The Almost Impossible

Last year’s Vertical Blue was my first time working on a freediving competition as platform co-ordinator and announcer: calling in 30 dives a day for 9 days of stunning athletic performances. As we prepare Dean’s Blue Hole for another exciting event this year I am looking forward to all the exciting stories from 2012 being continued and the narratives from a very busy 2013 resolved in what is probably the last competition of the season.

With the clash of the Neptunes set to happen past the 100’s and the Mermaids jousting around with dives in the 90’s and 80’s it is easy to think that freedivers are all reaching for World Records, National Records and medals. But with 36 divers in Vertical Blue this year there are precisely 36 trials or trails of personal discovery, challenge, and victory. The beauty of this sport is that it allows each athlete to explore the hidden depths that lie within each one of them as they each reach to their limits.

Take the triumphs last year of Dee Dee Flores, a regular Vertical Blue attendee who stepped up to the line in 2012 to pursue an evasive 30 metre target in No Fins diving. After several early turns it seemed that every time she neared the plate her personal doubts would come scrambling up the line towards her again. With the safety team willing her on, accompanying her for the whole distance, she finally swept all of these gremlins aside and pushed herself faithfully deeper than she had ever been before in this discipline. In these moments each one of us touch that infinite, terrifying, beautiful, and sublime place; no matter how deep the dive happens to be. The deep has a divine emptiness, and we must always give ourselves enough energy and air to return from our brush with this place where no breath goes. It takes incredible focus to stare this abyss in the face and not falter.

Today modern cities and society is dominated by the ‘new security paradigms’ of health and safety, where legislation and architecture is designed to keep us safe and protect us from all danger whatsoever. But with all this ‘nannying’ we are also sheltered from the learning experiences that would make us more able, more empowered, and more independent in our abilities to survive life’s challenges and survive in nature. We become more dependent on the systems we create. By contrast, freediving opens up new surprises in the world of human potential. To most people Flores’ dive is beyond any comprehension. Ten years ago, who would have ever imagined that divers would propel themselves past 100 metres ? – without fins? To someone who is much less able than this, witnessing these achievements reminds me that humans are more than tripping clumsy bipeds, and that we have the agility, the intelligence, the perseverance, and the strength to survive on this planet outside our sheltered contemporary lifestyles.

To show that victories are everywhere in competitions like this, one need go no further in 2012 than one Japanese Diver, Yuki Muto. After two blackouts early in the competition it seemed that she was facing impassable barriers. But a simple Free Immersion dive to 36 metres (a discipline that she had never tried before) showed just how unbelievable all of these athletes are. Consider that for most people in the world, a dive to this depth (past 100 feet) sounds superhuman. In fact superheroes on comic book covers often look very similar to the photographs taken by the fantastic documentary team. Athletes are usually shown flying or floating against a uniform background with their hands extended in dynamic action poses. They wear futuristic one-piece suits with sexy graphics and colours: the glacial Japanese suits, Alexey Molchanov’s golden ‘Oscar Statue’ costume, Iru Balic’s ‘berry suit’, Ashley Futral-Chapman’s scaled shoulders, and the beautifully designed Orca suits. Add to this the dramatic setting, which is essentially a hole in a beach, and you have all the trappings of an X-Men styled summer block-buster.

This is superhuman. Freediving, like every other high-performance sport, exists at the very edges of the possibility – and all of the athletes perform at the top of their game, showing the world that we CAN do more (or be more) than we ever expected, and not to be afraid of the demons that try to persuade you to settle for less. The victories of divers like Flores and Muto show that we can all be superhuman, if we only try. And this is why free-diving matters so much today as a political, almost revolutionary act: proving our amazing potential to reach for the almost impossible.

photos © of Daan Verhoeven & Igor Liberti.