Serendipity is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as:
A noun: “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also : an instance of this.”
This is a story about serendipity and how one remarkable woman’s journey has seen it’s fair share of serendipitous moments.
Mandy Sumner is, as many of our readers have learned this past year, a very accomplished freediver. She is the first American freediving athlete (male or female) to ever earn a Gold medal at an AIDA World Championship; which she did in Cyprus of 2015. A representative of the 2014 US Freediving Team, she is also one of the newer competitors to the sport, with just over two years of competitive freediving under her weight-belt.
Sumner shared with DeeperBlue.com the story of how a Geologist from southern Maine suddenly became a contender in the sport. As her story unfolded, it became apparent just how big a part serendipity played in her journey.
Mandy’s story begins 38 years ago in southern Maine, but her Freediving saga rightly began when she was on a sailboat-ferrying trip in Hawaii in early 2014. She was accompanying two other sailors as they brought the boat from dry-dock to it’s home port and the guys made an impromptu decision to anchor and do some freediving atop the Sea Tiger, one of Oahu’s best-known wrecks. Sitting in 120 feet of water, the upper deck of the purpose-sunk Chinese trading vessel is a brisk 100 foot dive and is a popular SCUBA diving destination.
Sumner’s companions, both experienced freedivers, encouraged her to give it a go. After some instruction, and expecting her to dive a short distance, they stayed on the surface as safeties, while Mandy headed into the blue depths of the Pacific. Meeting her partners at depth on the ascent, Sumner casually returned to the surface with the divers, who expressed concern that they had lost sight of her. Sumner recalls that
“They were both like ‘where did you go? We lost sight of you.’ I told them I went down to the wreck.“
Her companions were understandably surprised that she had just completed a 100 foot freedive. Sumner recounts that at the time
“I didn’t think it was that big a deal. I felt really comfortable on the dive, and really enjoyed the feeling of being down there. Really, I didn’t think there was a reason to not be down there…I knew I could do it, so I just did it.“
The key to understanding this incredible athlete is captured in her matter-of-fact statement “Really, I didn’t think there was a reason to not be down there…I knew I could do it, so I just did it.” This confidence comes through immediately when you first meet Mandy and her infectious exuberance for challenges illustrates her competitive nature.
Mandy Sumner grew up in coastal, southern Maine. A very active swimmer, she was competing on local swim teams by the age of five, and continued to compete through high school. Sumner relates that
“I was always competitive, swimming the Back Stroke, Butterfly and Freestyle through high school. I didn’t swim in college though, opting to play soccer instead.”
Sumner moved to Hawaii in 2009, which is arguably about as far from Maine geographically and weather-wise as one could find. Sumner explained that she had stopped in Hawaii to spend a little time relaxing before taking a position with a company in the Middle East. With a Bachelor’s Degree in Geology and a Master’s Degree in Geographical Information Systems (GIS), Sumner’s specialty was in high demand in the oilfields of the Middle East.
Here’s where that serendipity comes into play again…while on her layover in Hawaii, Sumner checked local, online postings for similar jobs and after submitting her CV to a couple of companies was immediately offered a position. The swimmer from Maine was hooked, and for Mandy Sumner, that move to Hawaii in 2009 was the beginning of a meteoric rise to the top ranks of the sport of freediving.
Mandy Sumner continued to stay involved in water-sports while working as a GIS specialist, becoming a certified SCUBA diver and gaining familiarity with the warm waters of the 50th State. But it wasn’t until that dive on the Sea Tiger, that she found her passion. As one of her safeties on that dive was a freediving instructor, Sumner took the opportunity to become more proficient at freediving, quickly completing Level I and II freediving courses.
So, with that competitiveness and sense of daring, Mandy decided to take a “vacation” in Roatan, Honduras in May, 2014 at the Caribbean Cup 2014. Serendipity again…Sumner tells DB that with
“no expectation of competing…I connected with three-time World Champion Ashley Chapman, who told me to ‘meet people, watch and learn, and have fun’…I flew in the day before the competition, met some great people who helped me get organized and had one day of practice before competition.”
Sumner entered the competition and “everything went wrong“. This was one month after taking her first freediving course. With only a day of practice using the lanyard, practicing surface protocols and learning the basics of competition, Sumner recalls that
“I was concentrating so much on surface protocols, I was tense, I turned early, and I had a black out on my first dive…in my first competition.“
This is where many people would have quit. They would say, “I tried it, I didn’t do well, I had a bad experience…time to hang it up”. Mandy is not most people, though. She tells DB that the incident, where she was successful in grabbing the tag and returning to the surface before the BO, only made her more determined to be successful, learn the techniques and compete again. So, in true champion form, Mandy entered another competition a month later, this one in her new home of Hawaii. At Kona Paradise 2014, Mandy had the top Women’s scores, earning enough points to qualify for the 2014 Team USA. When DB asked how she felt winning her first competition, jokingly suggesting she was a “rock star”, Sumner quickly and humbly denied it; saying “I felt excited…I was extremely happy.” Nonetheless, like a rising Star, Mandy Sumner took her act on the road.
Regarding that singular achievement, Sumner was quoted in her United States FReediving Association (USFA) bio:
“I find a unique balance of inner peace and personal challenge with freediving and I look forward to continuing to learn, grow, and excel in this amazing sport. I am so excited to represent my country during the World Championships and be part of Team USA 2014!“
So, how does a great competitor become a champion? Hard work, discipline, training, training, training…sure, they are all part of the equation, but she is driven by that “need to compete” she has shown since she was 1 and a half years old, swimming in Maine.
The 2015 AIDA Depth World Championship were held in Limassol, Cyprus. Remember that Mandy has been freediving just a little over a year. She has worked full-time, having to use her vacation time, days off and whatever time she could carve out of her schedule to train. So, Sumner goes to the World Championships as an individual competitor with fellow freediving great Kerry Hollowell…and does something astonishing. She wins a Gold Medal with a 58 meter dive in CNF (Constant Weight No Fins)…the first US athlete, male or female, to win a Gold Medal at the World Championships.
As Sumner pushes herself to reach new PB’s (Personal Bests), she tells DB that “Of course I would like to set a World Record“. In the past, she admits that “I pushed (myself) hard, and made really big jumps in competition. I don’t know where my limits are, and that’s part of it…finding the limits.” She says that going forward she “will take it more slowly…I don’t want to do something that would keep me from diving anymore, get hurt.”
Mandy Sumner shares that her future goals include the growth and care of her diving school, Kona Freedivers, where she is a freediving instructor and which she co-owns and manages with Byron Kay, as well as continuing to represent the United States in competition.
When asked what advice she would give to a young diver just entering the sport, Mandy advised “Don’t think about it too hard…stay relaxed and have fun. Take time to learn the techniques.” She relates that some of the best times she has are on Sundays, when she “goes to church” and dives with friends at Honaunau Bay, on the south Kona Coast of the Big Island. “We go dive, have a picnic…I usually act as a safety diver, giving back to the sport, making it fun for others.”
Perhaps it is appropriate that Mandy’s “church” on these Sunday outings is next to Puuhonua o Honaunau, the Place of Refuge, an ancient Hawaiian holy site. As Mandy states “I believe that it is important to be with the world, and to take time to listen to the water.”