“It is a remarkable venue for a freedivingcompetition, isn’t it?” I mentioned to Martin Stepanek in the morning as diverswere finalizing their registration for the competition. The Cenote Azul isspectacular indeed, close to 600 feet wide and depths close to 260 feet (80meters) this fresh water hole is the result of an intricate subterranean watersystem with many connections throughout this region of the once Mayancontrolled Yucatan peninsula. Martin nodded and walked away as his attentionwas focused on Niki Roderick from New Zealand, his other half and FIT athletegoing for a 48 meters constant weight no fin attempt. Niki had a day off oftraining yesterday as a sinus infection was causing equalization problems.Today is a ranking day with only a few athletes that wanted to do some extradiving before the official national competition that starts tomorrow. Juan“Olas” Manuel Verdusco organizer of the competition along with Alejandro Lemuspresident of Aida Mexico and Armando Torres head AIDA judge were nice enough toopen this invitation to all competitors who wanted the opportunity to divetwice. The majority of the international contingent (Niki Roderick, MT andAharon Solomon,Macarena Benitez, Julie Russell) jumped on the offer along witha few Mexicans (Luis Turrent, Mariana Espinosa, Alejandro Lemus) looking tobreak some national records.
I moved away from the registration area andwalked toward the restaurant where a few athletes were seating drinking watertrying to hydrate as the heat and humidity were settling into the late morning.Maria Theresa “MT” Solomon was relaxed and smiling as she was quietly chattingwith Jewels (Julie Russell) the USAA rising star. Both had been training thepast couple days together and the dynamic (no pun intended) in between thesetwo was probably the reason of this overall feeling of joy and relaxation. LuisTurrent one of the top freediving athlete in Mexico and also vice president ofAIDA Mexico walked by sending a friendly : “Que onda nico?” my way, he was allsmile too. How great to see international athletes in a Mexican competition. Itwas a bit rough in the beginning to communicate on the training lines, as thebarrier in between culture and language is always a challenge but onregistration morning nothing but joie de vivre was present on the side of thisancient Mayan Cenote.
Juan “Olas” the organizer of thecompetition is busy talking with Armando Torres the head AIDA judge. I had achance to converse with them last night over safety. The Mexican safety protocol is good, withcounter weight system; safety free, scuba and trimix divers, evacuation boatand paramedics. Juan insisted that being a technical diver himself he alwayslikes to have as many back up as possible if anything goes wrong. Luckily no major incidents happened duringthe competition but for the two black outs from AIDA president Alejandro Lemus,who apparently was rather familiar with the paramedics and their protocols. Hewas back both times rapidly and oxygen was quickly administered.
Kick cycles, equalization, depth, timingfilling busy minds on a busy line. MT is first an announced 60 meters she stillhas her last year black out in mind but for some reason I know she is in thezone right now and everything is lined up for a smooth glide.
Cinquo,quatro,tres,dos,uno; she turned overto face the blue and in a graceful stroke she is gone. All faces are stuck onD3’s the line has gone blank; she has disappeared for a minute now. I hear thecountdown for the safety freediver and after another minute and 4 seconds sheis back at the surface, “I am ok” she repeats a few times “I am okay” staringin judge Armando’s eyes. There is apause and all of sudden applause starts to be heard, it is a white card fromthe judge that emerges over the small crowd. MT is hugging Jewels, and thenAharon. He quickly shouts:” I knew you would do it!” A clean and effortlessdive that is what we just witnessed. The morning is starting well. Mexican Freediver Luis Torrent is now doinghis breath up. It is quiet in a goodway, relax quiet, the birds in the jungle behind us are making all sorts oftropical noises and Luis is gone. Back at the surface he is okay too, he didnot equalize passed 55 meters and turned around, he was going for 60. But his smile predive is still on his facepost this is a Mexican national record. Someone does a breath up right behindme on the competition line, before I can figure out who went down I see theGlide fin sticker disappearing in the dark. It is Aharon Solomon, exactely 2:08minutes after his descent he breaks surface with a bright yellow tag “55meters” that indicates that he broke (awaiting USAA agreement on the matter)his own US Masters record of 50 meters set last October.
Applause again, respect is given from theyounger crowd. Alejandro Lemus AIDA Mexico president himself is getting readyto dive with an announced 60 meters free immersion. The first thing that comesto my mind as I see Alejandro pulling down on the line is the word “fast”.Maybe too fast as he comes back a couple minutes later with the blue lips andthe black out that goes with it. In fractions of seconds divers are holding himand blowing on his face he regains consciousness and is evacuated to shore alittle shaken but fine. Everything is back to normal. Chilean freediverMacarena Benitez is next. No I never mentioned this cheesy song that sticks toeveryone’s mind when I first met her but as her name was announced my corruptedmind was singing in the depth of my hyperactive brain. Hey Maccarena, ha! Shewas gone and back, a nice smooth dive to 40 meters. Another Latin American upand coming is Mariana Espinosa, a nice long 1’50” minutes to get the white cardfrom the judges on a 30 meter free immersion = Women Mexican free immersionrecord who was so far at 25 meters. The rest of the day went smoothly with alate lunch break and an opening ceremony orchestrated by the Aida Mexicorepresentatives and some local personalities of the Bacalar and Cenote Azul communityto welcome the participants to the competition.
From Baja to Chiapas,Veracruz and theYucatan (Quintana Roo) peninsula a vast majority of this huge country isrepresented. It is a first for an Aida Mexican Competition to invite the USneighbors and international athletes in the competition an but as organizerJuan Olas of Aida Mexico concluded at the end of the ceremony “it is the firstof many to come”. It is a nicealternative for US athletes who want to improve their ranking these days as UScompetitions are becoming a costly event because of liability insurance.
Day 2 of competition opened by the side ofthe Hotel Laguna pool, it was nice to finally be able to buy a coffee to worldrecord holder Martin Stepanek who was for once not competing. On the Mexicanside of static, we witnessed an average of 3 minutes divers with a nice5’05’’minutes performance from Carlos Lazos. The international pod was lead byAharon Solomon who complaining about a hurting knee and his dislikes for thestatic discipline announced 1’30’’, hedid a 2’50’’ minutes and went straight back to the hotel for some rest. Quicklythereafter Jared Schmelzer from the FIT team came up, a tad blue lipped, from a4’36” minutes. Maccarena Benitez along with another competitor did not show updue to food poisoning – something to be taken into account in these exoticlocales. Martin commented that we should see a few divers not showing up atevents during the world championships in Sharm-el-Sheikh for the same reason. First time competitor Jared Schmelzer on Day 2 of competition came back clean from 51 meter. Like many new competitors on the scene Jared is a talent trained by F.I.T which promise new blood on the US competitive scene.
I watched a few more competitors; handcopied the results peeking over Judge Armando Torres and Erika Meza respectiveshoulder and headed back to the Cenote Azul as it was time for vertical limitsto be broken. Broken indeed, as MT pushed her mark further with an effortless62 meters dive, she came up brandishing her bright yellow tag and kept her handup, a sign of victory over herself and her fears “Now I know I can go further alot further!” she mentioned to Mariana Espinosa who was hugging her. FabianCoronna a head mechanic for Alaska Airlines whose father use to be CMAS Mexicopresident back in the days, did a successful dive to 35 meters. “I just cameback from Anchorage and have not trained in a long time so I figured I play itsafe!” he told me as we exited the water. The restaurant that you need to gothrough to access the Cenote was filled with divers, tourist and locals whocame to witness the rather unusual competition. Over lunch I heard conversationfrom the owner of the restaurant who was telling divers to keep their eyes openas there is a legend in town that says that the Cenote Azul is full of Mayangold.
US freediver Michael Antinori did not findgold, but a remarkable 69 meters dive. Remarkable for many reasons, the firstone is that Michael broke his monofin in half the second day of training whichmade him drop his 72 meters announced dive to a more conservative 69 meters.Luckily Luis Turrent (who happens to be the same footsize) from the Mexicanteam loaned his to Michael. Michael had only a couple of training dive withthis carbon fiber monofin clearly stiffer than his broken fiberglass. Then onhis first attempt the lanyard got entangled with the tags, Juan Olas , and thejudges apologized and offered a second chance, because of timing and deco fortrimix divers, Michael was only given 3 minutes to attempt his dive again. Thelevel of stress by then was quite high and I was already thinking we mightwitness a samba on that one. But Michael came through; as he surfaced I wasamazed by the calm one could read on his face. I have to admit I became instantly a big fan and I am looking forwardperformances he will put out in Sharm for the worlds, especially if he getsideal conditions. A big round of applause, a few hugs to MT and Jewels, andMichael was giving back the monofin to Luis Turrent who high fived him on his way back to shore.
Guillermo Ramirez from AIDA Veracruz one ofthe main contender for the competition was face down starring into the mysticgreen waters of the Cenote, probably visualizing his dive and kicking cycles toaccomplish his announced 48 meters in constant weight.
He quickly came back, the ritual silencepost dive was observed he continuously said “I am Okay”, while judge Erika Meza was starring at his face and herwatch. The white card made another appearance and the Mexican team startedcheering loudly, everyone hugged everyone, Alejandro Lemus AIDA MexicoPresident congratulated Guillermo. M.T. shouted “felicidades!” at this pointeveryone realized it would take a lot to get Guillermo’s pole position.
Hotel Laguna pool, the next morning, HenryIbanes from the Chiapas team is preparing spreading the good vibes and smiles,simply ecstatic to be here in Bacalar. In the days preceding the competition,as they were looking to find a place to camp (all the hotels were either fullor far too expensive for the college students they are), the mayor of Bacalarhearing of their lodging problems graciously provided them with a free place tostay during the event.
Rodrigo Friscione, silver medal in theMexican national 50 meters freestyle is stretching his typical “v-shape” bodyas he chats leisurely with Juan Olas. Armando Torres, explains to me that a lotis to be expected from this 45 meters CW diver in the next AIDA Mexiconationals. MT is doing pranayama breathing, floating at the pool surface, hereyes lost in the blue sky. She declared 3’00” minutes but will successfullyexecute a 4’36”, not a sign of stress on her face. “I could have done more butmy head is not quite in the zone this morning” she confesses to me as we rodein the same car back to the Cenote Azul. There, Jewels is awaiting, she looks tired and her boyfriend RolandoFajardo tells MT that she barely slept last night due to food poisoning.Despise the fatigue Jewels executes a 50 meters dive with brio. She comes upenergized from her vertical journey and once again the hug ritual takes placeright after the white card from Amando. I quickly hear that Nikki Roderick is a “no show” this morning due tosinus infection, I feel bad as we all know that Roderick has great potentialand did not deserve to spend this competition staring at her casita ceiling butso is the journey of a freediver. Aharon Solomon who is next on the list tellsMartin to give his best to Niki. He quickly turns face down to prepare for hisdive. He finishes his breath up andafter the top from the judges he disappears quickly in the darkness. I look atmy watch a couple of minutes go by and Aharon did it again, 60 meters a new USmasters Record. He is happy: “Next time 70 meters! A meter for every year of mylife!” Aharon is a living legend in the world of freediving and we all hopesecretly to become like him when we growup.
The end of the day will conclude with asecond bad black out, from Alejandro Lemus attempting a 49 meters dive and withFriscione’s 45 meters successful dive. Back at the restaurant surrounded by allthe athletes it is closing ceremony time, with Mexican traditional music anddancers. Everyone congratulates Guillermo Ramirez as the “numero uno” and JuanOlas the organizer of this fun and safe competition ends on a great note: “Wewould like to thank first of all, all the competitors for making this eventsuccessful!” Sure the infrastructure and logistic of a competition seem to bealways the most challenging part but the athletes is what makes the sport.Coming back from a successful competition like the one AIDA Mexico justorganized, and discovering all the new faces that are here and will be, assuresme of a successful future for the worldwide development of freediving.
I would like to personally congratulateall the competitors of this event and AIDA Mexico for making this eventpossible.