Martin Stepanek is a quiet man until you question him on his favorite subject. Then you find yourself sitting in a Fort Lauderdale bar drinking an insane amount of lemonade while your car gets towed away…but that’s another story. I was in Florida for a few days last week, and since Martin had alerted me ahead of his press release to his planned departure from PFI to start is own company, I’d asked to meet him and try to understand the ins and outs of his bold career move.
DB: So, why did you leave PFI?
MS: I started working with PFI because I liked the structured teaching techniques they were using at the time. It wasn’t like “Alright let’s go freediving, I’ll show you some tricks and tips!” PFI was organized like a school, with a big focus on safety. They emphasized physiology so that the student could fully understand the relationships between what was taught in the classroom and what they felt when they were in the water. PFI was successful at giving students the tools to later evolve as better freedivers even after the course.
But as the years went by, I felt that PFI was stagnating. All these things that we dreamed up -Mandy, Kirk and I …that we would teach to people, they weren’t happening. The focus was going somewhere else. This is when I realized that if I wanted things to move my way, I had to take matters in my own hands. Although one could believe that PFI was a collaboration between three people, it wasn’t really happening that way. Kirk had the upper hand in the decision-making process. Even Mandy did not have much to do with it, when Kirk decided on something it was accepted as “PFI decision”.
DB: PFI is behind you now, and this new companyhas come to life to carry out your ideas on freediving education and philosophy. So what are those ideas?
MS: I feel that freediving and freedivers are a bit stuck in their ways of thinking about the sport. We are too much introverted. We are complaining that our sport is not growing, not recognized, even though it takes as much effort (even more!) as any other sport that is well-recognized. It is the fruit of our own doing because we keep it so much enclosed. It probably comes from back in the days when Pelizzari and Pipin where thought to be half-dolphin, half-god creatures to be able to accomplish what they did. It made the sport an exclusive club and therefore marginalized it. I believe we should open up freediving to the general public. That is the cornerstone of the Freediving Instructors and Trainers (FIT) philosophy. Freediving is not just a sport – it’s a great recreation. It’s not all about breaking records, it’s about having fun. You do not need to have the best physiology to be able to enjoy it. It is something we are all born with. Whether you like it or not you have the mammalian diving reflex. I also would like to extend to the scuba divers market, which still look at us as the “stuntmen” of the underwater world. There are a couple million of scuba divers and hundreds of millions of snorkelers…snorkelers are freedivers, essentially.
I also would like to introduce to scuba divers how they can benefit from freediving and vice versa. Back in the 1960’s there use to be a skin diving -freediving- course as a part of the scuba diving course.
DB: When I listen to you, I feel like I’m listening to the PADI head of education back in the days when scuba was an elitist sport practiced only by military people. PADI decided to market the sport as a recreation and created an educational curriculum designed for the masses. We both know that the scuba industry has been struggling in recent years, trying to find new markets. It’s not doing that great overall. Would you say you would like to follow a similar model?
MS: I wouldn’t like to follow the exact model as we freedivers are different. I feel that the marketing made by scuba diving was more like “it’s so easy anybody can do it!” What I am trying to show is that freediving is easy because it is something you are born with. I would like freediving courses to be an exploration into your body’s capabilities, not just grabbing equipment and checking out the fishes.
I find that freediving as a discipline is closer to surfing, kayaking, and kite surfing. It’s a direct interaction between your body and the water element. I see freediving also developing more as a lifestyle than as a hobby that you’d do once a year on vacation. As a matter of fact the Scuba industry itself is trying to recover from that “hobby” image that they had for so long.
Freediving is already a lifestyle in itself. If you look at freedivers nowadays, if you talk to competitors and ask them what they do, many of them are pretty educated people. They all have jobs that allow them to freedive often. They don’t drive luxury sedan even if they make a lot of money -they spend the money on traveling to get to more freediving playgrounds. They also are environmentally-conscious people. They care about the ocean and want to protect it. The freediving culture/lifestyle is growing as we speak.
FIT would like to cultivate this lifestyle and help it grow.
DB: There are now more and more freediving courses available to the public. Freedivers, PFI, Deeperblue, to name a few. How is a FIT course going to be different from the other folks?
MS: Talking about what I know already, the difference between a PFI and an FIT course will show up on a longer time frame. I was one of the creators of the curriculum at PFI.
One of the main differences you will see in theis that I have broken down the different subjects covered during a course to be more digestible by the students. One of the biggest problem I had found teaching the PFI way was that the students left a 4-day course very excited, but a lot of them were confused by the amount of information they got in such a short time. They needed to come back and have several refresher courses to fully absorb and comprehend the knowledge and skills. I decided on keeping the three levels on the FIT curriculum. Level I is for novice and very inexperienced freedivers, Level II is for people who are comfortable in the water and have experience with freediving and Level III is for highly-experienced freedivers who have completed Level II. PFI did not have the Level I course that FIT has created, that is, a course designed for people who’ve never done any freediving before. Every level has it own workbook, video, and slide show. Last but not least the Level III course, which is geared toward experienced freedivers, is also a more thorough program in that it’s more than just in-water training the way we used to do it at PFI. FIT will provide more knowledge to its Level III students: dietary science, training program design, and more on advanced techniques like deep water equalization.
DB: Still on the subject of education, what is your relationship with AIDA?
MS: I’ve been member of AIDA since I started to compete. I respect them very much. It’s the largest governing body for freediving and all my records have been set under AIDA rules. I’ve never even thought to join any other organization. That said, I believe it was a mistake for AIDA to start an education system, since that makes AIDA a non-profit organization trying to get involved in a moneymaking business. It doesn’t look good as they spend their manpower, time and money to focus on things that are not directly involved with the main objectives, which are to create rules and safe environments for freediving competitions. And, of course, to grow the sport by organizing more competitions.
DB: What about Martin Stepanek the world champion athlete? What is he up to?
MS: Well, starting the company sure has taken a toll on my training, but I am training and I’m still planning on setting new records. Working for PFI I didn’t have that much time to train as we were constantly on the road. I actually believe I’ll have more time to train now than before.
I’m not really sure about what I’m going to do for the US Nationals in June. Will I be a judge? An organizer? A competitor? That is the question…I am definitely involved in it, but they’re still putting it together, so we’ll see. The next thing will be the competition organized by Sebastien Murat in Greece. To be honest I’m not sure in what discipline I am to compete in there!
And after that it will be the World Championship. Oh, by the way, I almost forgot: I’m working on setting up a world record attempt in Egypt for the beginning of August.
DB: A record attempt means sponsors. You used to be sponsored by Cressi and others when you were with PFI. Did any of the sponsors follow you or do you have new sponsors?
MS: The last couple months brought me to a very interesting part of my life, on personal and professional levels. Major changes. When I left PFI, I also terminated some contracts with my personal sponsors – Cressi is one of them. I am starting with a clean slate. I do have support from Volkswagen and a couple of other companies, but mainly I am starting anew. I like it that way because a sponsorship is a partnership. Some are more professional, others are more personal, but for the most part you are bound to certain responsibilities. Leaving PFI and establishing FIT, making this major change in my life, has reset a lot of things. Anything that is linked with the old Martin Stepanek is finished…I drew a line. I don’t want any responsibilities and ties that belonged to the past.
DB: In short, what is the best sentence that would summarize your new adventure creating FIT?
MS: I guess the best one would be the FIT motto…Add Depth to Your Life! This is what I’m doing right now in my personal life. I believe that all the people that FIT will affect will feel this. I want students to realize that there is more to it than what they’re experiencing in their everyday life right now.
I just want to add that putting this company together is an incredible amount of work. I left everything behind. I have to start again, but I really enjoy it. I’m really excited. For the people that know me, they can appreciate it when I say things like “I am really excited”, because I’m known to have a very skeptical point of view on things in general. When I go somewhere and do something, I point out the bad things first so I can avoid them. This is how I operate. So far I haven’t pointed out any bad things! I see only good things coming out of the creation of FIT.
Loic Leferme’s fatal training accident occurred a few days after this interview was conducted. I called Martin, who was affected by this loss like we all were. I asked him to react to the news.
MS: I think Loic’s accident was a shocking and very painful news for the whole freediving world. Our community is fairly small and somewhat a tight group where everybody knows everybody, almost like a family. Although many of us feel like they have lost their family member, our feelings can not get even close to Loic’s own relatives. I would like to use this chance to send my deepest condolences to them. I also hope that all the details of this tragic accident will be revealed soon. As disturbing my hope might sound, it might be a chance for all of us to learn, so something like this won’t happen again.