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Freediving, Family and The Road To The World Championships

My kids grew up just like I did learning to swim at an early age. My dad was a swimmer.   All of my children were swimming before they could walk. I competed in NCAA swimming, as did my kids. My two eldest children even surpassed my level making the Olympic Trials in 2008.

Tom and Meghan - Early Adventure Days 2010
Tom and Meghan – Early Adventure Days 2010

We are a water family making diving a natural fit for a family sport.   I began my adventures freediving while working as a Divemaster for Dive Locker in Panama City Beach. Will Spivey, a good friend and the Aquatics Director at the Panama City Beach Aquatic Center told me one day how stoked he was to learn how to freedive. The Panama City Beach Pool is an awesome facility where I train and teach Scuba Diving.  That pool and the ocean are the main reasons I moved to Panama City Beach.

After listening to Will’s enthusiasm I became curious about the sport and played around on my own a little bit until a good friend warned me of the dangers of freediving or breath hold by myself.  In doing some research on my own I found his concerns were warranted.  A quick google search led me to the  Performance Freediving website and I considered signing up for the Intermediate Course in 2013.  I called my daughter, Meghan and told her about the course and freediving.  She said, “I want to do that!” I signed us both up and we took our first course in three years ago.  Now we are both national record holders in the sport.

We were so lucky to take our first course with Kirk Krack.

He was a great teacher with lots of enthusiasm and patience.   The classroom sessions were a firehose of information.  The ocean sessions were challenging and fun.  I laugh about how it was not so easy for Meg as she gets seasick easily and fed the fish her breakfast during our ocean sessions while doing breath-ups while holding onto the rig before dives.   We both made it to 30m and passed the course and we were hungry for more.

The first thing I did on getting back to Panama City beach was to sign us both up for the Advanced Freediver and Safety Supervisor Course in Kona within three months time.  We really did not get a chance to practice in between the Intermediate and Advanced course.   Perhaps our competitive swimming backgrounds made the quick jump to Advanced a little less intimidating.   I also signed myself up for the Instructor Course which followed right after the Advanced course.

I was so lucky to experience the course with Kirk and my daughter at the same time.  We both did well in Kona where the freediving competition bug bit us both.  The PFI Advanced Course gives the student a real flavor for competition with the training and the ocean sessions and lots of fun target dives.  Kirk, a world class coach with many world record holders, gives his best to each student.  He points out the possibilities, leading “the horses to water.”  It was in the Advanced Class I learned realized I could become a good competitive freediver.   I even did my static PB of 7min 09sec in the class.  With Kirk, mentor Shell Eisenberg and Meghan at my side cheering me on with “Go Navy” and “Hoorah” I learned to push to my breatholding limits and even experienced a slight Samba.  It was in the Advance Class I learned what the ‘Performance’ in Performance Freediving is all about.

But the most important part of PFI training is the safety training.  I remember how Kirk emphasized over and over and over the tragedies of not following the PFI safety regimen and protocols.  He beats it into the students in every class and every event.  We discuss the tragedies; how each and every event involved skipping PFI safety protocols.  Now as an Instructor my classes include a heavy emphasis on the safety protocols.

The other student in my Instructor course with John Hullverson who soon afterward was to beat the Dynamic No-Fins record.  John and I became good friends and he was to later coach and mentor me himself to beat his No-Fins record.

That year within six months of learning to freedive I was instructing students myself.

The next year Meghan and I entered the field of competitors at Deja Blue in Grand Cayman.  The Deja Blue experience includes a warm family atmosphere where great divers and mentors surround you 24-7.   It’s a close community and a small competition – this is where Meghan and I really learned how to dive in a competition.  Kirk calls Deja Blue “the Ironman of Freediving” where each diver earns points in all six events of competitive freediving.

What made Deja Blue super special for me was going through the experience with my daughter Meghan.  We battled each other for the title of “Gilmore Family Champ’eon“.

This title my Dad coined and is handed down through generations in our family.  My children and I compete in everything from snowboarding to scrabble

I think Meghan dove better than I did that year in the ocean.  Kirk said to me “Welcome to the club of men who’s significant other, wife, girlfriend, now daughter kicks your butt in freediving.”   Needless to say, Meghan was family Champ’eon in Deja Blue 5.

The next year Meghan and I re-upped for a re-match at Deja Blue 6.  Meghan and I saved our vacation days and arranged our schedules to do the maximum training we could at the event.   John Hullverson who still owned the US Dynamic No-Fins record and improved upon it would not let me rest until I beat his own record.  He coached me and talked me through every practice session.  I would not have beat John’s record without his help and encouragement.

Meghan was also on the cusp of the women’s No-Fins Record herself.  It was tense sometimes but Meghan would always point out if I was ever getting too intense with the competition.  Staying calm and relaxed is necessary to do well at a competitive apnea event.  I personally find the nature of competitive freediving performance to be the opposite of competitive swimming or even triathlons.

It is this aspect of freediving, the inward focus, similar to disciplines like yoga, Chi Gong or Tai Chi that calm the mind to spill over into my everyday life.  Being “conscious of breathing”, “feeling the body”, “awareness of self” are the true disciplines I have found useful every day since learning to freedive.

My first attempt to the US record in No-fins was a blackout failure.   I remember looking at the judges doing my safety protocol and thinking it was not so perfect but wondering what the strange looks were all about.   Finally, after finishing and getting the red card, I was informed about the blackout with the “How was the dream?” question.

The problem with the first attempt is after I made the turn at 150m I was feeling great and three more arm pulls was over my limit.  Kirk always taught in competition a blackout is telling you met and exceeded your limit.  The great thing about Deja Blue is the best safeties and safety procedures.  It means it is that the airway is immediately protected and the competitors can push their limits.

John and Kirk helped to coach me to overcome the failure.   We knew I had to come up immediately after the turn at 150m with no arm pulls to beat John’s US record.  I went over my performance again and again in my mind.  My mental preparation paid off the night after the blackout and I beat John’s No-Fins record.

Meghan placed third in Deja Blue 6 and I was lucky enough to win.  My friend and fellow competitor Kurt Randolph blacked out in his US record attempt at No-Fins in the ocean leaving him no points in one event.   Otherwise, Kurt would have won the event without a problem.   I was stoked when Kurt joined us to make up the US Men’s World TEAM USA as he is one of the top competitors in the USA.

I thought my competitive freediving was over after that for 2016 until we received an email from AIDA USA about the Team World Championships in Kalamata, Greece.   At first, I brushed it off thinking I had already maxed out my vacation from work and even taken a leave of absence to support “my hobbies” as I heard later from my employer

But Meghan called me and said to me, “Dad, how many chances in a lifetime will you get to go to World Championships with your daughter.”   That was all she needed to say and I bid to be on the team with Meghan.

I was delighted when AIDA USA called and informed me that Meghan and I were selected to be on the team, and also, I was selected to be Captain of Team USA.  It was one of the finest moments of my life.

Team USA at the 2016 World Championships in Kalamata, Greece
Team USA at the 2016 World Championships in Kalamata, Greece

My goals for World Championships were small and team oriented.  Ashleigh Baird had been to previous World Championships and helped guide the way.   I, as Team Captain for TEAM USA, aimed to have the most successful experience as possible.   Given that the freediving team powerhouses of Japan, Russia, Czech Republic, and other countries are so far ahead of TEAM USA on paper we needed to let them make mistakes to place.   To do that Ashleigh advised that we needed to create an atmosphere within the team of mutual respect and harmony.  I think that doing that allowed all the team members to contribute with their best performances.  A side benefit was our representation at the event was appreciated and respected in the event and in the world freediving community.

I am so proud to say that I believe that we accomplished this goal and then some.   The TEAM USA Women placed fairly well.  The men did not do quite as well but I believe we showed promise and garnered respect as valued competitors on the world stage.

Meghan coaching my static - 2016 World Championships, Kalamata, Greece
Meghan coaching my static – 2016 World Championships, Kalamata, Greece

Another benefit of our collective team spirit was a US National Record (179m in Dynamic) for my daughter Meghan on the same day.   I did not even really consider setting the record until I watched Meghan’s record performance.  Not knowing she was going to go for the record we were on the edges of our seats when she made the final turn at 150m.  We were all praying, sweating, and screaming she would come up and not go too far past the mark.

Meghan's turn in her American Record Performance - World Championships 2016
Meghan’s turn in her American Record Performance – World Championships 2016

Meghan came up and did a clean safety protocol and making 179m.  I was the luckiest and proudest dad ever on that day.

Meghan Gilmore doing surface protocol for the white card and the American Record - 2016 World Championships, Kalamata, Greece
Meghan Gilmore doing surface protocol for the white card and the American Record – 2016 World Championships, Kalamata, Greece

I asked Meghan what she did to be so successful and she coached me well.  She told me to back off on the legs and use a more mid section on the dolphin kick to keep down the leg burn and the lactic acid buildup.  I kept this in mind as I prepared for the dive as I was in the lineup two hours later. It was super helpful to me to see Kurt Randolph do a personal best as well before my dive.  All of the TEAM USA divers did PB’s before my dive. Our team spirit was at a maximum.  I knew that there would be no better time to go for the record.  Before my dive, I asked Josh Meneley (our volunteer coach), how far it was to the record as I was not sure two minutes before my dive.  He told me 200m.  It was then I decided to make the 200m turn, do one pull and come up.

I did the dive according to plan.  I eased up on my legs and relaxed as much as possible the last 50m.   After I came up my protocol was just good enough, no better.  I smiled at the judges until they put up the white card and I found out I had hit 208m!

Tom Gilmore celebrates the white card and the American Record, 2016 World Championships, Kalamata, Greece
Tom Gilmore celebrates the white card and the American Record, 2016 World Championships, Kalamata, Greece

When I returned from World Championships it was to the unemployment line.  It was the best trade ever and I wouldn’t change a thing.  How many times in life do you get a chance to represent your country on TEAM USA and set US National Records with your daughter?


Tom Gilmore
Tom Gilmore
Tom Gilmore has been in and around the water his entire life. He is a PFI Freediver Instructor based in Panama City Beach, Florida.