Part 2 – September to mid-October, 2002
With my newly acquired 1970’s in-the-field cassette recorder I faithfully recorded our warm up preparations before two-time World Record holder Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, Team Canada Coach Kirk Krack and I descended the steep stairs to the waters edge at Ansell Point. I had managed to cram the cumbersome recorder into a tight-fitting dry bag and was already into my fins before discovering that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s high-tech waterproofing measures had been compromised- the condoms fitted over the microphone had sprung a leak. Though not catastrophic like the last attempt (in which a mini-disk recorder was mortally wounded) it nevertheless seemed clear to me that this radio piece I was working on was determined to dictate its own direction. I decided the sooner I capitulated the easier it would be on me and, hiding the machine amongst the rocks on shore, caught up with Kirk and Mandy-Rae at the diving line.
Two days later, on Sept. 11th, I was back to Ansell Point with teammate Peter Pazdera and Freedive Vancouver members Greg Fee and Tyler Zetterstrom. As usual I started with a five-minute facial immersion, a signal to my body to begin inducing its diving reflexes. In the pool I do this with just a snorkel, however, in open water I have found that doing this with mask on and flooding it at regular intervals also does a good job at clearing out the sinuses.
Tyler and I took turns doing gradual Free Immersions, (a relaxed dive, pulling down and up the line with no use of the legs/fins) followed by a shallow negative pressure (exhaling before descending to replicate pressure at depth), then started our ventilations for Constant Ballast (kicking down and up). Having successfully reacquainted myself with thirty meters/100 feet my plan was to spend the next forty days leading up to the Pacific Cup of Freediving working my way down to forty meters. This, combined with my newly acquired 6:00 Static breath-hold would bring 100 points for the team (one point for each meter in Constant Ballast and one more for each 10 seconds Static).
Tyler went first, making an easy dive to 20 meters, and I did the same to 15. His next dive was to 30 and, shortly after he left the surface, I made a safety dive to 15 where I waited for him shadowing the latter part of his ascent. We had been in the water for 20 minutes and I was already getting cold. Deciding not to push it today I made one more dive so I could focus on counting my kick cycles. Kirk and I had been experimenting with a number of different techniques over the summer and had recently settled on a dolphin-kick that was more efficient than my flutter kick and helped me maintain better posture. As a result I was using up less oxygen and was much more consistent over the course of my dive.
I counted 12 kick cycles, eased up a little and then at 20 looked at my gauge. I was at 22 meters. Feeling the gentle pull of negative buoyancy I relaxed and let myself fall another ten feet before turning around. I arrived at the surface with air to spare and so I was greatly surprised when the telltale congestion of a mild squeeze began to accumulate in my throat. Clearing my throat I spit into my glove and subtly examined the phlegm as Tyler and I discussed his next dive. Sure enough it was bright pink. Not wanting to short change Tyler, I made one more safety as he ascended from 40 meters and then swam to shore.
On shore I located my trusty cassette recorder amongst the rocks and faithfully recorded an account of my extremely short diving session complete with sound effects as the blood in my upper chest continued to cause congestion.
Although mild this was the fourth squeeze I had experienced in the last six months. As this would, the first two had cleared up within two to three hours however, the previous one, which took place two months earlier in Ottawa, was much more severe. After an insufficient breathe-up and hurried descent to 32 meters/104ft I blacked out at the surface releasing a mouthful of blood. Fortunately Kirk had shadowed my ascent and kept my airway out of the water as I went out. The blood, a result of ruptured capillaries, was quickly reabsorbed but I was left with an extremely tight and painful chest which lasted for several days.
Speculating that perhaps remaining tissue damage from Ottawa had been a factor in this mild squeeze, I decided it was time to focus on the other disciplines of Static breath-hold and Dynamic Apnea (distance underwater), both of which take place in the pool at or just below surface.
In a pleasant turn of events the pool work was going well and after hitting 6:00 minute breath-holds several times in a row Kirk suggested that I make an attempt on the national static record of 5:41 set by World Record holder Eric Fattah over 18 months earlier. Excited about the prospect of holding a national record I registered a request with the Canadian Association of Freediving and Apnea (CAFA) for an attempt in two weeks’ time.
The tentative date, pending judge availability (two are required), would be the day before I returned home en-route to Ottawa where I would be assisting Kirk in teaching a Performance Freediving Clinic and attending the first ever CAFA Eastern Regional Contest. With all the excitement to come I decided it would be helpful to take a couple days’ break before getting into intensive preparations. With that in mind I called up a dear friend in Whistler who, it turns out, was on his way to Tofino to do some surfing.
Tofino turned out to be a terrific time. The tiny fishing /surf community on the west side of Vancouver Island was chock full of surfers from Vancouver and Whistler and lily-white tourists visiting ‘The Wet Coast’. Luckily the surf came up the second day I was there and I scored some great waves.
With Kirk in Hawaii teaching a Performance Freediving clinic, Canadian national record holder Peter Scott offered to continue coaching me for the record attempt. We spent the next week working out detailed revisions to my current routine, gleaned from his program, and soon after I achieved a new personal best of 6:15. Unfortunately coordinating the judges’ schedule proved to be impossible and the event was postponed until Ottawa. Needless to say, I was terribly disappointed.
A quick stop home gave me a chance to catch up with my Frankie Foo band mates , do some laundry and visit with my with precious nieces. After a bit of a hiatus our band had just reacquired our original bass player and was anxious to get back on track. We had been asked to play for a large private party that weekend (although I would be in Ottawa) and had already booked a number of gigs at the legendary Grossman’s Tavern to coincide with the various times I would be in town over the next couple of months.
My first three days in Ottawa were a whirlwind of activity. The Performance Freediving Clinic was a hit and somehow I made the two quick flights home and back to play the show in Toronto. Fortunately the next week was a mellower pace. Kirk was teaching a CAFA Judges in Learning course which would be a great forum for me to focus on the business at hand, getting back to a six minute static for the record attempt.
The first day in the pool went really well and I achieved a time of 5:45. By the second day however I had dropped to 5:15 and actually Samba’d (loss of motor control due to hypoxia) on the third day. The travel and time between my previous training had taken its toll.
Although extremely frustrating my difficulties were providing a great opportunity for the judges in learning to get some practical experience as well as some entertainment. On the third day of record training I was hot, tired and cranky and by the time the five-minute signal came I was struggling hard. With my face still submerged and hands on the edge of the pool I remember talking to myself as the contractions became unbearable. Finally, unable to sustain it any longer I lifted my head out of the water and, concerning myself with addressing the audience instead of breathing (hypoxia makes you stupid) I blurted out "mmmmmooogli".
Among other effects, loss of motor control can be a lot like having your entire mouth frozen by the dentist, what you say and what is heard are two entirely different things. In this case ‘That was ugly’ became a sorry, pathetic sounding ‘Moogli’ and after going back and reviewing the audio recording from that evening (we had been bringing the recording equipment to document the lead-up to the attempt) its no wonder that by the time I had my wits about me everyone there was doubled over in laughter.
Moogli Tuesday was two days before the record attempt. Kirk and I went back to the drawing board and, using Mandy-Rae’s World Record performance as a guideline, re-worked my warm up and performance routine. Over and over I watched the video of her performance, making mental notes of body position, timing and her overall demeanor, which would later prove to be invaluable.
The next day got me to 5:30. It was clean but I was still short of the 5:41 record and nowhere near my goal of six-minutes. Nevertheless I was feeling better about my performance and I felt confident that I could at least break the record if not make my goal.
Becoming the Matador
Throughout my training Kirk would often speak of ‘Becoming the Matador’, a routine in which one assumes the role of competitor, leaving the distractions and concerns of the world behind. This has proven to be extremely valuable. I have also found that adding a good buzz-cut to the program significantly heightens my sense of awareness and invokes a powerful physical and mental assertiveness. So, after following Kirk’s advice to sleep in on Thursday morning, I found a local salon to shave down and bleach my hair. I also had the stylist dye-in two racing stripes from front to back for good measure.
I arrived at the pool early to begin my stretches and lay out all of the gear I would need for later. Kirk arrived shortly after with judge trainees in tow and took over the environment and its surroundings, making sure the judges, pool staff and two emergency personnel were well-briefed on the procedures. From then on I was in the zone. I was so completely absorbed in each moment that even now I cannot recall what I may have been thinking. This lasted right through until the final signal at 5:45. I had already lowered my legs and had my hands on the edge of the pool ready to support me when I lifted my head from the water. Feeling incredibly strong and confidant I gave my OK signal followed by a thumbs-up to say that I was going to keep going. For the next 15 seconds I repeated these two hand gestures to let the judges know I was cognizant and because I needed a release for the building excitement and tension. I came up clean at 6:01.
The first ever CAFA Eastern regional contest held in Ottawa September 28-29th was a huge success, attracting all first-time competitors and onlookers from Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Baie Verte, Newfoundland. As with the week’s previous events, Tom Alberelli and his staff at Dolphinos Dive shop made every effort to provide a friendly and comfortable atmosphere and all had a good time. When all was said and done Freedive Toronto club members Gord Lemon, Doug Sitter, Jade Leutenegger and I swept first and second place in all categories, with third place finishes going to Matt Charlton and Tom Alberelli of the newly-formed Ottawa Freedivers. Unfortunately for me, however, during the constant ballast event at Morrision quarry I experienced the worst squeeze to date.
It started on my very first warm up dive to 18 meters. The dive was extremely easy but for no reason I can explain within thirty seconds of surfacing I began to experience the same mild congestion I had in Vancouver. What was even stranger is that I had been diving right up to thirty meters all throughout the clinic the weekend prior with absolutely no problem. Knowing a squeeze was inevitable I held off doing any more practice dives and waited for my time to go.
At depth the feeling of a lung squeeze is mainly discomfort. The chest and lungs compress and depending on how much compression takes place capillaries in the lungs and or lower throat may rupture. Once that happens the vacuum effect generated within the lungs by their expansion on ascent increases the blood flow from the ruptured capillaries. In my case there was so much blood and plasma in my lungs upon surfacing that it was nearly impossible for me to take in any air at all. This lasted well over an hour with the threat of secondary drowning occupying my mind the whole time. Finally enough re-absorption took place that I was able to relax and breathe a little easier. I spent a sleepless night trying to find various semi-horizontal positions, scared that if I fell asleep I might not wake up. Watching the morning light creep into the room I packed my things and waited for the final day of competition to end so I could make my way home for extensive tests and evaluation.
I awoke Monday morning with a heavy feeling in my chest and was distraught to find that just sitting up in bed had me short of breath. Slowly I made my way to the computer and began to search for information on diving injuries. Before long I came across the contact information for Ron Nishi, Chairman of the Great Lakes chapter of the Undersea & Hyperbaric??Medical Society. I sent off a short note explaining my situation and asked for any names of local specialists that might be able to help me figure out what had gone wrong. Within thirty minutes Mr. Nishi replied with the names of two UHMS member doctors in the Toronto area and the recommendation that I try contacting Dr. Claes Lundgren, author of The Lung at Depth, and the worlds foremost scientific researcher of freediving’s effects on gas exchange in the alveoli. Citing Mr. Nishi’s referral I sent off a similar note to Dr. Lundgren and fixed myself some breakfast.
By the time I returned to my desk Dr. Lundgren had already called. The Director of the Center for Research and Education in Special Environments at the University of Buffalo, NY, Dr. Lundgren was only two hours away and as it turns out, very concerned about my condition. We spoke at length about my present condition, the recent squeeze and events leading up to it. His candid recommendation was absolutely clear; I had sustained substantial, potentially permanent damage the effects of which could be fatal if repeated. Under no circumstances was I to continue diving.
As I sat there pondering what may be the end of my diving career he called again. We know that the ‘squeeze’ (my terminology) occurred far above my theoretical depth threshold (the amount the lung should be able to easily compress before reaching its residual volume) indicating I have either a natural or developed/developing thoracic sensitivity to negative pressure (perhaps to due cumulative tissue damage). As there is no current explanation for this ‘sensitivity’ (again my terminology) he would be interested in continuing the dialog. Grateful for the opportunity to try and understand this myself I gladly agreed.
I spent the rest of the week in major discomfort getting various pulmonary function tests and x-rays, none of which gave us any further insight. Because of my freediving training I was at or much better than average in all of the tests and the only thing the x-rays indicated was a substantial swelling of the alveoli which was already painfully apparent.
My travel plans had me returning to Vancouver that weekend for two more weeks’ training before the rest of the Canadian National Team and I left for Hawaii. Since training was clearly out I decided to postpone my return, as I would recover better at home.
Over the next week Kirk and I spoke at length about what role I might continue to play. Competing was obviously out of the question and we decided to notify our team alternate Brent Pascall so he could step up his training. I would assist in coaching Team Canada. Under these circumstances, with more time to see the bigger picture, I would also be in a position to cover the event for Deeper Blue (https://www.deeperblue.com/), the premier online Freediving magazine, community and resource.
By the end of the second week the regular shortness of breath had almost gone and although the swelling and dull chest pain was still with me, I felt much better. After promising my friends and family I would refrain from any diving I left for Vancouver and my connection to Hawaii two days later.