My First FreeDiving Competition

When I signed up for the Sony Freediver Open Classic it was done as a bit of a laugh. Goaded on by organiser Howard Jones who assured me that I could dive as shallow as I liked, I thought it would be a nice holiday with a bit of diving thrown in. And besides it was months and months away. Plenty of time to join a gym, learn complicated equalisation techniques and find my inner om…

150 days later I was sitting on a plane. Exhausted from over-work, out of breath from the long walk through the airport terminal, and diving seven metres shallower than my personal best. I was sick to the stomach about the thought of competing and wasn’t sure if I even liked freediving anymore.

Just a day earlier I had visited Nice for some last minute ‘training’. Loic LeFerme and Francois had taken away my snorkel, rubbished my breathe up, weight belt and monofin and the deepest I had gone was 25 metres, failing to reach my very first tag at 30 and followed by unceremoniously bashing my head on the bottom of the boat. Oh the glamour. 

Now I found myself in a hotel lobby, having missed registration and most of the briefing and trying to fit the faces around me to the magazine articles I had read. To complete my disorientation the hotel had conveniently over-booked and despite my deposit paid back in January they did not have a room for me. A friend took pity on my bedraggled state and said I could use the shower in his room until the hotel had sorted something out. Stepping out of the bathroom and thinking that was the closest to deep water that I intended to go, I had just about put on clothes when the door opened ‘Oh, I’m sorry, have I got the wrong room?’ It was the other occupant. ‘No, Rodin said I could use the shower, I’m Emma, who are you?’ ‘Herbert Nitsch’ he replied before stripping off to his boxers, lying on the bed and falling asleep. Hmmm. I had not intended to get quite this close to a world record holder.

The different countries competing were assigned different time slots to train on the barge. The UK and France were due early the next morning, so after changing by the pontoon we set off at high speed to the barge, moored far out. Suddenly I seemed a little too close to the reality of the competition. Perfect lines were strung along one side and there was a flurry of activity from the organisers. The water was crystal clear despite the decoration of toilet paper, which pre-empted the continuous announcements of ‘Do not use the toilet whilst divers are in the water’. The poor monkeys were going to have to wait a very long time…

I tried to relax into a breath up and took my time pulling down to 15 metres. My ears were still slow to clear but I felt happy with them and decided to dive without looking at my computer. I had been experimenting with my equalising with fantastically useless results and kept finding myself unable to equalise despite there being air in my mouth and cheeks. My overall tiredness ensured that I was only fit for a maximum of three fin downs but was pleased to see that I was at least getting past 25 metres. I thought the gauge must be broken as every dive was bang on 27.7 metres despite my personal best being 32 metres. I decided not to stress and wait and see what the next morning would bring.

This competition had a rule whereby if you did up to 5 metres less than your announced depth then you would not get penalised. In the heady days of last year I had hoped that I might be diving into the mid thirties but this now seemed far away. This rule at least gave me the opportunity to subscribe 32 metres and if I did what I knew I could easily do, 27, then I would not be penalised. I wanted to discuss subscriptions with people but found that they were keeping their cards very close to their chests. It was only when I talked to Martin Stepanek that I fully realised that this was a Competition with a capital C and that for most of these people this was the real deal, they were not the wannabe that I clearly was.

As the nature of what a competition was began to slowly penetrate my addled brain and the stress began to permeate I started to have sudden flashes of panic, which sent my heart racing and my stomach turning. Around me were the calm faces of the pros, experienced and seemingly to possess a Zen like calm. Around them, like a blue bottle trapped in a hot car I buzzed, bothering anyone who had the patience and politeness to listen. I flapped around and flipped out trying to memorise the incredibly complicated procedures and work out how I could end up with minus points for going early, going late, touching the line, touching other people, touching myself? This was getting too much.

That night I ran over and over the competition dive in my head, and the next and final training day I found I had exactly the same sticking point of 27.7 metres. I had decided not to do the dynamic competition due to sheer ineptitude and so that afternoon I started to get to know some of the other competitors. Perhaps it is the fact that there is no money involved that makes freedivers such a unique bunch of people. They drag themselves from all over the world at considerable personal cost to be ignored by the mainstream media as they achieve feats that defy reason and rationality. I had expected at least an entourage for some and at least a few egos and bad mouths. Instead I found friendliness, openness and humour. Despite my great height I felt a very small fish and to have such giants of the ocean taking the time to talk to me was humbling.

Paul Kotik, my sub-boss had told me to say hello to Kirk Krack, and so, in a fit of wild abandon I ran up to him that evening and asked him to donate thirty seconds of his time to helping me improve my lamentable static performance. Not only did he immediately talk to me for twenty minutes, he then offered to spot me and offer more advice. Perhaps it is the Canadian tone of voice or perhaps it is just down to Kirk himself, but his voice was so soothing and calm that after five minutes of facial immersion I was ready to agree to anything ‘Now Emma you are feeling VERY relaxed…’ ‘Yes yes!’ ‘Now you will give me the keys to your car, your Cyprus pounds and your D3’ ‘Yes! Yes, anything Kirk!’…

He changed my breathe up so that I was putting far less strain on my diaphragm and did my last breaths on my back before gently rolling face down. Previously I had found that even before my first contraction I was getting a terrible burning pain all over my body, as if every cell was trying to throw up. This suddenly went, and although my breath hold was no longer than normal, it was certainly considerably easier. He also taught me that when the contractions come it often helps to bring the legs up under you and shorten the length of the front body. I managed 2 contractions before wussing out. He told me that when Martin did his world record he managed 73…

Late that night the top times for the next three days went up and, due to my shallow dive, I was to go on the last day. This was a relief until I saw in what order we were to dive. Herbert Nitsch 93, Martin Stepanek 93, Emma Farrell 32…They were obviously playing with the big girls now…

The next two days did nothing to lessen my panic but it did lots to increase my static performance. Loath to follow Kirk around like a lovesick groupie and invoke yet another restraining order (Herbert’s was the first), I recruited Haydn Welch, his lovely family and my buddy Alexis to help me in ‘The way of the Kirk’. On the Tuesday I managed four minutes and then the next day I managed an unbelievable 4.21 with my heart rate actually dipping as low as 45 bpm as opposed to my resting rate of 78… I could have gone on but my tongue started to tremble, and as I have never had a samba and thought this might be the onset of one, I decided to come up clean. Another highlight of being around the pool was being able to witness the masters as work: Herbert coming up clean and not even needing to breathe from over 8.10, and The Deepest Bear breaking his own static record to give a clean 3 hour performance and the reward of a pot of honey! 

Haydn also tried to teach me to pack in an attempt to help me equalise further, but in all things last minute, it wasn’t really going to work. From the reports coming back from the barge it was also clear that the judges were incredibly strict/ arbitrary with their disqualifications for Loss Of Motor Control (LMC). I know that when I surface I always close my eyes and bend my head forward and was now sure that if I did this they would think I was having a samba. I also tend to frown and it seemed that if you weren’t smiling from ear to ear and blowing them kisses it would be a close call…

The weather had been balmy every morning, but when I awoke at 5am for my competition dive I saw that things had changed. The wind was now blowing straight onto the competition lines and there was already a considerable swell. By the time I got to the barge I was feeling sick and cold and so Haydn wrapped me in a towel on a lilo and played classical music into my ears. I tried not to think of my dive and instead found myself drifting to the feat that Martin and Herbert were about to try and accomplish. My attempt looked so pitiful compared to theirs but I felt as if we were all trying to climb the same mountain.

In the water I pulled down to about 10 metres and felt my body wracked with the same sickness I thought I had kirked goodbye. I was cold and panicked and was almost in tears as I told Haydn ‘I can’t do it, I just can’t do it’. He was so calm and soothing and tried to drag me through the water as the waves got higher and higher, crashing over my head and ruining any chance of relaxation. I could hear a huge commotion and tried to look. ‘Keep you eyes closed’ Haydn ordered as out of the corner of my eye I could see Herbert receiving oxygen with blood pouring out of his ear.

It was chaos on the two competition lines. The waves were huge and producing a second splash back from the end of the barge. It was impossible to breathe up on my back as I had planned so lay on my front with the snorkel filling with water as I was bashed by the safety divers as they tried to give me room and not get knocked into the barge. Even one minute before my top I was screaming and swearing at poor Haydn ‘I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!’ Suddenly he was yelling my top time and I had to go. It was now or never. I took the biggest breath I could and duck dived into the swell.

Below the surface I was swimming away from the line and my lanyard was preventing my progress. I adjusted back into the line and tried to think about style and relaxation and equalising. At about fifteen metres I started to get a smell and pain of chlorine in my sinuses, which must have been from the pool sessions. I then began to find the pressure intense and decided that enough was enough and I would turn back. I raised my head up, and there, to my astonishment was the plate, just a couple of metres away! I drifted down, grabbed the rope and snatched at my tag with such force I nearly took the carabiner with it. I couldn’t believe I had reached it!

On the ascent, my right hand had become tangled around the lanyard and I was unable to free it so had to return with just one hand raised above my head. My static practices had ensured that I had plenty of air left and the ride back to the surface was a breeze. I just kept in my head the thought to smile and look at the judges. Breaking the surface I tried to do all that whilst the splash back sent water straight into my eyes and up my nose. I kept apologising and smiling until I saw a judge smile at me followed by four white cards.

I was totally overwhelmed and still can’t believe that I had made it to the tag and back in one piece, equalling my pb from last year and smashing through the 27.7 barrier I had been suffering from. As I swam back I was stunned and incredibly emotional. The relief was astounding and I felt as if I was floating and disembodied from all the reality around me. I clutched my tag with for dear life and tried to hug everyone who made the mistake of coming near me. I swapped tags with Martin and got a few funny photos and then borrowed a phone to call anyone who was willing to pick up at 6am UK time….

That afternoon I wandered around in a daze, broken only by ice cream, chocolate mousse and watching the video of my dive. I couldn’t get over that I was watching myself. It looked so deep, and the style was awful. I could just imagine Aharon, MT and the Russians, standing over me shaking their heads. I also saw the end of Martin’s dive, which was incredible. He looked as if he pounding a Stairmaster through treacle. Completely incredible. That evening I ended up at dinner with, amongst others, Carlos Coste, Herbert Nitsch and Martin Stepanek. It continued to amaze me at how well all these record holders got on, with no animosity, and how there was not a media scrum that followed them around at all times. Still buzzing from my dive I gorged on Italian puddings, putting to the back of my mind the static competition the next day.

Dairy products, sugar, lack of sleep and stress all surfaced in a dramatic style the next morning as my preparation for the static consisted of running to the toilet every five minutes. Why was I doing this again? I really cannot cope with nerves, and by the time I got in the pool I was yet again in a hyped up state of extreme anxiety. My faffing about had resulted in my preparation being too short, and when Haydn pulled me into the transition zone, just before my top time, I was still on my last preparation breath hold. I ended up with about four minutes to recover and breathe up and tried to run over the mantra of ‘I am calm and relaxed’ as I felt the panic rise within me. I just about heard the top time and managed to turn over before my ten seconds were up. Still so worried about a samba I had subscribed 3.30 and Haydn told me just before my breathe up that all I needed to do was this to come third amongst the British women. I couldn’t quite believe this but did as he advised and came up at 3.47 after the easiest breath hold imaginable. I was so happy to get another white card that I started laughing hysterically until told to ‘Sssshhhhh’! by everyone around me.

When I came to Cyprus I knew that I was a relative beginner who had no time to train and improve beforehand. I had fully expected to come last amongst the British women, but as the samba disqualification’s came in, and people suffered equalisation problems, it became clear that with my two strong and clean performances I was actually going to come third. To say that this was a shock doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings. I was completely numb, overwhelmed and completely honoured.

The emotions were already getting to me, and when Amanda Williams smashed her own British static record of 5.16 and Annabel Briseno did the same to her US record with 5.57 I couldn’t help crying with happiness for them.

That evening was the chance for everyone to relax and let what little hair they had down. It was also a chance for the safety divers to laugh openly at the way these toned; strong athletes (note to reader I am not putting myself in this category) handled their exposure to alcohol… By nine thirty, Bill Stromberg had had one shandy too many and was incapable of remaining upright. He made friends with a lamppost for support and got offended when I kept calling him over to show people his co-ordination skills… I on the other hand just couldn’t stop hugging people.

At about eleven the results were announced and I made my way found the pool to collect my prize, a competition T-shirt. I immediately went round getting it signed and am going to get it framed. One of the nicest surprises of the awards was the completely unexpected (for him) positioning of Deron Verbeck in third place. He was already on cloud nine from getting a new US static record and when his name was announced he couldn’t believe it. For most of the rest of the evening he sat in stunned silence, tears in his eyes as people came up to pay their respects to the gentle and incredible man. His kindness towards me and other beginner freedivers and his journey has been a huge inspiration and he can only go on to deeper things!

After the prizes were announced and the tension was over, it started to get very messy. Lee ‘crazy boy’ Donnelly had purloined a bottle of cleaning fluid- sorry, Cyprus alcohol, and was giving everyone a top time to see how much they could down before blacking out. Loic and Kaz gave an impromptu mouth organ and ukelelli concert and one of the judges was spotted being chased by The Deepest Bear due to a red card he had given for lmc. Lotte Ericsson became my new best friend as she talked through her woes and one of my friends got pushed into the pool by two overly amorous blondes who hoped that their actions would mean the removal of his clothes… At about four I turned in and faced the horror of packing for a taxi that was booked to leave two hours later for the airport. 

The Sony Freediver Open Classic was the most awesome week for me. I have such incredibly happy memories of the event and the new people I met there. Annabel and Matt Briseno, Jessica Wilson, Lotte Ericsson, Monica Hubbard, Davide Carrerra, Brent Pascal, Kirk, Tony, Herbert Nitsch, Carlos ‘biggest smile in the world’ Coste, Deron, Mark, and all the other people I talked to but was too shy to ask their names. I’m not sure whether I can take the stress of competing again but I would certainly be along for the ride. The thing that sets this competition apart from the World Cup is that it gives the majority of freedivers the opportunity to take part in a competition and event. Chances are that I will never be good enough to make the British Team and so desperately hope this event or something similar will become an annual occurrence.

The organisation and safety were first class and the mandatory use of lanyards proved to be incredibly beneficial in a couple of quite serious cases. I can’t thank Howard enough for the event and hope that he and all his team feel strong enough to run such an event again, as in my mind I am already there. Just 360 days left. Plenty of time to join a gym, learn complicated equalisation techniques and find my inner om…

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