How do you deal with the death of someone as iconic as Stephen Keenan?
He’s been in my head for the last 24 hours. He’s been called ‘the heart of freediving’, and in many ways, he was. He first showed how much heart he had when he rescued a diver from 40m after hanging for a while at 30m – still the deepest rescue ever recorded. He was our best safety, and soon became the heart (and chief) of many safety teams. Going through the photos I have of him, where he’s more often than not being typically essential in the background, he was more than that, though: also a brain, some strong legs, sharp eyes, capable hands, and a liver.
Allow me to explain in the shape of this selection of photos…
The deepest safety dive, the one where he first showed how much heart he had: waiting at 30, then darting to 40 to pick up an athlete in trouble. Not many could have pulled that off. He did and went right back to work the rest of the day.
The heart of the team. Both as head of safety and as platform manager, he leads by example, and people loved working with him
Briefing his team. Stephen was a trained biologist and a clever man. He used his analytical skills, and his vast knowledge of freediving and freedivers, to go over the day’s diving with the team, pointing out potential danger dives. He’d give new safeties a chance to grow, and all that worked with him came out better safety divers.
Delegating tasks. One of the beautiful things about him that even when he was not needed in the water, he’d swim over to see how things were going, and watch some of the performances.
Part of the reason he was such a good safety was that he was an athlete himself, too, holding national records in most disciplines.
Naturally flexible, he had a strong monofin stroke.
Ok, so maybe that was a bit of bendy knee there sometime
and yes, his no fins was, well, appalling
truly appalling – I don’t know how he did more than 100m Dynamic No Fins (DNF) and deeper than 50m Constant Weight No Fins (CNF) this way. Again, all heart.
and some of his moves during some safety dive could be, well, inexplicable, as well
But most of the time, he was as graceful as the element he worked in
for example, he looked fabulous in a dress
and he was amazing at taking the piss when the moment was there. His ‘battles’ with Johnny Sunnex might have been the epitome of this
or maybe it was the egging -started by Johnny on Stephen’s unsuspecting head, perpetrated yearly by the man himself
he took devious delight in planning these eggings on birthdays – here Saya is the girl of honor
Outside of work, he didn’t take things too seriously.
them stubby legs were strong enough to take the weight of the job and still do a bit of a jig -especially after a pint or two. His liver was legendary; after one party, we literally had to use the windscreen wipers to get him off our car, as he’d spread himself on the car to stop us from going.
but the next day, he’d help with the clean up (and maybe apologize for chairs that might have been thrown)
but before a comp, he wouldn’t drink and would be ready and serious
he always made sure he was ready to do that big safety dive
he had that uncanny ability to intervene at the right moment – it’s very tricky not to act when you see an athlete struggling, but during a comp, they have to disqualify themselves
He inspired confidence in the rest of the team
and athletes always knew they were in good hands with Stephen
he kept an eye on you till he knew you were alright
from start to finish
so you always rooted for him to do well on his own comp dives
maybe also because he was there rooting for so so many on their dives. Here is with Jeanine Grasmeijer, celebrating her world record
Here, celebrating with Anna Von Boetticher
celebrating Hanako Hirose’s world record
applauding Stefan Randig
with his friend and business partner, Miguel Lozano
with Homar Leuci
with Luke Maillis
with Camila Jaber
with Kate Middleton
with Michael Board
with Aolin Wang
with Tomoka Fukuda
with Alessia Zecchini after her world record
often these celebrations would culminate into the famous Keenan-from-behind-hug
Misuzu Okamoto was the recipient of one
as was Ryuzo Shinomiya
and Hanako Hirose
the one with Dean Chaouche might have resulted in offspring
so yes, our best safety diver, the heart of freediving, probably its liver as well. The capable hands in which everyone felt safe. His wit, his stories. That walk that was always on the verge of a trot. His ‘bru’ and ‘fecker’. His dubs. All of it gone.
I’m afraid I never quite did him justice in photos, never quite captured him. Maybe he was too complex, maybe I’m not good enough a photographer. I certainly didn’t get to spend enough time with him – none of us have, I suspect. But I keep seeing those eyes of his, sharp and gentle, clever and shy, hungry for knowledge and usually thirsty for a pint. There was a touch of the Steve McQueen about him. I can’t really imagine our community without him.