Wednesday, June 12, 2024
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Competition from the inside

I take it all back.?? Every word.??

Competitive freediving is not as easy as it looks.

Sitting here at home, the morning after, breakfasting on black Kona coffee and humble pie, I confess to the crimes of arrogance and complacency.

In recent years, I’ve been an habitual hanger–on, safety diver, pundit, coach, trainer and innkeeper for many of the world’s top freedivers. I know everybody’s training philosophy, event strategies, diets, supplement regimens and sleep habits.??

I knew the secrets of the champions !?? I was an expert.??

Then I tried on the competitor’s fins, and found out how completely full of crap I’d been.?? Competition, my friends, is whole different thing.

AIDA judge Doug Peterson had contacted me back in May, 2002 and reminded me to register for the US Freediving Team trials?? to be held in Homestead, Florida?? in August.

It seemed like a fine idea to me.?? There was no possibility of mounting any sort of serious training campaign in the time remaining,?? which would save me a lot of effort and discomfort.?? Besides, Phase I of the trials was to include only the dynamic and static apnea disciplines, and I figured I could put on as good a show as most.

By August 9, the day before the competition, I’d managed to train dynamic apnea exactly once, and static apnea exactly once.?? Worse, this constituted a major addition to my lifetime training history in these disciplines.

Less than 24 hours before the event, searching for something to give me?? that extra edge, I settled on a drastic step: I would give up coffee. I’d recently relapsed into my addiction to the high-octane Hawaiian beans, and speculated that by abstaining, I’d sharpen my dive reflex, drop my heart rate to a single-digit number of beats per minute and amaze competitors and judges alike.

I woke up at dawn on game day in a seedy, mildew-infested motel in Homestead.?? My head was pounding.?? My long-suffering wife testily pointed out that caffeine was known to have addictive properties,?? and suggested that it might be wise to defer any sudden change in my habits until after the event.?? I scoffed at her fears. I had not slept too well, and had apparently spent the night convincing myself that I would easily win the competition.

Oh, my fellow divers and only friends — the mind is a fickle and capricious thing.

What was I thinking ?


The 5 team candidates , AIDA USA judges Glennon Gingo and Doug Peterson,?? assorted support personnel and spectators assembled by the Homestead YMCA pool under threatening skies at what is for me the unthinkable hour of 8 AM. Spirits were high all around, except for mine.?? If it had been any other day, and I were thinking of going diving, I’d have just said "Naaahhhhh……" .

But competition knows no naaahhh. It has a timetable. It is a scripted, engineered sequence of operations designed to perform as a measuring instrument. It is about as forgiving as a tungsten railroad spike.

Glennon’s briefing was cordial, succinct and?? informative. It was?? quite detailed. I’m pretty familiar with AIDA competition regulations , but now it began to dawn on me that I was on this day going to have to actually follow them myself.

That’s when a group of brain cells I picture as a skinny old guy with hunched shoulders, white hair and a deeply furrowed brow began his non-stop nagging.?? Imagine a Senator Joe Lieberman in your head, endlessly warning you to "…..mask off within 15 seconds….airways underwater before reaching the 1.5 meter mark …. move to the transition area no more than 10 minutes before your top time . . . turn and face the judges. . . enter the warmup area 45 minutes before top time. . . .airways underwater no more than 10 seconds after top time . . ."?? AAARGGGH !

Where did this guy come from ? He is not helpful at all.?? I don’t remember him coming freediving with me before.

Welcome to competition, Paul.

Glennon finished his briefing, and announced the competitors would draw lots to determine the performance order.?? Senator Lieberman’s voice grew even more frantic. He seemed to be on the verge of tears ! " ..oh, no, you’re going to end up going first…oh, no, that will give the others an overwhelming advantage, you’ll be doomed, oh, no.……"

Glennon called the first number. I looked at the slip in my hand, and it was me.

The first discipline was dynamic apnea. Simple enough, or so it had always seemed to me watching others do it. You take a deep breath, and then swim underwater laps in the pool until you can’t go any further. No big. I mean, I have a swimming pool in my back yard, right ??? This is a piece of cake.

The good part of my brain advised me to visualize my performance, to see myself gliding along the black lane stripe, expertly touching and turning, gliding back.?? Hey, no picture!?? I tapped my forehead impatiently. Still no picture. Senator Lieberman : "…you never use your pool…you’ve got no idea what you’re doing…this is a risky, imprudent scheme…you don’t know how to do the turnsthe turns…the turns…"

"Shut up !"?? I snarled, much to the surprise of my waiting safety diver.

He just shrugged. " Twenty minutes left to your warm-up", he said.

The clock was ticking. I returned to the here-and-now, and discovered I was sitting on the edge of the?? warm-up lane?? wearing a 2mm wet suit. The sky was positively black with thunderheads, and I heard the earnest woman who was in charge of the pool telling Doug that her policy was to order everybody out of the water whenever she heard thunder. The wind was picking up, and knocked over a parasol and picnic table. I was a little chilly !

My pal, Martin Stepanek, had some advice: "You should do the same warmup you would for your static apnea, then, take off your wetsuit a minute or two before top time".

So. Now I knew what it’s like to have somebody coaching you in an event. The fin was on the other foot. I moved over to the event lane.

The wetsuit came off, the breathe-up continued, then the countdown began. "Three, two, one . .OFFICIAL START,?? two…….." I pushed off, taking care to get my face underwater before reaching the 1.5 meter cutoff, and was away. I heard Martin splashing along above me with his kickboard. Everything was good.

I made the best turn I could manage at the other end of the pool, not too bad, all systems go.?? At some point after the second turn , Senator Lieberman came back on the air, his voice cracking, near–hysterical:?? ". must address these difficult issues…. you’ve forgotten how far you told Glennon you were going to go.. and you’ve forgotten whether there are penalties for going shorter…, and whether you gain points by going longer… these issues must be resolved…?? the tough decisions have to be made.…." What a pest ! Still, he was absolutely right.

This was a pretty pickle.?? I wish I could say I soberly considered the alternatives and took a wise and sensible decision, but the fact of the matter is that one’s thinking becomes notably less precise as one’s oxygen depletes. In the end, I surfaced, turned to face the judges, executed what I was later told was a textbook recovery and signaling, and that was that. I felt fine. It turned out I’d done four laps of the pool, so it’s 100 meters, right ?

"Wrong !" said Martin. "The pool is 25 yards long. You did 100 yards, not meters."

Oops. Forgot.

It was still only 10:15 AM.?? As the other athletes did their dynamic apnea performances, the rains began and the winds whipped up.?? I began to feel chilly. I put on all of the street clothes I’d worn traveling to the event. Glennon came?? over to me and asked whether I could begin the 45-minute countdown to my static apnea at 11:45 AM. I agreed. Sure, why not ?

Martin Stepanek grinned, looking over knowingly.?? "Keep warm", he counseled.?? Truer words were never spoken. Naturally,?? I ignored his advice and instead?? watched poolside as the other competitors performed their dynamic apnea attempts.

Half an hour later, I was feeling pretty smug. Only one guy had done a little better than I had. This seemed quite in accord with my delusions of grandeur, and I was certain the upcoming static apnea discipline was my trump card.?? I had forgotten all about my mental lapses.?? Another mental lapse !

I was still strutting around the pool, cock-of-the-walk, when Glennon called the?? 45-minute countdown?? to my static apnea ??attempt. I stripped down to my Speedo and?? joked around with the guys for a while before climbing into my clammy, cold wetsuit. The rains began again, and the chill wind freshened. I lowered myself into the staging area of the pool with 20 minutes to go.

I did the first two of my usual 3 warm-up statics, and then, with 7 minutes left on the clock, realized?? a) that I was shivering,?? and b) that there was not enough time for my third warmup. I moved into the event zone and faced the judges. The shivering got worse. I climbed up the pool steps to get out of the water, but it was even colder in the?? breeze.??

My static apnea performance was nasty, brutish and short. A tiny bit more than half of my personal best. I simply bailed as soon as it became apparent that it would not be a winning time.?? I forgot the elementary tactical reality that a competitor who performs less than his declared time gets penalized, much like someone who guesses the wrong answer on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. A total, complete screw-up of the most basic sort.

Tony Marcuccino turned in solid performances in both disciplines and walked away top finisher in the 2002 Miami Trials for the US Freediving Team.?? Tony was fit, focused and most importantly, well-trained. The last phase of Tony’s training included simulations of event conditions, and it had paid off in a big way.

I cannot count the times?? I’ve watched national and world-class freedivers in competition and said to myself : "Gee, that doesn’t look so hard, I’ve done better than that." Well, never again. I am humbled. Competition is a whole ‘nuther thing folks, and now I know it in my bones. Out in the ocean with friends, or even in training with top athletes, the question you answer is "What can you do ?"?? In competition, the question is a bit more specific and a lot more demanding : "What can you do HERE and what can you do NOW ?" . Not tomorrow, not twenty minutes from now, and not in your favorite spot. Here and now. Not your way, but their way.

I went home sadder but wiser.?? I thought I was above it all, the jaded, cynical journalist there to watch the kiddies play their little game. Instead, I was swept away by the athletes’ and judges’ sincerity and out-front love of sport, the true love of amateurs. By event’s end I had been, alternately and in concert : self-conscious, nervous, embarrassed, chilly, desperate, nauseous, frightened, frustrated and, finally, numb and exhausted.

As I loaded my gear into the car, soaked and shivering in the monsoon rains, all I wanted to know was — When can we do this again !!!!???

I’m?? completely hooked on competition and can’t wait for the next opportunity to take part in one !?? It is an entirely different challenge from any I’ve known before as a diver, and I love it. I’ve learned, albeit the hard way, what everybody except me seemed to know already: training is the thing.?? Train the event. Train the event.

In everyday diving, we learn what we can do when we tell the observer to start measuring.

In competition, we find out what we are capable of when the observer is the one who tells us when to start diving.

Oh, and at the next level of complexity, team competitions such as the upcoming AIDA Pacific Cup in Hawai’i, there’s the additional layer of team strategy and tactics to consider.??

I’m not in it this year, but I say to you all,?? here, now and in public, so there’s no going back on it: this lonesome cowboy has set his sights on a team slot for next year. Whatever the outcome of my campaign, let us be clear: I am in it for real.?? This is just too cool to pass up. And, people, if I can put myself out there like this, so can you.

Surprise yourself. Contact your national or regional AIDA organization and get into the game.

Even if you lose, you will be a winner.

Paul Kotik
Paul Kotik
Paul Kotik has been a Staff Writer and Freediving Editor for He lives in Florida, USA with his family.


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