Thursday, January 21, 2021

PFD Cayman 2004: Wrap-up

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In Association with Performance FreeDiving

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Kirk Krack and I were the last to leave the island. We drove around George Town, Grand Cayman, shuttling people to the airport for  flights to diverse global destinations, returning borrowed items and paying bills. The clock slowed down and there was time to reflect on the meaning of it all.

Performance Freediving Cayman 2004 may well come to be seen as a milestone in the progression of contemporary freediving,  from an obscure, tiny, quasi-cult somewhere on the fringes of sport and carnival to a mature member of the athletics family on a track to Olympic legitimacy. 

Kirk was  very tired, and gamely facing the long, long flight back to Vancouver with the several hundred pounds of excess baggage he travels with. One hundred fifty meters of rope, to cite but one item, weighs rather more than one might think.

“I’ve been here on-island for 32 days”, he said, maneuvering the rented left-hand-drive van through the left-hand-drive  Cayman roadways, which never looked quite right.“And dedicated the previous six months of my life to this project. It didn’t turn out perfectly, but we accomplished a lot.”

Two world records, in fact: the  Women’s Constant Ballast ( Mandy Rae Cruickshank, 78m) and the absolute Free Immersion (Martin Stepanek, 102m.)

And,  a US national record in Free Immersion (30m) by Dr.George Lopez.

“The miss on Martin’s 100 meter Constant Ballast record was certainly a big disappointment for all of us”, Kirk conceded. “That’s  a unique record, a magic number. Whoever does that will become a freediving legend for all time. Now, it may not be Martin. The door is open at Cyprus for Herbert, Carlos or somebody else to nail it down.”

Disappointing, yes, but  sweetened a bit  by the achievements on the institutional side of things.

PFD Cayman 2004 was an AIDA- sanctioned event made possible by a primary sponsor outside the dive and leisure industries,  ICU Medical of, California,  and was centered around world record attempts by two individual athletes. This is significant, and, as far as I know, a first. Freediving is not free, not in the economic sense and especially not at the leading edge. It takes money to create the conditions under which athletes can  push back the limits of human attainment with reasonable safety and unimpeachable authenticity.

We came in recent years to a fork in the road. One way led to an aquatic Colisseum wherein the survival of the performer is the most notable feature of the performance, against a backdrop of menace  and mortal risk. The other path, along which PFD Cayman 2004 is, I think, a mile marker, is that of pure athletic enterprise, attainment and excellence.  It was here that this athletic integrity finally found committed, understanding financial resources. The event  was indisputably  an expression of true amatuerism: the love of sport for its own sake. There was nothing whatever of the crass commercialism that has sometimes colored the corporate-funded media circuses around freediving world records .

Competitive freediving ought not be a death-defying, daredevil carny stunt any more than are   the  Iron Man or the Tour de France. Competitive freediving is a test of  determination, of  physical strength and stamina, and of  spiritual resolve. It is not the exclusive domain of a handful of elite extremists, it is  a life-affirming passion of the many. The sponsors and participants involved in PFD Cayman 2004 have set an example which, emulated and developed, can take us to that wholesome place where runners, swimmers, cyclists and others play.

There was still plenty of funk in the day-to-day living throughout the month-long project, but on the whole, the essential resources and amenities were there for athletes, organizers and support people. The athletes themselves were still not entirely liberated from  drudgery, and in my view this may have dulled the edge of their performances at the margin. It may be that in a perfect world, the athletes would be sequestered in splendid isolation with only training, eating and sleeping on their agendas. On the other hand, such an arrangement would likely have a negative effect on the team’s cohesion, and total faith in the team is absolutely essential for a freediver, for whom giving it his all may well deliver his  survival into the hands of those teammates. I’d vote for a few more square feet of living space per person, and staffing a  dedicated operations assistant to relieve the athletes of some personal overhead. I suspect there would be no shortage of volunteers – how does spending a month as a world champion’s apprentice sound to you ?

But the priorities were right on. In matters of safety and rescue, not only were no corners cut but a super-competent, interlocking structure of redundant backups was in place and proactive throughout.  The systems were put to the acid test on several occasions, and performed flawlessly each time.

The  record event week was immediately followed by a four-day PFD Freediving Clinic, the polished course  taught by Kirk Krack and Martin Stepanek  and delivered regularly in Hawai’i, California, and Florida.   Students flew in from as far away as Japan, and the resident Caymanian freediving community was  represented as well.

For PFD founder Kirk Krack, this first-ever Cayman clinic was something of a homecoming. It was here that Kirk, then a technical diving instructor, first glimpsed the methods and potentials of the new generation of freedivers pioneered by Pipin Ferreras.  For the students, it was a superb opportunity to observe and learn at the leading edge of the sport. Many arranged their travel and work schedules so as to be able to observe the  record attempts during the week before the clinic. Is there another sport in which anybody who wants to can cozy up to the world champion, inside the velvet rope, watch a world record set, and then spend four days having the champion teach them how it’s done?

Kirk : “The clinic was a  great follow-up to a successful world record campaign here on Cayman. We’re always learning, and it was a real pleasure being able to share all that we had just learned with  new students and to update the alumni who had done the clinic before.”  PFD clinic graduates earn the lifetime privilege of  refresher courses for a nominal fee, and always remark at how quickly the techniques and methods in the curriculum evolve from clinic to clinic. Experience is continuously processed into the syllabus.

The were seven students from the Cayman Department of the Environment,  who, as marine biologists engaged in the tagging and DNA sampling of the local sea turtle population, routinely freedive in the 30-60 foot range. This is something of a landmark, too. It suggests  a positive change of attitude on the part of the Caymanian government, which had  been leery of freediving as a result of sensational, negative media  around accidents in the past. The Caymanian government’s recognition of the safety benefits of proper training, and of  PFD’s expertise, bodes well for the future of the sport  in the Cayman Islands.

The clear, calm Cayman waters and the convenience afforded by the clinic host, Sunset House, yielded a near-perfect learning environment. It’s a few steps from the classroom to the water’s edge, and from there a short swim or an even shorter boat ride to deep, still water. Canadian Matt Charlton, who flew in from Ottawa, saw his personal best CB go from 31 meters before the clinic to 45m.  “My goal now” said Matt,”Is to apply what I’ve learned   here to my freediving in the colder waters back home.” He’ll be a contender for the Canadian national team at this year’s AIDA world championships.

Kirk hopes to add several Grand Cayman clinics to the annual PFD schedule, and is discussing the bundling of lodging and training facilites with island industry veterans. Cayman, with its ideal conditions and abundance of experienced support people is the perfect venue for future world record attempts, and the idea of integrating clinics with record events promises a unique experience for students and instructors alike.

What I want to know is – when can I go  back, please,  Boss ?

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PFD Cayman 2004: Wrap-up 3
Paul Kotik
Paul Kotik has been a Staff Writer and Freediving Editor for DeeperBlue.com. He lives in Florida, USA with his family.

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