craft warning and rain. Saturday morning came. I rose early, bleary-eyed and still smelling of chlorine and stale suit lube, and packed my gear with sweaters and a rain jacket. A pessimist that morning, I left my shorts and t-shirt on my bed.

By the time Eric and I drove into the Lions Bay Marina parking lot the sun was out, the ocean was dead calm and everyone was hard at work on their sunburns while the volunteers Tom, Laurent, Julien, Chris, Calvin, Darryl, Peter, Stephanie, the indomitable Greg Hamilton, and the crew of the Sea Dragon set up the competition and training lines in over 200 metres of depth, a mere “stone’s throw” from the marina. An ideal spot for the World Championships.

Another briefing by Kirk and the stage was set. As everyone scurried around to get suited up in time for the boat pickup, Eric and I stood around with nothing to do, no suit lube to mix, no smelly wetsuits to handle. It was weird. There was no wet suit in my gear bag; I was really going through with this no suit thing.

Gabrielle Legendre overheard Eric discussing the merits of no suit freediving with a few of the competitors. She blinked first, and then her jaw dropped. “You’re not serious!” Jill Yoneda, an EMT from Vancouver Island, asked Eric if he was worried about hypothermia. “We do this in winter,” he said. Jill could only manage a blank look.

I felt a little nervous about doing my dive without a suit for the first time at a competition. You only really have about 10 or 12 minutes before the cold starts to take big bites out of you. Luckily, the competition lines were set up off the back of the Sea Dragon, so I could keep my total immersion time to a minimum.

The final results table, which was posted within minutes of the competition’s end by CAFA’s amazing webmaster Tom Lightfoot, tells only part of what transpired that afternoon. The real action was at the bottom of the line where the tags held congress with the deep safety scuba divers and the jellyfish. Eric turned at 74 metres, leaving his tag at the bottom, but not before getting branded on his shoulder and thigh by a lion’s mane wrapped around his lanyard. Ouch!  Mandy-Rae retrieved her tag from 66 metres but suffered a mild LMC during her surface recovery. She was disappointed but managed to smile when Jill the EMT offered her some free oxygen. Big Brent Pascall pulled ahead of me in the standings with a great dive to 52m and Matt Charlton offered a taste of better things to come when he came up from 48 metres with Eric’s 83 metre tag instead of his own.

Then, it was my turn.

The thermocline wasn’t too bad at 10 metres during my warm-up dive. I hung there letting my skin pucker up and certain appendages shrink. Then back to the surface for a short 2 1/2 minute breathe-up and then down I went.  I could feel the water slipping deliciously over my skin. There were two tags at the bottom, Matt’s and mine. I managed to avoid blundering into any jellyfish and grabbed both tags. I surfaced, gave the okay and got some laughs trying to add 48m and 45m together during my “recovery.” Eventually, I was able to convince the judges that my bad math skills did not represent a loss of mental control.

Gabrielle, a little quieter though upbeat after her LMC in static, showed why she has lots of potential with a 40 metre dive that seemed as easy for her as the 18 metre dive she did two months earlier at the Western Regionals. Watch out for the young Gabrielle in the near future! Jade would have equalled this result were it not for a lingering sinus cold that blocked her at 2 metres. A frustrating result for her, but what can you do when your head is full of goo?

Greg Fee was the last competitor to go. I saw him on the boat before his warm-up. He was wearing a wet nylon Picasso suit. He was shivering. Again. It was at least 25 degrees Celsius in the sunshine. Greg never fails to add excitement and character to all CAFA competitions. His passion for the sport is obvious.  We were not disappointed. Greg’s dive drew the loudest cheers from the competitors and spectators on the Sea Dragon. Judge Kirk Krack followed him down and watched him collect the spoils of success from the bottom plate. “He grabbed one tag,” Kirk said, telling us what he saw. Then Greg paused and plucked another from the line. He waited, still hanging at 27 metres and then grabbed the third and last tag. It slipped from his hand but with deliberation he caught it before it fluttered down into the abyss below. At the surface, after a clean recovery, and already shivering but happy, Greg raised his arms in victory after making a new competition personal best in constant weight. When he can triumph over the shivering, he’ll be unstoppable.

As I sat shivering on the top deck of the Sea Dragon enjoying the cooling effect of chilled blood returning from my extremities, I saw many happy faces. Mario Gomez made his 37 metres look easy as did Jessica Apedaile with a 34 metre monofin dive (she was born to use a monofin). Luc Gosselin escaped from 28 metres without any signs of squeeze and the safety scuba divers got through their decompression without any trouble. Suddenly it was as though we’d been on a luxury cruise all along in Howe Sound, bathing in the sunshine and surrounded by calm seas, mountains and eagles wheeling overhead.

The next day dynamic was brutally early after the long day in the sun the day before. After struggling in the last seconds of his preparation to secure his noseclip onto his sunscreen greased nose, Eric Fattah succeeded in breaking the dynamic apnea record I had held since 2001 with a distance of 136 metres, cut short only because his goggles started to slip off. Mandy-Rae also upped her Canadian record to 122 metres in style. Brent Pascall, Greg Fee and Mario Gomez, with his incredible ballooning neoprene vest, all managed to surpass the 100 metre mark. Look for longer dynamics from those gents in the future.

Jessica Apedaile, veteran of the Canadian women’’s underwater hockey team for several years, became Canadian champion with solid performances in all three disciplines, at least until Ananda Escudero dons Canadian colours. Eric Fattah dominated as usual, despite last minute complications, and came close to new Canadian records in constant and static apnea.

A relaxing barbecue capped the competition, with juggling and clown tricks thanks to Greg Fee (who wore dry, warm clothes for a change) and award presentations by the judges, Kirk, Helen, Tom and Grant Graves from the USAA. Mandy-Rae’s dog Cody got all the love from the women of CAFA and Calvin Hass’ evocative and expert photography brought the event to life for all of us in the aftermath. If you haven’t already seen the faces of CAFA competitors, volunteers and spectators, check us out at: http://www.pbase.com/chojan/freedive_nat0604  or come to Worlds and see us for yourself. We’re all better looking in person and looking forward to sharing our emerald waters with you.

Full results and credits for the 2004 CAFA Nationals can be found at :
www.freedivecanada.com.

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