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My Road To Success

Editor Note: Greek Freediver George Panagiotakis recently achieved first place in the AIDA Pool World Championships in Belgrade and presents his journey to success.

Every year and mainly after the summer season where things are much more calm without competition commitments, I set a goal for next the year. After careful consultation with my coach, a plan is made, dividing my training into small and large cycles (periods). In my mind it was all clear to me (so I had hoped!) when the individual world depth championship 2015 was announced to take place in Cyprus in early September. It would be a very good opportunity to make a comeback after the successful years of 2011 and 2013, and with good preparation in mid-July it will surely bring me equally good results at this year’s world depth championship.

There is a proverb that says ”If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans” and he has laughed at me more times than to my liking. This ”smile” has led me to more setbacks than in joys and successes.

Giorgos Panagiotakis - Preparing For A DYN Freedive
Giorgos Panagiotakis – Preparing For A DYN Freedive

Breaking Out Of The Comfort Zone

The first ”smile”, was in early 2014 when I decided to move to Cyprus for employment purposes. I had to face significant problems, such as living in an ”unknown” country that had also recently passed an economic crisis. But I tried to deal with it as a positive change in my life that would lead me one step further…

The first six months were anything but enjoyable. Everyday life required a good attitude, energy and responsibility to 100%, where more often than not it simply became impossible to keep up to the standards that were required of me. Living life in this frantic situation, I struggled with finding time to do the things that I needed, things that I had grown up and had lived with. I had to find time to train…

The second ”smile” which also happened to be an unexpectedly pleasant one, came in the spring of the same year. The Greek National Apnea Championship 2014 in Argiroupoli. Just having started training one and a half months before, I decide to take part. Neither I or my coach George Georgas had a particular goal in mind. On the other hand we were open to new challenges that could arise. The result was to achieve 2nd place in dynamic apnea with fins with 227m equaling simultaneously (for a few minutes) the national record of Christos Papadopoulos. An unexpected victory with even more unexpected results.

The Idea

After that competition I had many concerns and thoughts. I had lost valuable training time by being absent from competitions and how I could have performed better if I had made that decision sooner. Many athletes go through this and I was one of those. At that time I decided to train seriously for the next two months to try to break the national record in dynamic. This was a first for me.

Great Action – Great Reaction

My eagerness and enthusiasm led to huge miscalculations and conclusions in my training for the competition. The great action brings great reaction. On the afternoon of August 7th, my attempt was unsuccessful by far, proving both my own and George’s predictions wrong. I came up from my attempt at 175m (not even close to the record target of 232m). With bad feelings and negative feedback, my preparation for that effort had just ended. I had already received the third ”smile”.With bad feelings and negative feedback, my preparation for that effort had just ended. I had already received the third ”smile”. This “Chapter” of trying to break the record closed indefinitely. My negative feelings were replaced with several freediving excursions, where even there, I was faced with problems that i considered resolved years ago. Equalization has many sides to it and requires if anything, frequent contact with the sea. Something I had neglected due to my training sessions for the dynamics record.

No More Headlines…

My problems of equalization altered my depth training program and thus hindered my progress. All this led to ending the competition season with yet another failed attempt to break the record in Constant Weight with fins (record -102m).

One Step Back – 2 Steps Forward

Back to Basics

The start of the new season 2014-2015. Two individual world championships in the near future of which I plan to participate in one of the two. As mentioned above, the target for the world depth championship was clear in my mind. The pool however was the means by which I was testing my endurance, tweaking my technique and was one step closer to self-improvement. For some reason I was stuck and could not overcome certain “obstacles”.  These “obstacles” were both on a physical and psychological level. Nevertheless I did not want to quit and have to wonder ”what if … ”.

I had to go back to basics and reschedule my training. The first thing I felt I was missing was my physical condition. I added twice as many training sessions in the week. With very careful handling by Georgas to avoid exhaustion we concluded to six weekly sessions. At first, I thought that this was ”tough” but on the other hand I knew that this was part of evolving.

Change. My biggest fear and obstacle

My daily training made me become more observant of everything. Observing my pace and feelings after each dive helped me reach the right conclusions to whether my decisions on how to move underwater were correct. Feeling – Technique – Speed . Three things that led me to find solutions and to gain meters.

The next step involved filming each underwater dynamic apnea workout. Through filming I noticed among other things that my technique had problems because of poor buoyancy that I had thought I had resolved. Regardless of whether I had had a better performance of +225m by turning the ”traditional ” way.
This whole process with frequent changes began in 2013 and continues to this day. Many mistakes and more setbacks incurred until the final solution came about. Nevertheless I have always found and find the courage to try new things even in competitions, without even testing beforehand. Now I’m two steps ahead.

Face to Face With Tradition

To create tradition in a sport is something that can hardly be reversed. Even in big competitions we sometimes see top teams being defeated by less stronger ones. In dynamic apnea I had created a similar bad tradition. Since 2008 I always took third place, sometimes with a good performance and sometimes with a poor one. The phenomenon of keeping up with tradition was confirmed for me every single time.

November 2014 – 175m third place. December 2014 – 235m NR second place. In May 2015 at the AIDA Greek National Championship, 253m NR second place. For the first time in my life I had been in such a good shape and I could still not win. I wanted to win by breaking the national record but the chance had not yet been given to me. ?y coach and I could see the progress I had made which gave us courage, but we still remained unsatisfied. We really wanted that record.

Keeping Dry Before Competing
Keeping Dry Before Competing

Being Unsatisfied – My Drive

Till May, I had taken part in a total of 4 pool competitions and had one left to go. This was in Thessaloniki scheduled two weeks later. The decision of whether to participate or not was not an easy one. I had to take into account that my flight was scheduled a few hours before the competition, due to work commitments. A few days later, my coach called to say that he wanted to attend the competition since it was (as we both thought) my last competition of the season.

The decision that was made after much discussion was positive. During the trip I was a little puzzled. Because of my “heavy” training in the final days before the competition, we were not sure whether I was in the right condition to compete.

The result was to finish on the wall at 275m. This performance was in a 25 meter pool which surprised both the participants and my coach who in excitement touched my hand to congratulate me before I had the chance to complete the surface protocol. With this touch thus come out the red card. For a few hours later my feelings were mixed.

I had no idea what my next step was going to be, but something inside me was telling me that I was not done yet. In fact, the outcome actual bothered my teammates and coach more than it did me. I was satisfied that I actually achieved something great regardless of the result. However, as the hours went by I had to return to the bitter reality. The World Championship in Belgrade was now becoming my next target.

Keeping Warm and Dry
Keeping Warm and Dry

Final Thoughts…

Arriving in Belgrade, I knew what I wanted. At that point I felt even more emotional pressure from all perspectives. Now everybody knew and everybody waited … I needed a great performance because I owed it not only to myself but to my coach. People blamed him for the result of my last dive. Unfortunately he was judged very strictly and I really hope no-one ever finds himself/herself in that situation. The only way for it to be forgotten was to bring home a better result.

The qualification round in dynamic apnea was running along smoothly, showing signs that I was in very good condition. Although my mind was playing weird games of doubt, I deeply believed in a distinction. Stress prevailed a few minutes before the start of my effort but I knew that we were all in the same psychological state. This alone calmed me and fueled me with optimism.

On Friday 26/06 the moment of the grand final had come. Weather conditions were worse than ever. It was worse than the final in static apnea in 2013 which took place in the same pool. The task was not easy, but I had come prepared. A few minutes before starting my effort I remember George’s words ”I know you have a lot of anxiety now. You came to get what you deserve. There is no doubt now about the outcome. You had nothing and have nothing to lose”.

With these last words I begin my dive.

During my dive I did not have fluctuations in my rhythm. Everything ran smoothly, stopping at 280m with a clean exit (video). My coach and I strived for a good effort with an even better outcome. I was 10 times more stringent after the last turn of 250m than usual, because I wanted to make sure my dive was clean. This choice deprived me of breaking the world record. It was within my capabilities that day, but I do not think about it anymore. Besides, coming here I just wanted to give it 100% to achieve the best possible result. Taking what I deserve.

Celebrating My Win
Celebrating My Win

From Mediocre To The Top

The Awards ceremony took place on 27/06 the last day of the event. My emotions were mixed for a few seconds. I would tell myself that this moment was justification for all those tough years and efforts, while at the same time receiving smiles and pride from both my teammates and my own people who were there. As I was told by one of the contestants after the ceremony “time passes very quickly when you have the opportunity to find yourself up there” (pointing to the podium). The cost and efforts for a few seconds of recognition is really disproportionate and unrealistic.

A gold medal from a World Championship says a lot. The success and respect from your peers is huge. For me this title and medal will remind me for the next few years of the battles I have had to fight every day. To “win”, I have had to first win over my procrastination, my impatience, my selfishness, my vanity and my doubts. For me it was a gold medal all-inclusive.

To conclude I would like to warmly thank all those who were with me during the time of my preparation. Special thanks to my coach George Georgas who believed in me before I believed in myself. A big thank you to my sponsors who supported me 100%, Giannis Xalas with MEISTER Freediving Gear, N.Tsigkos with DeWalt company and Yannos Ktenas with SCIMX Nutrition.

I would also like to thank the members of the national team for the beautiful 10 days we spent in Belgrade. Congratulations are in order for the performances of Giannis Kothonidis, Aris Ioannidis and Christina Michalopoulou for qualifying in both small and grand finals in dynamic apnea with and without fins. Especially Christina who broke two national records (192m DYN and 125m DNF) and achieving 4th place in the A final dynamic with fins. Giannis fought it out in the grand final of the dynamic with fins but unfortunately got disqualified, while Aris took 2nd place (10th in the general classification) in dynamic with fins with a performance of 209m.

Last but not least it is my obligation to thank a man who has helped me and many more great athletes of this sport. The man known as Leonidas.

Next stop… the individual depth world championship in Limassol, 11th – 21st September 2015!

See you there…

George Panagiotakis
George Panagiotakis
George Panagiotakis is a world champion freediver and national record holder from Greece. He has recently achieved 1st place in the last AIDA World Championship in Belgrade in the discipline of Dynamic With Fins (DYN). He currently lives in Cyprus and currently works as a personal trainer and AIDA freediving instructor with INFINITY Freediving of which he is one of the founding members. INFINITY Freediving also organizes competitions and freediving training schools all over the island.