“Holy Crap! She is going to go for nine. Yup, for sure she is going for it.”
I found myself saying this at 8:36 into the performance to Ute, one of nine judge jury members and a fellow A Instructor Judge, while we were judging the final performance of Natalia Molchanova in the Static A Final at the Belgrade AIDA Individual Pool Freediving World Championships. Natalia did just that, a new world record performance of 9:02. Ironically, matching a male world record performance I judged years before in Japan with Tom Sietas.
Natalia is a machine. She is very much human and has from time to time faltered in depth, but when it comes to the pool worlds she is batting 1000. Sorry for the American baseball reference, but it fits. Since 2005, she has won three gold medals and set three world records every time she has appeared. She only missed 2011 due to a death in her family that occurred just before the competition. This worlds was no different, although the world is getting better. They are catching up, well in the Dynamic disciplines. In Static, she remains dominate with increasing margins. Although, it is hard to say for sure she does not have more in the tank than she showed for the Dynamic events; crazy to imagine with the jumps in the records that we saw.
Goran Colak swept the men’s events. He did not sweep with world records in all three events, but with more than enough to show his dominance in the pool. He did manage a big increase in his own world record in Dynamic to a distance of 281 meters / 923 feet. Another monster increase as he managed in Italy two years before. This time with no safety touch issues to complicate matters.
Making the performance even more interesting was the glance toward the end of the pool he made before surfacing. There was mention if he had been on a lane with the wall he would likely have gone for more. No wall lanes at this worlds, mass start of eight prevents that possibility. So, who knows how much more there is for him. If he is smart, not much until a challenger gets close. He asked me, “So are you happy now?” My response, “Of course Goran, you could never disappoint me.” Apparently someone had said that I expected him to go for the world record in Dynamic No Fins. No expectation, just a proper assumption that it may have been on the agenda this year. Funny how people take things out of context and try to blow them up.
Being a judge at a world championship is a privilege. You have to apply and be voted in by the AIDA Assembly. Part popularity contest, part concern for the well running of the event, and part proximity to the event site, the vote often reflects all three of these concerns and sometimes politics. This year the organizers asked for a jury of nine judges. A massive group and the biggest any AIDA World Championships has seen. The jury pool reflected a vast range of experience and talents from all over Europe and America.
The AIDA Board makes the appointment of the Jury President and Vice President. I had the honor of being named Jury President and Petar Bojovic was named Vice President. Since Petar is Serbian this made it easy for dealing with any language issues that may arise with the organizers. Thankfully, there were not many language or other issues in this event.
World Championships require the judges to not participate in activities that could potentially put us in a conflict of interest positions. This is why if there is a protest from a country a judge is from that judge does not participate. Smaller competitions this is not required when it comes to the same nation. Petar was part of the organizing committee and if the need were to arise, I would use Ute GeBmann as my second in the event he was conflicted out.
I am often asked how do you judge a freediving event. I often answer, “Well there is a forty-six page document that dictates how we do that.” I think they expect a quick run through of the process in practical terms. My point is not to be elusive, but rather to point out that there is a lot more to it than simply watching someone dive and providing a card at the end of it. Most of the work happens before the competition begins. This work can be critical and is necessary.
I arrived early for this world championship to make sure that everything could be worked out well in advance of the arrival of athletes. This is not always possible or made easy by some organizers. Generally, it is better to figure out you have an issue when there is still time to fix it and having extra time is a bonus. Having to deal with issues while an event is ongoing adds a lot of stress to an event and takes away focus for the judges that should be reserved for performing their judge duties. This can lead to conflicts and risk mistakes occurring.
The real work for a judge is this review of everything in and about the event. It is not the role of the judge to perform any of the jobs, but it is our duty to review and approve the plans or veto them. Some of these decisions I could make on my own, others would require the entire jury to make. The difference being areas of safety or those clearly defined by the rules, others related to grey areas or general approach and fairness issues fall to the entire jury to make.
This veto or no veto process can take days and requires review of all sites and circumstances of the competition. Some of it requires watching people demonstrate their jobs or seeing different setups for the pool in this case. I prefer to actually see the way it will be done on game day rather than just discussing it. It makes it easier to see and be certain that it will be the best it can be for the athletes. In the end, that is what this is all about, the judges and the organizers really are there to make it the best situation for the athletes and for the performances with safety always being the first priority.
Luckily, the crew in Belgrade was all about making this World Championship the best possible. Small things still happen and always come up. We had an issue with lane lines in Belgrade. Not anyone’s fault, just there is a lack of shorter lane lines for short course distances. So, in the end, we had to cut the heats to six starts per segment and we took finals down to two sets of four starts per final for Dynamic No Fins. Not a major issue, but still a deviation from the program as written.
You can have issues with the pool that can cascade into much bigger problems when they are hosting multiple events. Plans and promises are made and big facilities have multiple large events happening at the same time. We found ourselves without necessary equipment that could have caused the cancellation of a day of this World Championship and the need to reschedule events. Fortunately, the organizational team hustled and they were able to solve the problem in time to avoid such catastrophic outcomes.
Near misses are more the norm than most realize. The nice thing is that the athletes often never know any of this occurs. This is the way it is supposed to be. As judges, if we are forgotten a week after an event is over, we have done our jobs well. If we were to be remembered, likely it means we screwed something up pretty badly. Judges serve at the pleasure of the performance, not the athletes, nor the organization, nor AIDA, nor any other aspect or interest group. We are there first and fore most to protect valid performances and to provide a consistency of judgment that is respected worldwide.
The jury and the organizers are a team. It can be viewed as an us or them thing at times, but it really should not be. We both want the same thing in the end. While we may have differences, they usually work to make the event better and the situation better for the performances. Often, there can be language barriers and just simple understanding barriers when a global perspective meets a local one. It can take time to work through these misunderstandings and grow common ground. However, once it becomes clear that the suggestions and objections are not being made to make anyone’s life more difficult, but to deal with issues we have seen before or cover areas we know can lead to difficulties if not handled carefully this sense of team crystalizes.
The team at Belgrade did a great job. While we may have disagreed about some things early, once they understood that our desire was simply to make the event even better our friendships grew rapidly.
I was fortunate to have Stavros Kastrinakis on this jury. I knew I could trust him to run with the safety inspection and any follow up drilling and or work that needed to be done. This freed me up for other duties and allowed me time to place energy elsewhere. Safety is a primary concern in any competition setting. Given the nature of world championships, we knew that athletes are going to be pushing for big performances, especially in an individual year.
The safeties were well trained and had been drilling as a group for months. Plus, there were forty-two of them. Not a small group to manage. It is one thing to practice and drill and it is another thing when it happens in real life. Stavros took on the inspections with the rigger and attention it necessitates. He continued to drill them and during trainings would have selected athletes simulated blackouts of every imaginable incarnation. I think some of the safeties were wondering why all the endless drills. They would learn very quickly on the first day of competition. I believe they were thankful for the added practice once they began to see what happen in real competition.
We were very fortunate to have three very qualified diving doctors support the event. All were members of the Divers Alert Network medical support team and very helpful with support of any medical questions or needs the athletes had. I warned them that they were likely to get to see a lot of very interesting things this event. Luckily, it was limited in its scope, although the first day made both groups a little nervous.
Managing the jury is no small task either. We had two judge courses running prior to the event and interns that wanted to work with us as well. In the end, this meant a total of fifteen people to coordinate, transport, and generally keep track of. In addition to the judges mentioned before, the remaining members of the jury consisted of Jana Balounova, Darija Subotin, Ekaterina Romanova, Robert King, and Sasa Aleksandar Karjuk.
It is common for people to want to intern with the elected jury. Worlds are the biggest stage for freediving and provide the best place to learn for judges wanting to learn more. The interns are not an official part of the jury and do not carry with them an official vote. But, I like to include them in all the aspects of the jury’s work so they can gain the experiences necessary to grow.
The only way we can continue to do the good work we do is by growing new and qualified judges. Points are awarded to judges that actively judge based on competitions and the level of the work, however chasing points does not necessarily make for a good judge. It is also the quality of the work they do and the learning experiences they go through that matter even more. Worlds provide a place for quality experiences and a pool of the very best judges in the world to learn from. The interns pay their own expenses and participate for the experience receiving half the points of the jury members if they participate in all activities. They are an invaluable member of the team and help the jury with duties we may not have enough jury members to fulfill. With eight lane starts, we were very thankful to have the extra hands and eyes to help us in our duties.
This eclectic band of international judges and interns makes for a group of highly passionate freediving advocates. In the end, we are all huge fans of the sport. For those that have never judged freediving, the big secret is that we have the best seats in the house. There is a lot of work that is required to earn those seats, but ultimately we all love the sport. Being front and center for some of the most amazing feats of human capability does not suck. We have to stay objective and provide the judgment the athlete earns no matter how difficult that might be, but inside we are celebrating the victories and feel the defeats.
It is often misunderstood what judges do. We must judge what we see. It does not matter what the explanation might be as to what we witness, we provide our judgment based on the regulations and what happens before us. Most of the time it is a relatively simple task. The athletes make it very easy for us. They do everything right and they earn a white card. Or they fail the surface protocol directly or sometimes blackout and earn a red card. On rare occasions, athletes decide to be creative and make life for the judges more difficult or are on the edge and fighting to try to complete the requirements.
Note to current and future athletes: it is much better to make it very simple and clear for us as judges, you will assure your outcomes and be much happier with your result.
When the athletes disagree with our judgment they have the right to protest the result. Judges are human. We all do our best, but we can and do make mistakes. Also, video is not real time. When judging you get to see it once and in real time as life happens. In protests you have video that may or may not show what was seen or provide the ability to watch in slow motion and repeatedly. I approach protests as if it is another performance being judged. I remain open minded about the original judgment, but also take in any new information I receive by being able to repeat, slow motion, or zoom in on the performance. If the evidence is sufficient I vote in favor of the protest and the athlete. If it is not, I vote against.
We generally do not talk much about what happens in the protest room. This is to keep the process fair and balanced. Some protests are easy. It is clear that the disqualification was the result of organizational errors, like an athlete being touched by official safeties while not needing to be. Other protests are more difficult dealing with differences in opinions and how judges do their job and what they see. Generally, the jury gets it right. At times, rarely, decisions can be mistaken and plain wrong. There is no lobbying in the protest process for the correct outcomes. At lesser events, the senior judge(s) can overrule the less experienced judges even if the majority voted for the protest when there is a clear error in consideration of the rules. At worlds this is not the case.
In the end, the central rule we live by is that in the case of any doubt, the benefit of that doubt goes to the athlete unless there is clear behavior to the contrary. So, as judges, we need to be able to see and say it for us to judge based on it. If we find ourselves wondering if or if not something happened, the decision is already made, benefit of that doubt to the athlete.
We have an initial jury meeting where we discuss common issues and consistency of judgment for such a large event like this. We find common ground on how to approach situations so that one lane is as likely as another to receive the same judgment for the same performances. The jury agrees on this and we move forward as unified team. If this agreement is broken then the fairness of the entire event can be called into question, so it is critical. We do the very best we can with the circumstances we are faced with. Being fair and consistent is the ultimate goal for any judge. At world championships, the stage is just a lot bigger as are the impact of the decisions.
The cool part about it all is when the competition begins. This is usually after ceremonies and introductions and city officials and sponsors and all the appropriate celebration a large event brings to any location. All the work and inspections, conversations and preparations, conflicts and resolutions come together for what we are all there for, the comp.
By the time you reach the first day of performances the jury is a fairly well oiled machine. Each member knew their lane assignment and the interns were helping with spotting on the far lanes.
Big mass starts are awesome for the spectators and the athletes, but hell to judge. We do the best we can, but the far lanes can be difficult to see well. This is why interns can be so useful. Situating help to spot turns and watch for things in the far lanes helps enormously.
We had built the team into several department heads and all were dealing with their roles in kind. When you have a good jury it frees the work up to actually enjoy the event especially when the organizers are on the same page. So, we were able to concentrate on judging and not have to worry too much about other issues.
The first day was hot; it had been getting hotter day by day. It meant warmer water and tough conditions for the athletes. I knew that nerves would be up and dive reflex would be down. The athletes pushed and worked hard to try to make it into the finals. It took its toll. We had double the usual blackout rate. The safeties woke up quickly and realized why we had been drilling them so consistently. The doctors were busy and appreciated the warning I had given them. I was happy with the responses to the issues and enjoyed celebrating the successful performances.
The pool in Belgrade is a fast pool. It allowed for big swims, but the field was also wide open so I think the feeling was that with some extra effort a final could be made when perhaps it was not accessible in previous events. This combined with the warm conditions leads to a bit of a perfect storm; pressure internally for the athletes and conditions that make that desire tougher to reach, as a result a much higher than normal blackout rate. Also, bigger fighting for those that have pushed to the edge with clear loss of motor control and fatigued athletes.
In the end, it is always better to do the swim you can and earn the white card then let those that push too far fall by the side. Dynamic No Fins illustrated that perfectly.
Dynamic was on for the second day. The conditions were even hotter. I think the athletes took the lessons of the first day to heart. There were far fewer blackouts.
As judges we know that blackouts are part of the sport, but it gives us no joy to see them. It is expected and we generally see them at a rate of about ten percent, well including failures of the surface protocol that are hypoxia related. It was good to have it back to a more normal rate. The safeties took a bit of a sigh of relief. It is actually better that our toughest day was the first day; I think this allowed for a better event from a safety standpoint. There was no doubt that worlds had arrived and this was no drill.
Athletes stayed closer to their capabilities and less faltered.
Oh what a difference a day makes. Overnight a storm front rolled in and what were hot conditions becomes rainy and cold. Rain is never fun for the judges, especially during Static. At least with Static you can hide a bit with umbrellas. If this had happened during the Dynamic events, we would just have been really wet. For the athletes, rain and cold conditions on a Static day is rough. As an athlete with Static you are trying to get everything to slow down and this means you get cold very easily. The pool being an outdoor pool provides nowhere to hide. Athletes were cold and the smart ones upped their insulation choices, if they could. Many suffered. The performances showed it. Times were less than expected.
Judging Static is not like the other events. It is a bit like watching paint dry until the last minute or so where it gets exciting. The real task is to stay focused and not let your mind wander too far. You still need to be watchful for safety issues and request signals if there is a question. This just usually happens in the latter portions of the performance.
Static is a wholly unnatural act. It may be the most unnatural thing we do in freediving. With all other disciplines you are doing something while you hold your breath. Static, you are just there with nothing much else to do but be aware that you are holding your breath. It has a special kind of pain attached to it. For the person off the street asking them to hold their breath leads to failure and breathing in less than a minute for most. None of these athletes would consider that option for a great while longer. I have been asked what Static is like by those that do not freedive and my answer is always the same, “Imagine your genitals being placed in the opening of a drawer and then repeatedly slamming it shut.” Not literally, but psychologically a bit.
The fascinating aspect of this discipline is the ability to endure this level of suffering. While it may appear to be like watching paint dry with greater appreciation it becomes baring witness to a psychological battle the likes of which little else can provide. You can imagine the internal struggle while every cell in your body screams “Oh come on, all you have to do is breathe! Just lift your head up and take a breath and all the pain goes away.” Some athletes wear this struggle more than others. Each is different and unique in that struggle. It is a subtle appreciation, but if you find it, then Static becomes one of the coolest parts of this sport.
The ability to endure suffering is often the qualifier named as what separates the good from the great in elite athletics. Each discipline of freediving brings with it a unique form of suffering at the elite level. Freediving is really the ultimate extreme sport; if you fail you are failing at the cellular level. It is truly the last bit of capability you have as an organism and really no other pursuit can point to this level of exposure. Other extreme sports are cool, but I doubt the half pipe athletes are pulling the last bit of effort out of their mitochondria when they fail.
This is not to say any of this is true for recreational freediving. That is without a doubt free of suffering unless you make silly mistakes. This is about the elite end of the sport with athletes that are amongst the very best in the world.
From a judging standpoint Static is the easiest. There are few penalties and once the athlete makes it past their announced performance, it is an either they make or they don’t proposition. So, you have time to take in and appreciate the subtler parts of the performance. I, personally, find it very cool in its own unique way even if on long days it can feel a bit like waiting for paint to dry. Paint certainly does not end its drying with such excitement.
The day resolved with less rain, but still cold. The performances suffered with shorter times qualifying for the finals than expected. Some athletes were just too cold to pull out their best. You would think that with a sport that happens in the water a bit of rain would not matter so much, but when the balance between great performances and not so can be tied to even the slightest change it temperature it does matter. There was an indoor pool on site, but it was not available to be used.
Between the heats and the finals we had a day off. The organizers had arranged for a city tour and boat ride on the Danube for lunch. Most of the athlete took part in the activities. In the afternoon training was available. A day off for the athletes is not one for the judges. We still had start list generation to supervise and an event committee meeting to prepare for.
Event committee meetings are nightly meetings held when there is an event start the following day. Generally, these meeting can be long and late. When the organizers are not prepared and results and start lists are not ready they can go even later. The start list is required to be complete for the event committee to begin. I like to limit these meetings to an hour at the most. Much of what delays these meetings can be discussed outside of the meetings.
They are critical for making sure the competition is running smoothly and to allow each country’s representative a voice to raise issues of concern throughout the competition. So, they are necessary. In Serbia, we were very fortunate and it speaks to the work of the organizers and jury, we had no meeting begin late and the total time of all the meetings was likely shorter than a single meeting at some of the previous events.
The food was not the best at this event. So, most of us and most athletes went out to eat. While this takes longer, it was much tastier. Also, with Serbia being a good value it was not so damaging to the pocketbook. More importantly, these social events are how you really get to know people. It was nice to have everyone in one place under one roof for the most part. Eating together allowed the jury to get to know each other better, but also the athletes that would join us each night. It is part of what makes the big events so special.
The finals brought with them better weather and big performances. It was an exciting time to be a judge. Dynamic No Fins had the women going for it with all three medalists exceeding the standing world record. This had never happened before in AIDA’s history. Natalia saw Katarina Turcinovic of Croatia surface at the wall at 175 meters then she turned and pushed off knowing full well she could have just gone one more meter and come up. She added seven. Amber Bourke of Australia places third in her first worlds ever with a swim of 164 meters.
The men were impressive as well. Goran captured a new national record in route to the gold medal and another Croatian, Peles Vanja, captured the silver. Both managed over 200 hundred meters. Alexey Mochanov secured bronze just off of 200 at 195 meters for a new Russian national record.
Seating for the Finals was done by random draw since we had to break up the A and B Finals into two groups of four because of our lane line issue. There are many options for seating athletes. Via the regulations we can do anything we want really. But, to be fairest, we decided to pull names from a hat. We could have done it in reverse order of finish from the heats, but then this might have one segment be viewed as more favored than the next. It is a tough decision, you know as a judge there will be complaints either way. This issue only existed for the Dynamic No Fins Finals, so we would not see it again.
As a judge you know athletes will complain. It is something they do, we do not take it personally as often it is simply a way for the athletes to vent their own frustration off on to something that is not about them. Part of it comes with the territory. Sometimes it carries with it true issues that need to be addressed. When it does, action is taken. When it does not we make sure they feel heard and move on.
Having the best seats in the house for a day like this is what it is all about. With massive performances and history in the making, it was a good sign that the following two days would bring more of the same.
Dynamic Finals were set to be fierce. A fast pool and many athletes ready for big swims. The day would not disappoint. The men’s final had all the athletes in both the A and B Final doing over 200 meters. Another first. Goran captured his world record with his gold. Alexander Bubenchikov of the Ukraine took silver with a swim of 259 meters and Aleksandr Kostyshen took the bronze and Alexey’s Russian national record with a swim of 256 meters. The irony of the day came from the B Final were Frenchman Guillaume Bussiere captured ninth place with a swim of 259 meters that would have tied for silver had he qualified for the A Final.
The women threw down with another thriller. Ilaria Bonin of Italy who lost her world record in Dynamic No Fins the day before was on a mission. She went out big and in front. Natalia took her typical slow and methodical pace. Ilaria came up at 233 meters shattering the existing world record only to see Natalia surface moments later at 234 meters taking the gold. This is the first time that Natalia has been tested with such a close finish. One fin kick either way could have changed the outcome.
I am not sure if either was aware of the other during the swim, but as a fan of the sport it was an incredible nail biter of a finish. Both made it easy to judge with strong and clean surface protocols. I think the future looks bright for both. The question is who will be the first to 250 meters? Katarina won the bronze with a very strong swim of 212 meters and a new Croatian national record for this relative new comer.
Static wrapped up the event performances. The weather was warmer and the performances reflected it. Natalia and Goran did their thing to win gold completing the double hat trick. Natalia added twenty-seven seconds to her own world record and set the high mark for the day beating all the men. Austrian Veronika Dittes won silver at 7:44 and Czech newcomer Gabriela Grezlova won bronze with 6:54.
The silver and bronze for the men provided the stunner of the day. George Panagiotakis of Greece and Eugen Goettling of Austria tied with 8:46. The tie breaking procedure when there is a tie is then to look at each athlete’s announced performance. They differed by one second. So, George ended up with silver and Eugen with the bronze. That is the way the cookie crumbles. In a discipline of minutes it is amazing to see a tie and then to have the announced performances only differ by a second is almost a cruel twist of fate. Announcements are done is secret so no one knows what the other has announced. I imagine in the future both of these athletes will remember this day.
Performances were over, but the jury’s work was not. Our official duties do not end until protest time has come and gone and doping control is complete. AIDA conducts doping control at all world championships for any world records and first and second place winners of all events along with random tests.
We were very lucky this year to have the organizers contract with the local World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) officials to help us conduct our doping controls. It meant we would have the help and time to conduct doping control everyday of the competition. This is not usually the case with us leaving it until the last day of the event. It makes for a very long last day and is not the best way to provide for the testing, but the only practical way we were able to manage it in the past.
AIDA is not a WADA member, but we follow their lead in anti doping efforts and control. Our procedures are taken from their procedures. We were lucky enough to be taken through the education their officers participate in to become certified as doping control officers within WADA. This was a huge benefit for the judge students and the whole jury. It also reaffirmed that AIDA is doing what is needed in our efforts to promote fairness within our sport.
We had no protests, so our day was complete. I like to try to have a moment with the jury and interns prior to completing our work. In the past we would just be done and never really have a moment as a group again, so we shared a drink and enjoyed our last official moments together.
Belgrade knows how to party. The closing of the comp falling on a weekend in a city that knows how not to sleep led to many partying until dawn. It is a strange feeling to leave the dance floor and realize the sun is coming up unless you do this regularly. It was a good party.
In hindsight, having done this a few times before, Belgrade was one of the best world championships AIDA has ever had. I cannot take credit for this, nor will I. This was a team effort all the way. The organizers were motivated and wanted to provide the very best situation they could for the athletes. The jury came in motivated to do a great job and worked well together cooperating with each other to show leadership by each individual.
There are always going to be moments of conflict and difficulty. We had our share of it with this event, the difference this time was that all concerned were motivated by the desire to fix it and make it right so the best performances could come forward.
I thank the organizers for their thoughtful support and capable team leaders. It would not have been this successful without their desire for it to be this way. A jury of this size can be a difficult group to manage. The jury made it work and came to the event with a spirit of cooperation and shared desire to work with the organizers and share in their goals.
As a judge, I have fond memories of all the events I have worked, big or small for the most part. Belgrade will be one of the fondest memories. As a fan of the sport, Holy Crap! What a game we are in.
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