DB: What were your reasons for setting up F.R.E.E.?
Rudi: I felt there was a need for a different approach towards safety and objectivity in competitive freediving activities, especially record-setting attempts, as well as an education system rigorous enough to create TRULY safety-minded new freedivers.
DB: Everyone would agree that education and training is vital for the future of freediving. Do you think that competitions and records are equally important for the future development of freediving?
Rudi: Yes, the records are our link to the outer world, the vehicle with which we create recognition for the sport, generate awareness about it and attract new divers. They are, for better or worse, the events by which everybody outside our community judges our sport and its figures, so it is essential that records portray the best possible picture of who we are and what we do. Records need to be done under the highest standards of safety, fairness and professionalism if we are to have a chance at gaining acceptance from the bigger media and sponsors for our small sport.
DB: You’ve always strived to improve safety standards in all aspects of freediving. What further measures can organisations take to improve safety?
Rudi: Up until a couple of years ago, the results being reached by our champions and competitors were relatively easy to judge and protect by using different safety standards, even if one system was stronger than another on certain areas and so on. However, this does not apply anymore with today’s depths and the growing number of divers capable of diving to such depths. Thus, the most important step right now is for the different organizations to work together in establishing joint standards for all record and competitive activities, and to use our expertise and knowledge together to create the best possible set of rules. Even if we continue to work independently and under different work ethics and philosophies, we should at least work under a COMMON SAFETY STANDARD. This is, of course, easier said than done and so far my efforts in this regard have been met with nothing more than disinterest and an alarming lack of vision, but we’ll keep trying…
DB: Are there plans to make your FREE courses more widely available around the world?
Rudi: Yes, the plans are there, but unfortunately, our system is very strict and time consuming and does not lend itself to easy and quick certification courses, which is both a strength and a weakness of ours. Certifying instructors on several countries is the key to have graduates there, so that is where we intend to move towards in the very near future. Yes, our courses should become more and more available pretty soon, and of course, I strongly recommend them 🙂
DB: Following the tragic passing of Audrey Mestre last autumn, FREE made the decision not to ratify further unlimited variable weight world records. As elite freedivers continue to push ever deeper, do you think it may be necessary one day to ban the ratification of other freediving categories, such as limited variable weight or even constant ballast?
Rudi: It is important to understand why we made such decision. No Limits is undoubtedly the most spectacular category in freediving and the one most associated with the sport. However, compared with the other immersion categories, it is the one that requires the least amount of athleticism from the diver and it is more a test of mow much can we endure as opposed to how much can we perform, a sort of experimentation rather than true sport. Suffice to say that several divers that have held records in this category, such as Mestre herself, never came anywhere close to the current marks in the other categories. Yet, the trend outside of FREE ratification was to "plunge" this category in an unexplainable race for the bottom that quickly took it from an already demanding level of 120-130 meters to the definitely dangerous and uncharted zone of 160-170 meters, without "exploring" the intermediate depths that would have given us enough experience and insight to make more informed decisions regarding proper safety protocols. Thus, we felt that such a category posing so little athletic value and so much inherent risk was not worthy of continued ratification. It was not an easy decision but ultimately we felt it was and is the right one. As for the other categories, if we do not find and enforce a way of making a controlled progress towards bigger depths, instead allowing divers to attempt these big jumps that may be survivable for some but not for others, then we may be forced to keep banning categories until some common sense prevails. The notion of going for the absolute "best" or deepest all at once is downright irresponsible in freediving. This absolute mark needs to be reached one meter at a time, and those who believe themselves "immune" to these problems will inevitably end up paying the same devastating price as Mestre.
DB: How did you become a freediving trainer? Who was your first freediving student?
Rudi: Becoming a trainer sort of just happened. I have always been very observant and constantly kept track of whatever helped me reached great results one day or perform lousily the next, and in effect, started seeing patterns emerge. As I moved into the ranks of top class freedivers in Cuba, myself being nowhere near as gifted as them, I was on the reserve team and found myself "sitting on the sidelines" a lot while they were diving and this gave me the chance to observe them at length, helping me verify and formulate many notions and theories. I then went on to substantiate many of these concepts with long studies in biology and physiology, but I would emphasize that the heart of my knowledge comes from many years of patient and careful field experimentation rather than empirical knowledge. There is no substitute for experience. I don’t know who my first student was, I was always the one in charge of teaching "the basics" to the new kids in the group back in our teenage years, but if you ask for my first known trainee, then it would be Alejandro Ravelo, who set three world records in the mid nineties.
DB: You are a highly respected freediver trainer. What is the key to being a successful freediving coach/trainer?
Rudi: I love freediving, it is what I talk, breathe and dream 24 hours per day, and I think that this passion comes through with anybody I interact with. if your students believe that what you do is done out of true passion then they will respect you, and if they respect you that is the ground to form a meaningful relationship with them. To be as demanding as I am you first need to put in equal amounts of work and sweat as what you ask from people, and I definitely do that. During a record attempt, I am not only the trainer but also the organizer, the supervising officer and many times even the sponsor hunter, so it is a very involving endeavor and all of us in the team work very hard because everybody is doing their work and then some, so nobody feels the right to slack off or slow down or take a break. We respect and admire each other very much in our group and this is the driving force behind our success.
DB: Tell us about your latest freediving projects? Will we see any new FREE world record attempts this year?
Rudi: Well, I am not the one to decide whether there will be any record attempts, that’s up to the athletes, but I think that most definitely yes. As the trainer of Yasemin Dalkilic and David Lee I can tell that they both had planned two record attempts each for July, which got delayed after Yasemin’s pancreas surgery, but will now most likely happen by November-December. These will be very exciting attempts, and if it all goes well, we should see some impressive records fall. Besides that, we will have a small invitational horizontal immersion (dynamic apnea) competition take place in Turkey around November, where the best athletes in the modality will be invited and where we expect all the records in the field to be rewritten, I am very excited about this. Other than that, as a trainer I also have found a new prospect who seems to be immensely talented and who we’ll be deep-testing very soon, and we could also potentially have a record or two from this newcomer by year’s end.
DB: If you could condense your diving career into three goals, what would they be?
Rudi: One,safety. Everything must revolve around safety, freediving and scuba diving have been plagued for too many years by egos, cavalier attitudes and macho types, and this has made it seem acceptable and even fashionable to take unacceptable risks. The most successful people in any field are those who work with the highest level of precaution, and this is what I strive to achieve in freediving, instill this safety-before-anything philosophy is people’s minds.
Two,experience. Nothing beats the knowledge that comes from the repetitive practice of an activity, thus resulting in a high level of expertise. To be great at something we have to put in the hours and years until this endeavor becomes a part of our nature. Training, training and then more training is the key to attain true knowledge, not the information that we receive from others who have gathered it, there is a big difference there. Always through my diving career, I always tried to dive, dive, dive, learn, learn, learn before I set out to attempt anything.
Three, enjoyment. Still, the most important reason to dive (the only true reason as far as I’m concerned) is to be one with the aquatic environment, to admire the majesty and beauty of the ocean, and I feel that many people nowadays miss that point altogether. Freediving should not be only for personal bests and records, we should still be able and willing to enjoy a shallow dive just to be "down there", surrounded by the blue. There is no such thing as a bad dive or a dive not worthy of our efforts, being able to enjoy the aquatic realm should still be our first priority. This is why I never promote my courses with performance gains in mind, that students will be able to "reach such and such depths or increase their maximums by such percent". All I promise is that I will be help them become more comfortable in and better able to enjoy the ocean, plain and simple.
DB: Can you explain your personal approach to freediving training?
Rudi: I realized long ago that freediving is nothing more than a highly anaerobic sport, similar in principle to sprinting and short distance swimming and running, and as such I approached its training. My training system is based on the old 3-cycle system of endurance/adaptation/intensity and it has worked very well for my people. As for the specificities that pertain only to freediving, I have focused almost completely on improving and redefining the mammalian diving reflex response, and this has taken me down the road of negative-pressure diving and apnea, diaphragmatic equalization and air-recirculation, 4-section breathing, as well as other concepts which I would like to believe I helped pioneer even if I am certain that many out there will disagree with my claims 🙂
DB: We’ve seen some incredible advances in freediving performance in recent years. Do you see this trend continuing for many years to come?
Rudi: I think that there are still some more amazing records to come within a relatively short period of time, but then this surge will slow down and become a bit stagnant. The problem is that that we are finally working at depths where serious problems are beginning to manifest and affect divers, things like nitrogen and Co2 narcosis, decompression illness, cardiac and muscle failure, and the ever present demon of blackout, so at some point soon things will have to slow down or else we will experience a surge in the number of accidents as well. Having said that, records can and will always be broken, even if the process takes longer. All I wish for is that this progress never stops AS LONG as we observe all needed safety protocols and act in a mature, controlled and responsible way towards it.
DB: Following Martin Stepanek’s recent world record, do you expect to see more depth records being set using bi-fins?
Rudi: This dive was truly amazing, and something I didn’t expect. I think most constant ballast records will be done using monofins, but it looks like people such as Martin and the incomparable Umberto Pelizzarif if he were still active could still go deeper with bi-fins, which is fantastically unbelievable to me. However, eventually all constant records will be done with a mono, this is inevitable.
DB: The 60m record set by Topi Lintukangas in the unassisted freediving category was an outstanding achievement. Can you see room for ever greater advancement in this category? Can we expect to see a 70m record one day?!
Rudi: Topi’s record was certainly incredible, and I was lucky to have witnessed it and even to verify it as a judge. To me, this was the most significant dive of the year 2002, taking nothing away from all the other great performances we enjoyed. However, what’s even more exciting is that after having seen Topi in action, I know he has room for more, easily another 10 meters, and certainly more with some work, so the 70 meter mark is not out of the question. David Lee is also quite far from having reached his limits in this category, and after some thinking I now have set the temporary "limit" for that category at 80 meters, which is a mind boggling number. For now, David and I are very anxious to take the record back from Topi and have started training for it so if we are successful, you should see the 60 meter mark fall before year’s end, so on we go!
DB: Do you think monofins will soon completely dominate freediving?
Rudi: Having been one of the old-school defenders of bi-fins for many years, I have finally "seen the light" and admitted that for depth records, the mono is a far more effective tool, and what has actually allowed a bigger number of divers to reach such depths nowadays. The widespread use of the mono has been, in my opinion, one of the revolutionary steps in freediving in the last decade. However, I would point out that proper monofin technique is paramount and most people out there nowadays are far from having such, so my advice to all newcomers is to learn good mono technique before assuming they are ready for huge marks.