Freedive competitions to me, so far, have meant basking in the sun pre-dive, getting gradually more nervous over a whole week or so of training days, and being part of a huge team or gang of friends all going through the same thing. Heading off to Eindhoven in mid-December for a competition, all alone on a cold and frosty weekend did not feel quite right…. until I got there.
Saturday 11th December was a training day and my flight landed far too early in the morning. Pim Vermeulen and Susan Kluytmans, the chief organisers, entertained me all morning and seemed remarkably calm after what I knew had been a crazy few months of late nights and stress. As the day drew on, the mobile phone started buzzing. Before we knew it, around 70 freedivers had arrived and Pim seemed to have met most of them at the station.
Checking into the Stayokay youth hostel (the equivalent of the "Athlete’s Village") I found out that without many females at the competition, I would be sharing a dormitory with five guys I didn’t know. This was slightly daunting but I didn’t need to worry – they could not have been more gentlemanly – they didn’t even snore!
[Editors Note: You sure they were real men ?]
After making our beds and sorting out kit, it was time to head to the beautiful pool, De Tongelreep (don’t ask me what it means!). Leaving the frozen fog outside, the pool was brightly lit, warm and most importantl, enormous. After trying to train for dynamic in a 22m pool for the last six months, the excitement at seeing a smooth 50m stretching out in front of me was hard to describe.
As ever at freedive events, friends were made and old acquaintances picked up very quickly. Panos Lianos was being Team Greece all on his own, I was the only Brit and Veronika Dittes, who declared herself "just a newbie" and then set an Austrian static record – was alone until fellow Austrian Herbert Nitsch showed up later. We all kept an eye on each other for some static training and things seemed to go well for all three of us.
The pool training session was not only an opportunity for last minute serious training but also a chance to try out one of the huge range of “Specialfins” fins. With foot pockets in almost every size, Pim had at least one of each of the range for everyone to try. To those of us deprived of a decent freedive shop this was like Christmas Day. Dolphin monofins with every stiffness of blade, Coloured Fins and even carbon monofins were stacked up poolside along with the same selection of bi-fins. The queue for the spanner to change the pockets soon stretched around the block! Hopefully Pim got some good sales.
After the pool, we all carpooled to get 45 people over to a smart restaurant for the Athletes Dinner. As with everything else, the organisation was slick. The food was delicious and a competition the next day did not seem to put anyone off the wine. Suddenly I found myself speaking French to the guys on my right, German to the guy behind me and English to the guy on my left – all while trying to understand the Dutch going on in front of me. An incredible buzz and once again, that feeling of mutual understanding and some kind of deep link from our shared sport despite all the geographical boundaries.
Sunday dawned frosty and sub zero. The pool was ours, all ours and the pressure grew slightly, but nothing like the levels I had previously experienced in Cyprus, Hawaii and Vancouver. Maybe it was because it was an individual event, or not a World Cup, or just that it was the middle of winter and no one was up to their peak performance – but all the athletes seemed fairly relaxed. The poolside looked like some kind of refugee camp as everyone set up yoga mats, camping mattresses and even sleeping bags. I set up next to the "camouflage" boys and Remko’s "relaxo-dile" (photos on the website will explain).
The first puzzle of the day was how Susan could be wandering around chatting and announcing top times simultaneously. Finally someone had made automatic, taped announcements work. The day started with static apnea and the shortest subscriptions went first. Times started at less than two minutes and went up to Tom Sieta’s inscription of 7 minutes. Four lanes ran at a time with AIDA International Judges Sebastien Nagel, Francois Gautier, Pim and Jorg Jansen each paired up with a local judge. Smiling safety divers were available in the warm up area and competition zone. This was just as well as unlike other competitions I have been to, not many people seemed to have a personal coach with them. I felt sure that many of the competitors, myself included, could have performed better with a coach talking them through their static. And yes Panos – I was grateful for your coaching from the side and didn’t ignore you when you told me to come up! I just had delayed hearing from oxygen starvation…
My own performance out of the way, it was time to watch the big boys. Tom, Herbert, Kars van Kouwen and Glenn Venghaus were all up against each other. Kars had been talking much about his "sun gazing" technique, no one knew much about Glenn and we had all seen Herbert in action many times – but all eyes were on Tom. There was a mass synchronised beep as everyone started their watches when his head went down. First we watched Glenn come up, then Herbert and Kars after 6 mins 31 despite the lack of sunshine! Things then went quiet for a further couple of minutes as everyone present gathered poolside to watch. Tom finally surfaced at 8 minutes 58, clean as a whistle and to a huge round of applause once the white cards were given. Stunning!
A short break and some light lunch and the lanes were set up for dynamic. One on either side of the pool so everyone could see, and two judges per lane. The pool was a bit deep for static but the perfect depth for dynamic – a little too deep to stand up in at the shallow end and about the same depth for most of its length with a short drop off at the deep end. There were no difficult jets like the Vancouver pool and the temperature had been hiked up to 28C. After a full morning of static, most people opted to go straight into their dynamic swim with no preparation, myself included. For the first hour or so, it was easy to just get hypnotised watching the other divers. In particular, the no fins swimmers really caught the eye. Panos Lianos had come the furthest of any athlete and had just achieved his best ever static in competition. Having given up his day job to freedive full time, he must have had high hopes for his performances – and he lived up to them. A smooth, steady, perfectly paced stroke took him to 106m no fins – a new Greek record, and another kiss blown towards Texas!
Again, things ran smoothly. My own dive went to plan and as we got further down the list, the distances grew longer. The next real highlight was the no fins swim by Renate De Bruijn. Renate already held the world record for no fins. A complete natural, she has only been freediving a couple of years. She entered the pool not only without fins but also with no mask, goggles or nose clip – her usual technique. Yet another beautiful calm swim, although apparently a bit faster than usual and she surfaced at 108m, unfortunately with a samba. Once again everyone was watching and you could feel the disappointment shake the room. It didn’t stop her smiling though and she will be back. How anyone could even get near a world record in December – more a time for chocolate, wine and hibernation than serious training!
Tom had another go. One of the few to wear a suit for dynamic, the world watched as he breathed up and tried to remain calm before an attempt at the world record with fins. Two world records in one day would have been a bit too much though and Tom surfaced cleanly after 163m.
Other National Records set at the event included: Robert Cetler of Poland with a static breath hold of 6:38, Haico Aaldering of the Netherlands with 134m dynamic with fins, Malgorzata Matkowska of Poland with a static breath hold of 5:33 and 135m dynamic with fins, Kerstin Mattes of Germany with a 121m dynamic with fins, Maja Lund Loekkegaard of Denmark with a static breath hold of 4:35 and 74m dynamic no fins, Nanja van den Broek of the Netherlands with a static breath hold of 5:12 and Veronika Dittes of Austria with a static breath hold of 5:01.
And so – to the party. A laid back dinner at the Stayokay with some impressive prizes handed over. Sponsors included Deeper Blue, Specialfins and Interbrew and specially designed trophies for 1st, 2nd and 3rd in each sex. And so to the winners – the full results are available on the official website http://www.immersion.nu/competition/index.htm. In the Women’s – 1st Malgorzata Matkowska from Poland, 2nd Kerstin Mattes from Germany who overcame her famous competition nerves and 3rd Nanja Van den Broek from the Netherlands. Three almost totally new names, and a reassurance that lots of new talent is on its way up the freediving ranks.
The top men were more predictable. Tom Sietas of course stole the show, Herbert Nitsch took second place winning yet another fin bag amongst other prizes and Robert Cetler from Poland came third.
Overall the Polish team were strong and surprised everyone. The Dutch were very well represented, showing just how many of this nation really do freedive. Belgium also had a good show of fins and it was intriguing talking to the Danish about how they cope with the lack of deep, manageable water in their native land. The French were rather notable in their absence, and the party spirit they tend to carry along with them was slightly missing – but then this was the middle of winter in the lowlands so how could we expect the Med dwellers to turn up in force.
Rather than riotous, this party was cosy, relaxed and drunken in a gentle, peaceful kind of way. No sumo wrestling but lots of friendships forged, or strengthened and the odd glint of something in the odd eye. Some good stories swapped hands, mobile phone numbers exchanged and plenty of plans made to see each other at the next one. Big thanks and congratulations go out to Pim and Susan for organising such a great event and hope to see you all at the SaltFree Open next May.