Freediving, Yoga, and Monofins in Greece – Part 4

The Monofin Course

Monday

Aharon and MT had invited two Russian monofin coaches to take a course in finswimming with particular reference to freediving. The world finswimming championships had just taken place in Patras on the Greek mainland and the Russian men had swept the board, taking several world records with them. Igor Soutchkov is the director of the facility in Tomsk, Siberia, and Alexey Grankine is a senior coach of the Russian national team and master monofin craftsman, hand making amongst other things, the egoiste which is shaving seconds off world records. Alexey’s 15 year old daughter had just broken two junior world records and trains twice a day.

Was this going to be an easy course? Yeah right!

The course was lasting ten days with extra days deep diving so that the Russians could observe us in the water and modify the style to suit freediving. Because I had to fly back on the Friday I would just take four and a half days of the course with one morning going down the line. As well as myself taking the course, there was a super chilled South African called Bevan, the British dynamic record holder, Haydn Welch, and Aharon and MT.

Training was split between a pool in the village and the bay, which had perfect conditions for training.

The first morning was spent looking at our monofins and being shown the other designs available and masks. We were all using Waterway blades, mostly the soft long distance ones. We were shown the designs for the other blades with their ‘wings’ that Alexey crafted according to each individual athlete’s build and style, and discussed how the design would have to be modified to cope with pressure on the neoprene wings and foot-pockets at depth. Igor’s English was ‘interesting’ and Alexey’s was non existent so we all tried to talk very slowly and wished we knew some Russian.

We then moved out to the bay where a 50 meter line had been set up on the bottom, with weights measuring out every five meters. It was only a few feet deep. Ideal conditions for training. Igor was in the water with us, and Alexey was standing on a tiny hill by the beach, armed with a stop-watch and a very loud voice. Our first task was to do 50 meters in apnea and to count our strokes, whilst Alexey took the time. Haydn was the first to go and took 32 seconds with about 28 strokes. I went last and it took me 44 seconds with 44 strokes which nearly finished me off. As I surfaced for air, all I could make out was Alexey yelling in Russian and doing huge pelvic thrusts.

Obviously there was something wrong with my style.

The Russians have perfected a style, which emphasises hydrodynamicism in order to achieve speed and energy conservation. The arms are held straight out in front with one hand resting on another, pressing against and behind the tucked in head. The movement in the body originates at the solar plexus and ripples down the rest of the body. The legs are straight and the movement from the core results in huge power at the fin end. It feels more powerful to hinge at the knees and to kick, as Igor said ‘eez like ah froggett’. But drawing the feet back up again from the knees actually acts as a brake until the next downward kick has been achieved.

We all watched a video of the masters in action and it was clear what the movement should look like, but translating that into your own body is obviously a very different matter. Two weeks before, Igor had spent two days observing Davide Carrera, the world record holder in free immersion at –91 meters (FIPS), who was spending time training with Aharon and MT. Igor corrected his style and the improvements were dramatic. What could three days do for me?

Tuesday

The next morning saw us at the swimming pool at 8.15 doing a series of warm up exercises designed to strengthen the core muscles and get the body used to the ‘basic position’. This meant that most of the exercises; squats, stretches, forward bends, sit-ups and so on were done with the hands above the head. Not easy in terms of balance, strength and flexibility, but a good way to understand how to act in the water.

We then put on children’s fins for training, which were bi fins, but shaped a little like a monofin, masks and front snorkels. We went up and down the pool, alternating between having our hands out in front in the basic position and down in front of our bodies, the crawl and the butterfly, all on the surface to help us understand the style and warm up. For someone who is not used to swimming or fitness, it was knackering.

That afternoon we moved back to the bay to the 50 meter ‘horizontikal’ line, put our monofins on, and started going up and down. Up and down… Again we had Alexey yelling from the beach whilst having a fag, and Igor in the water giving probably a much politer translation… At the end of the session we did a series of 25 meter apnea exercises which was much easier than swimming on the surface. When I finally crawled into bed at nine, I wished the next morning wouldn’t come so soon…

Wednesday

Back in the pool the next morning I discovered that my arms and shoulders had gone on strike. The very act of trying to raise them above my head was sheer agony, and then trying to do 30 sit-ups was a complete impossibility. I was also alarmed to discover that Alexey, who just needed a white cat and a dodgy scar to complete his look, had learnt two English words. ‘Emma’, and ‘Training’, which he barked at me every time I wasn’t grimacing in pain.

After the torture. Sorry, stretching, we were in the pool with our kiddie fins, going up and down with different varieties of hand position and kicking style. I managed to get my first compliment from Igor, ‘Emma, er, you er has ze good co-ordilination’. Hurrah! But that was about as far as it got. Towards the end of the session we all lined up at one end of the pool and did two lengths as fast as we could as soon as Alexey had yelled ‘Davoy!’ (which apparently means Go!). When the last person had returned, i.e. me, Alexey yelled again and we were off. It reminded me of ghastly family walking holidays, when by the time you caught up with the main group who were resting, they all moved off again. And I was paying for this?! By the time the session was finished I thought I had developed asthma, and could hardly stand, let alone walk the 20 minutes up the very steep hill to my room.

In the afternoon I put on my suncream in preparation for a session in the bay. ‘Emma! Training!’ I staggered into the water with my mask and front snorkel with a nagging suspicion that I had forgotten something. ‘Emma!’ ‘Monosk!’ Ah yes, the monofin… We swam 1,700 meters, up and down the line, sometimes using floats, and then did 40- 50 meters in apnea. We went after one another, however when I wasn’t being lapped by everyone, I had Haydn swimming over me.

That evening we watched videos that Alexey and Igor had taken at the world championships and the European junior championships. We saw Alexey’s daughter get her world record and envied how effortless it all looked.

Thursday

In the morning we took a larger boat out to the 60 meter line for my last dive of the holiday. Aharon was showing the Russians the lanyard and variable systems and letting them view our style under the water. Alexey noticed how difficult the first few meters were and suggested that on the ascent, it might be better to have the hands down at the sides.

I wanted to try a personal best and Aharon set the line to 32 meters. The descent was an absolute dream. I couldn’t believe that I could equalise and going head first! My mask was too loose on the ascent however and started to fill with water, which wasn’t nice. But I held it all together and was amazed to know how far I had progressed. Bevan and Haydn were dropping to 43 and then 50 meters on the variable system, and after they had completed successful dives, I went for a go. I expected Aharon to cleat off at 35 but he said he expected me to get to 40 and so left it at 43. I was a little scared but amazed at how easy it was with my eyes closed. When I ran out of air to fill my mask, I let go, to see that I was just a couple of meters from the bottom. Coming up with masses of air left was lovely and it was a perfect way to end my last dive session.

Back in the bay in the afternoon I was given the ‘Classic’ that Alexey makes to try out. It felt good, but it was difficult to tell as I had lost the skin from three of my toes and a patch on my left foot, so every movement was excruciating. We did drills up and down the line, sometimes using the floats, and then were filmed and timed by Alexey as we did 2x 50 meters apnea dynamics. The first for style and the second for speed. In the speed trial I was determined to reach 50, and set off as fast as I could, getting a nasty sand burn on my knee as I kept hitting the bottom. I couldn’t believe it when I made it and got a huge cheer from Alexey.

Igor read out everyone’s times, which varied between 24 and 27 seconds. ‘And Emma…

32.1 seconds’! Ah well, I had knocked over ten seconds off my original time so I wasn’t complaining!

That evening we watched ourselves on video and I cooked a monster curry for everyone. It was funny seeing ourselves on film and hearing Alexey beside the camera yelling ‘Davoy! Davoy!’ I couldn’t believe that I had to leave the next morning. I could actually feel myself getting fit and despite the pain, it was a good feeling. Igor also told me that I had a good style.

The only thing that was holding me back was my fitness.

Friday

The next morning was my last in Paxos but I still showed up at the pool session in the morning. Igor and Alexey had introduced new exercises, which included a form of sit-up, which I actually couldn’t physically do. I gritted my teeth but couldn’t move my body off the ground. My legs hurt so much that I was practically crawling, and Ze’ev kept shrieking with laughter and yelling ‘look at Emma!’ After the usual drills we finished the session with repeated laps in apnea, which even gave Haydn contractions.

We all ate lunch together by the beach and Igor and Alexey ordered lamb chops, chips and beer whilst the others had to eat salads! I was very sorry to be leaving but keen to continue the practice at home. The two weeks had been the most incredible time in which I achieved amazing results. The two courses were superb and I couldn’t recommend them more highly. I now need to find a pool in Brighton that will let me use my monofin.

Despite having to fly back I had a long conversation with Aharon after the course had finished and he was incredibly excited about what had been happening. At the end of the course they were doing 50 meter apnea sprints and taking more and more time off their personal bests. MT did an awesome 23 seconds, Aharon 24, Bevan 25 and Haydn 26. This was even more remarkable seeing as it was without a push off or a dive as it was in the sea. Igor also pointed out that with a time like hers, MT was amongst the times achieved in Patras, after just ten days of training! Go MT!

In the depth training there had also been great results. When Bevan came to Aharon and MT the deepest he had gone was 42 meters, which he had done just once. With coaching from them he subsequently did 55 meters in constant weight, an unofficial South African record, beating Trevor Hutton, and the next day he did an amazing 60 meters. Aharon, MT and Bevan also all went to 70 with nine kilos on the held weight using their variable system. The results speak for themselves and I can’t wait for the opportunity to go back and train with them again!

Aharon and MT can be contacted through www.freedivers.net

Emma’s website www.emma-freediver.co.uk