And then, there was Nice.
The First AIDA Individual Pool World Freediving Championship has folded its tents in Renens-Lausanne and a swelling host of athletes, trainers, media, supporters and camp followers now converges on the French Riviera for the climactic finale to the annual season of triumph and trial. In the beginning there were but few, yet now the thunder of hooves and the sounding of trumpets and drums draws near, and ancient Nice quivers at the feet of AIDA’s phalanxes.
It is time.
Which is not to say the Renens was anything less than fantastic, another notch in the belt of the resilient AIDA team which has played so very central a role in the renaissance of our gentle sport. Records were set, the winning performances were impressive and there were even a few surprising plot twists.
In the Static Apnea event, for example, top contender Tom Sietas cost me a pretty penny in the office betting when he rallied after a packing blackout and still, somehow, managed to deliver a 6:13. Now, I was pretty sure Tom was going to win that event and so I must say that on balance I’m relieved I wasn’t there to see this heartbreaker. My blackout, I fear, would have been even more dramatic than his. A Deeper Blue salute to Mr. Sam Still of Great Britain, our victor and prince with a workmanlike 8:19.
Workmanlike ? It staggers one to recall that only a few short years ago, a static apnea time of 8:19 was a fantasy, a thing whispered only by slap-happy divers in the early morning hours, and only after very free immersions in adult beverages and cold baths.
And Tanya. Tanya Streeter, who defies all reason, all sense of proportion, with her anomalous status as a genuine Old Timer in our league. How in the world does the suave and debonaire Ms. Streeter fall short of qualifying for the DNF (Dynamic No Fins) final, only to casually and shortly thereafter surpass the then-extant world record (and set a US national record) in a starter dive ? How does she do 81m in her heat, cede her place in the final go-round, and then ( like a stage magician pulling a rabbit – no, a Russian wolfhound out of her hat) confound and delight with a 113m tour of the same pool’s icy chlorine consommé ? That is an enormous, and inexplicable difference ! And just when we had begun to suppose we understood the physiology of this thing. Perhaps Marie Antoinette was correct: perhaps it is all in the head.
Speaking of head games, Tom Sietas wasn’t fooling anybody with that tactical deception of his in the Static event. His gold medal 208m victory lap in Dynamic is where his head is at, and nobody knows it better than the Gang of Four, recently arrived in the South of France from North America.
The three gentlemen of the Performance Freediving team established a forward base of operations in serene St. Jean Cap-Ferrat on August 20, and having reported back to Headquarters that the training area had been put in order were joined by the team’s de facto Commander-in-Chief on August 28.
Performance Freediving ( Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, Kirk Krack, Dr. George Lopez, and Martin Stepanek) has come to town to defend the world titles they’ve worked so hard and for so long to capture and retain.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Martin Stepanek’s Constant Weight title is arguably the most coveted in all of freediving. True, the past couple of years have seen a dizzying ramp-up of performance levels across the board, as brilliant new athletes find their way to our sport’s highest echelons. What was done at Renens was magnificent, more so, even, than the dry numbers suggest. Competitions are orchestrated unpredictability. The pool is cool, but Constant Weight still, somehow, is the thing. Stepanek has trained hard, and is as determined as ever to excel, but the day will come when Tom or Carlos or somebody we don’t even know yet will slip past him.
Maybe this time, maybe not. I don’t know what more Martin could have done to prepare for this defense of his crown, but then, there can be little doubt but that his challengers’ investment in victory has not been any less. Perhaps a bit less – sleeping in a hypoxic tent every night at a virtual altitude of 3,000 meters or more, as Martin has done in training for this event, is not for everyone.
Mandy-Rae Cruickshank is the guardian of Team Performance Freediving’s distaff domination. I well recall some of Mandy’s first ‘deep’ Constant Weight training dives, back in Honaunau Bay on the Big Island of Hawai’i in the winter of 2001. Although challenged (Mandy’s Canadian, after all) by Honaunau’s clear, warm water and the lack of the 5 -7 mil wetsuit she’d grown up with in Vancouver, she just kept dropping deeper and deeper. Forty meters seemed like a big deal at the time, but of course she’s more than doubled that depth since then. Mandy’s background in competitive swimming goes way back, and she’s a disciplined trouper with a rock –solid commitment to excellence.
But then, so are her challengers.
We’ll know by September 4 whether the ancien regime shall stand or fall. In either case, we can all be proud of our athletes, trainers, organizers and supporters from all over the world. Freediving has come of age. The intake valve is open, and we’re drawing on a larger and larger pool of enthusiasts. As Kirk Krack put it yesterday, “A full boat is a happy boat.” Let’s expect to be dazzled again and again by impossible performances in all the disciplines.
Let the games begin.