An Interview with Walter Steyn – Australia's -100 Man

Louise Dixon: The Vertical Blue competition in the Bahamas was a very successful competition for you, congratulations on becoming the 10th man in history to reach -100m CW. It’s a remarkable achievement.  You pushed your own National Record deeper by -23m that’s a huge jump. Was 100m your goal for this comp?

Walter Steyn: No. 100m was not my goal until perhaps the last few days of comp when I did 95m easily and then thought it may be achievable. In general I try not to set fixed performance goals for competitions. My main goal for the VB comp was to enjoy the competition and hopefully set some PB’s on the way. I was mostly focused on constant in this competition. In 2006 I was diving 80m constant and 70m no-fins, so I knew it was mostly equalising holding me up.

Walter Steyn Large Headshot

LD: When/where was your previous depth comp?

WS: In 2008 at Lake Taupo in New Zealand, after a 2 year break from training & competition I still managed to dive 80m pretty easily after only 3 or 4 training dives. The Lake can be a little cold but in general a great place to train compared to having to deal with rough ocean conditions and long boat rides to get to any sort of depths. After a long break from competing I really enjoyed the competition and training with the Kiwi’s and it got me interested in the sport again. I also got a bit of hint then that if can improve my equalising ability I could definitely pull out some much bigger dives.

LD:  Do you have the opportunity to train at depth very often?

WS: No, really only when I go overseas for a competition, then I allow for a few weeks of depth training before the comp. At home I mostly only train in the pool and do dynamics.

LD: What sort of training do you focus on for the 2-3 months before a comp like this?

WS: It was a bit of a last minute decision to enter the VB comp so didn’t have an ideal preparation this time round. The most effective training was really the 2 1/2 weeks of depth training before the competition. Before the comp I would do dynamics a couple of times a week and spent some time working on equalising by practising exhale dives in a 5m deep pool. In previous comps I have found that a couple of months of more intense training leading up to a comp is often better then training the same all year round. I didn’t train as much as I would have for a pool competition. At the time I thought I would still be limited by equalising so was less worried about the breathold/maximum performance aspect.

LD: Do you incorporate very much cross-training in your approach to apnea?

WS: I ride the bike and do a bit of swimming while I’m at the pool but most of the time will be using the monofin.

LD:  I believe you trained with finswimmers for some time how did this help your development as a freediver?

WS: Fin swimming for a couple of years really helped me a lot to develop a good monofin technique. I still use classic finswimming technique particularly for constant weight although also use modified styles more suited for freediving.  It’s good to be able to do a variety of strokes and kicking styles as each can have different advantages when going slow, fast , varying levels of fatigue or changes in buoyancy.  Most of my big gains have been changes in technique and little to do with “breathold”.  I have spent a lot of time over the years improving both my monofin and no-fins technique and that’s what’s really paid off more then anything else. I think a lot of people think training hard is the key to improving when training smart is more important. Of course if you can do both its far better.

LD:  Obviously a healthy diet is important for any athlete. How much emphasis do you place on diet leading into big dives?

WS: I think generally eating healthy food is important specially for training, exercise and leading up to a dive. Having said that there isn’t any magic foods out there that will help you hold your breath longer so I’m not that fussy. A meal with plenty of carbs like rice or pasta is good the day before a dive.

LD: Do you incorporate a breath hold or  warm up dive before a big dive like this?

WS: I just kept it simple for this comp and would do an exhale dive as a warm-up. It was mostly as a bit of a lung stretch and practise equalising and handling the pressure at depth.

LD: Can you describe your -100m dive to us, physically and psychologically.

WS: It was the day after having done 98m and towards the end of the competition and I quite mentally and physically tired. I tried to not put any pressure on myself and just do my best and see what happens. On top time I packed as much as I could and took a bit longer then I normally do trying to squeeze every bit of air in I could. After the duck dive I kicked hard for the first 15m then eased off a bit as the buoyancy decreases. I used lighter more relaxed kicking with occasional gliding until about 40m where I did the mouthfill and stopped kicking altogether. This is the point where I really need to relax my body, only focusing on equalising and making small adjustments to fall straight.  It takes a long time to get to the bottom with nearly a minute of freefall, and it’s starts getting darker and darker and by 80m is pretty much pitch black. I was starting to have difficulty equalising but stuck with it for a little while and soon saw the bottom plate which has lights on it. When I got to the plate I had quite bad narcosis and at the time felt compelled to feel around and grab all the tags down there. Coming up from the bottom I focused on kicking fast but with good technique, it’s sort of controlled sprinting and takes a lot of energy. About halfway up I eased off as buoyancy increases and try to conserver energy a bit and take it easier on my legs that were getting lactic. At this stage it was becoming much lighter and then met some of the safety divers who followed me up. After a long way down and back alone it’s always nice to see other divers again. Getting nearer to the surface one of my legs cramped up but there wasn’t much I could do about it, just focused on taking off the nose clip and goggles and preparing to do the SP. When I breached the surface I banged my head slightly on the beam and had to endure my leg cramp on the surface but signalled and said “ok”. I heard Kerian calling out laughing and saying I was greedy for grabbing 2 tags instead of one. I know I did everything ok but it’s always seems a long wait to get the white card. I never would have guessed when I first started freediving I would one day dive a 100m and will remember that moment for a long time.

Walter Steyn Ascends

LD:  Dives to these depths involve a combination of technique and tactic which are intrinsically linked, how do you tactically approach a deep dive and what techniques are the most important for you?

WS: In an effort to stay relaxed I used to try to ‘switch off’ and really not think about the dive at all. This worked in my early on competing but would sometimes lead to a lot of silly mistakes and poor technique. What I do now is I have a mental checklist of things to do on the dive and got thru it before I dive, and during the dive. Sometimes coming up from a tough dive if I start to think about the long way up I pretend I’m back in the pool and remind myself I’m just doing a lap and have done it thousands of times before. Like Dory said “just keep swimming swimming swimming” 🙂

LD:  Which part of the dive is the most enjoyable and why

WS: Towards the end when the safety divers are in sight and it’s getting lighter when you are 20-30m from the surface it feels like the end of the dive.  In the blue hole you come out of the dark and it get’s lighter when you get above 40m or so.  Nearer to the surface you can stop kicking and have an enjoyable free ride up and when you know you have the tag it’s a great feeling.

LD: You have an incredibly fast SP , with a white card insurance policy ( Wal bought up 2) You looked nice and clean upon surfacing….did it feel clean?

WS: I didn’t feel hypoxic but still felt a bit of Narcosis on the surface like I had on many of my deeper dives. With the goggles I was using I could see clearly under water but they made everything blurry on the surface. One time I tried taking them off before getting to the surface and then just stuck with it, seemed easier that way.

LD: Do you have any superstitions that you adhere to before a big dive, you know like no one can say banana? Any rituals…offerings to Apollo?  ; )

WS: I do like diving with borrowed equipment. During the competition I borrowed Will Trubridge’s and Sara Campbell’s depth gages and Kerian Hibbs’ fluid goggles. Perhaps I was also borrowing some of their Mojo 🙂  Oh and while staying with William Trubridge he fed us porridge(oats) in the morning so from then on it became a daily ritual J

LD: At what point do you decide to abort a dive, only when you can EQ no longer?…how much do you push through if EQ is not the deciding factor?

WS: I was still being held up by equalising this competition for CW. In general I would use depth alarms and have an idea of what depth to aim before at the start of the dive. I generally wouldn’t do bigger jumps then 3-5m from what I have previously done.

LD: You were breathing O2 at 5m after the dive, what are your thoughts on recovery techniques and DCS prevention after deeper dives?

WS: I think having O2 at deeper depth competitions is definitely essential for safety. Particularly for a competition like this where people are diving very deep multiple days in a row. Even without having a clinical case of DCS and showing real symptoms most people are still nitrogen loading and this put’s more stress on the body and lead to increased risks on following days.

LD: You are respected as a freediver who excels in many disciplines, but what is your favourite?

WS: It changes, I used to focus a lot on no-fins constant which was good when I had trouble equalising in constant weight. From training in the pool my dynamic no-fins got a lot better and that’s probably what I have been consistently best at. When my DNF was nearly as good as DYN I focused on training with the monofin instead and was really happy when I first made the 200m mark. Having done the 100m in CW that’s kind of my favourite at the moment.

LD: Having reached -100 in CW are you now shifting your focus to other disciplines…has it given your greater confidence in say pushing your CNF?

WS: I only did a few CNF dives in training for this comp so was really not enough. I did a 61m CNF at the start of the comp as a safe dive, it was a pity I didn’t get to do a deeper dive. I did attempt another CNF on the last day but turned early from equalising. I think after 9 days of competing and doing deep dives I was too fatigued. I would say I am definitely able to improve on my 70m PB based on my CW dive. It’s not something I can do without quite a few weeks of training real depth. CNF is very tough and takes time to get relaxed and build up confidence to get deeper. The next depth competition I plan to train CNF a lot more and see if I can juggle it a bit more evenly with CW.

LD: In a country like Australia where freediving has not had much public awareness how did you first become exposed to the sport?

WS: I made the Australian team for the 2002 Pacific cup in Hawaii. It was a great competition and atmosphere, I really enjoyed it. It was effectively the world team  championships for the year with around 20 countries competing. For a rookie team Australia did very well and came 5th in the men’s and 4th in the women’s competition.

LD: Were there any particular freedivers who were your mentors or who inspired you?

WS: I didn’t really have any mentors as such, there weren’t any competition freedivers in Australia when I started. I picked up bit’s and pieces mostly just while training at competitions overseas. Herbert Nitsch was setting world records when I was first competing, it was amazing watching him set another 2 world records at VB , still at the top of the sport years later. William Trubridge is one of the most dedicated freedivers I have met. It is very inspiring to watch him do massively deep no-fins dives that most people wouldn’t even try with a fin on.

LD: Freediving is about control and “letting go” in the same moment, do you think there are personality types who dominate the sport due to these characteristics?

WS: There are as many personality types as there are approaches to competing and training.  You kind of have to go with what works for you and don’t always look how others are doing it. I see both very driven freedivers and very laid back ones, even at the top level of the sport.

LD: Your one of the directors of Aust. Freediving Assoc. and I know you have put a great deal of energy into developing apnea in Aust. With a no. of records being broken this year by Aust. Freedivers, and more likely, do you think this is a turning point for the sport in Aust.?

WS: The AFA organised a Judges course taught by Grant Graves earlier in the year, now we have another 7 judges in Australia and that’s definitely been a vital step getting the sport going here. We are seeing an increase in people training around Australia and also a number of clubs/training groups forming. I’m planning on teaching a lot more freedive courses and coaching those who are interested in the competitive side of the sport. We will finally get some local competitions going but it will take effort and requires everyone working together. It’s not easy with a country as big as ours and the distances involved.

LD: Thanks for you’re time Wal and all the best for future dives

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here