2014 We Freedive Suunto Series

Early in 2014, the We Freedive Suunto Series in Phuket, Thailand was born. It was a series born of the desire to promote freediving at its best, with clean solid dives being the standard. The series winner would be the one with the cleanest record over the entire series. The grand prize – a Suunto D6i and along the way, a bunch of other great freediving prizes.

Richard Wonka and Sarah Whitcher of We Freedive were the driving force behind making this series happen along with the generous support of the sponsors – Suunto, Carl Webb, Dive Supply in Phuket, and Specialfins. It is a pretty thankless task to organize competitions. There is a lot of work that goes on and money that gets spent behind the scenes, and I, for one, want to give a huge shout out of thanks to the organizers and sponsors. Here you see Sarah and Richard and Carl from the August static competition. Now when did you ever see a Suunto sponsor participate in a competition? May be a first. Carl has been an enthusiastic supporter of the series from the beginning.

Unless otherwise stated, photos used by permission – We Freedive

On Sunday, December 21, we all got together for the final competition encompassing all three pool disciplines. I arrived that day leading the series by one white card over Melanie Long, so any mistake would be crucial. No one else was even in contention. Both of us had maintained a completely clean record of swims over the series. My lead was solely because I competed in one more event than Melanie. Just so there won’t be any suspense, Melanie and I accounted for 6 white cards during the final with no mistakes, so I ended up winning the series and the grand prize.

Photo – Walter Johnson

The real news from the final, however, came from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Azam Hamid had broken the 5:00 barrier for the first time during the static competition in November. He had been working toward this for years. It was the first time above 5:00 for a Malaysian in an official AIDA competition, but he did not want to stop there. He had not trained at all since November, but we were able to get in the water the day before the final so he could reestablish his confidence. He showed that he was definitely ready, and the morning’s static schedule set up well for him, as the previous athlete did a shorter static. That gave him about 6 minutes in the competition zone before his OT, much better than the situation in November. It was a perfect setup, and he took full advantage of it. No one works harder during statics than Azam, I think, so he, above all people, deserves the success he has achieved. He easily, or maybe not so easily, passed his previous record of 5:01, holding to 5:08, a white card, and new Malaysian national record.

Not to be outdone, Nora Lestari came from Jakarta, Indonesia in the hopes of establishing Indonesian national records in all three disciplines. She arrived the Wednesday before the competition. Katie Wierenga and I coached her during the week, and she was nervous but ready. I don’t know if Nora is famous or not but she should be. She was one of the subjects of one of the most amazing underwater photo shoots I have ever seen, by Benjamin Von Wong.

Used by permission – http://vonwong.com/

Needless to say, she is a bit more streamlined in competition.

First up for her was the static event, coached ably by Katie. We had worked the schedule so that everyone we trained with was supported well, I think, and it all worked out ok. She had broken 3 minutes several times during training, and she did it again, holding to 3:13, a new Indonesian national record – 1 of 3.

Nora had sprained her ankle a few weeks before the competition, and had only been able to work on statics, so she really needed the few days before the competition to gain some confidence. Her ankle was not 100%, but she was able to do the DYN anyway. She looked great and cruised out to a 65 meter white card and another new Indonesian national record – 2 of 3.

Lastly for Nora was the DNF. It seems that no one else in Indonesia likes DNFs, but Nora does, and she looks great doing it. One thing we worked on with her before the competition was how to get white cards, avoid yellow cards, and get maximum points during the events. It is not always so simple during dynamics, but she worked hard, and it showed during her DNF. I have seen people do 99 meter dynamics simply because they never trained how to come up at the wall and get maximum credit. Nora had no problem at all, firing up a 50 meter DNF, another white card and new Indonesian national record – 3 of 3.

Mission accomplished!

Nora now holds the Indonesian national records in 5 of the 6 competition disciplines.

She was also the first place woman. There were four women in the final, Nora, Melanie Long from the UK, Radziah Radzi from Malaysia, and Katie Wierenga from the United States.

Nora is an engineer working for an oil company in Jakarta. It is not a stretch of the truth at all to say that everyone loves Nora from the second they meet her. She is very enthusiastic and you can see that she really loves what she does.

Melanie glided gracefully to an 85 meter DYN white card, a new PB, and second in the competition. Competitions bring out the best in Melanie’s dynamics. This is the second time in the series she has done a PB during the competition.

Melanie is a dive instructor and mermaid model working here in Phuket. You can see more of her in this YouTube video.

Radziah had high hopes before the arriving in Phuket, but was very sick with a chest cold and basically suffered through the entire competition. Still, she got 3 white cards, and kept a great smile through all her difficulties.

Her trip to Phuket from Kuala Lumpur was a serious adventure. She got left by her bus twice at the Malaysia/Thailand border. Fortunately for us, she made it to Phuket ok.

Radziah works developing educational materials in Kuala Lumpur and is also teaching swimming there. In her spare time she has set Malaysian national records in 3 of the 6 competition disciplines.

Katie Wierenga came to the competition in the hopes of setting a new US national record in DNF. She prepared well, having passed the record twice in the last few training days before the competition. She is very good at duplicating her training in competition, and she did everything right in her swim. Her timing has always been great – in this swim, almost exactly 30 seconds per 25 meters and 3 strokes per lap over the first 100 meters. She looked great when she made the turn at 125, but she went just a bit too far and blacked out at 130 meters. I think it was mainly nerves that caused her problems. It was a huge disappointment for her, but we know Katie will be back. One note – she mostly trained DNF, so Katie has done maybe three DYNs in her life. From what I have seen, I am thinking that DNF will not be the only record she sets.

Katie is not just a freediver and athlete. She is an awesome person as well. She works for an NGO here in Thailand teaching children in the jungle and has plans to return to school to become a nurse. I am humbled seeing what she has already done with her young life and knowing what she could do in the future, freediving being only a small part of that.

Grégoire Folly was the ultimate winner of the final competition. Grégoire is back after a bit of a break from competitions, and with the coolest neck-weight. He fired up a 5:59 static, a 120 meter DYN (yellow card – grab), and a 93 meter DNF.

Now the DNF was a close call about his airways, as you will see when you check out his video. In any case, he got a white card. I put the slow motion in the video, so you be the judge – tough one.

His DYN yellow card was an obvious grab. The good news is that starting in 2015, that grab, along with a whole bunch of other stuff in dynamics, is totally legal.

Vladimir Botko, from Slovakia, placed second in the competition with strong performances in every event, a 5:21 STA, a 111 meter DYN, and a 75 meter DNF.

Vladimir has improved rapidly while training here in Phuket and is already doing 6:00+ statics. I look forward to seeing great things from him in the future.

Jonathan Gray, from South Africa, is new to competitions, but he is fast like greased lightening, as you can see from his video. He did a 75 meter DYN and his 75 meter DNF was about the same pace as my DYN, but he red carded his static when he was touched by his coach.

All he needs to do now is to get comfortable making the turn at 75. Once he does that, there is no stopping him, I think.

For me, my static was not so good at 4:40. I am doing no-warmup statics now, and I am still a bit inconsistent. That is my way of saying I wimped out on the static. I did the best DYN that day, at 112 meters and a white card, but I saved the best for last – my DNF. All I needed to win the series was a white card. It was not very long at 80 meters, but it was my way of showing some appreciation to the judges and safety diver, and really all of the volunteers that made this series happen. Also, if you want to see a total disintegration of all semblance of professionalism and decorum (otherwise known as “fun”), my DNF video is the video for you.

I also had to modify my armstroke for my DNFs because of some pain I was experiencing in my left shoulder. This new stroke is not pretty yet, but it gets me down the pool, and it doesn’t hurt.

On the dynamic, I almost got a yellow card. My fin almost surfaced at about the 40 meter point. Fortunately, I was aware of my loss of depth control and glided out of the situation without incident. That would have been a very expensive yellow card. The fin I am using is the DOL-Fin ORCA by Ron Smith of Smith Aerospace.

I am a retired US Navy nuclear plant operator, chemist, and radiation health specialist splitting my time between Thailand, Malaysia, and the US. Along the way I have spent a bit of time coaching freedivers in Phuket, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta.

This series was a great experience. A lot of wonderful people showed up over the past year, both to compete, and also to volunteer. For me that is what I like the most about freediving competitions, the amazing people I have been fortunate enough to meet, and how we take every opportunity to help each other out, and be glad of each others’ successes.

The water is nice too . . . and the masaman chicken 😉

Any of the public videos from this final and previous competitions in the series can be seen here

On one sad note – if the AIDA rule changes that came into effect on 1 January 2015 had applied in 2014, this series could not have happened, and future series are certainly in jeopardy. The new rules require 7 people to sign up and 5 to compete for a competition to be ranked. The only competition of this series that would have qualified was the final. I think this particular rule change is going to destroy small competitions. I question whether anyone is going to sign up without a guarantee of AIDA ranking, and no organizer of this kind of competition will be able to guarantee it.

Update (4th January 2015):  Today after much discussion with AIDA International over the last few days, I received confirmation that rule 3.2.20 as it is worded now was inserted in error into the AIDA Competition Rules just released on 1 January 2015.

The correct wording for the rule, as approved by the AIDA Assembly in a September 2014 vote, refers only to the ranking of competitions with world record status.

3.2.20  Minimum Number of Athletes for AIDA Competition with World Record Status.  In order to hold an AIDA Competition with World Record Status, a minimum of seven athletes must be registered for the competition.  In order for a performance to qualify as an AIDA world record from such competition, results must be posted for at least five athletes; this allows for recognition of a world record if two of the minimum seven athletes do not perform (e.g. due to illness).  If an organizer is not certain that five athletes will perform at an event, the organizer should treat the event as record attempts (which do not post to the AIDA ranking list, but may be valid for world and national records).

Other competitions, particularly small ones such as this series, will be unaffected by this rule. That correction has been or will soon be forwarded to the AIDA Assembly, and will be available for download from the AIDA site on or about Monday, 5 January 2015.

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  • Today, 4 January, after much discussion with AIDA International over the last few days, I received confirmation that rule 3.2.20, which is the rule I discussed at the end of the article, was inserted in error into the AIDA Competition Rules just released on 1 January.

    The correct wording for the rule, as approved by the AIDA Assembly in a September 2014 vote, refers only to ranking of competitions with world record status.

    Other competitions, particularly small ones such as this series will be unaffected by this rule. That correction has been or will soon be forwarded to the AIDA Assembly, and will soon be available for download from the AIDA site.