Editors Note: After the tragic loss of Stephen Keenan recently whilst saving another Freediver at the Dahab Blue Hole, our Editor-at-Large Francesca Koe looks back on his remarkable life.
On the first day of December in Glasnevin, Ireland back in 1977 Stephen Keenan was born. Glasnevin is a small suburb just outside of Dublin and it is where Stephen grew up with his parents Maura & Peter Keenan, and his brother Gary. As a school boy, Stephen spent much of his free-time hurling, a Gaelic sport he was passionate about playing. Stephen would go on to university in Dublin where he would study microbiology and would pledge unconditional love to the “Dubs”. (He was such a fan of the “Dubs” that many friends affectionately referred to him as “Keen-O-dubs”.) A college friend recalls
“Steve was always ripping the piss out of anyone who was non-Dub. He was the life of the party and always had a positive outlook on life. He sailed through university like it was a walk in the park, and yet he partied harder than most. He definitely lived life to the fullest.”
After graduating college Stephen ventured off to South America and West Africa to satiate his wanderlust.
As legend has it he even dressed-up as a priest while traveling across the entire African continent, to avoid being detained at any military check-points. Stephen then decided to pursue his Dive Master certification in SCUBA in 2008; Keenan would train under Caleb Hollister at the then Seventh Heaven Hotel. Stephen eventually progressed in his professional dive training to become a full-fledged scuba instructor and taught that underwater discipline for many years. It was in 2009 that Stephen discovered freediving and it was then deemed official, he now had three true loves: the Dubs, a pint of Guinness, and breath-hold diving.
As a lone Irishman in an increasingly international & typically tropical freediving scene, Stephen was at first-glance, perhaps, as unlikely as the Jamaican Bobsled team. But time would reveal that Stephen Keenan was as talented, spirited and beloved as the much adored Olympians.
Although Stephen spent several years teaching scuba in the warm and clear waters of Egypt for groups like Desert Divers, he would ultimately take his beginner freediving course back in the medieval town of Sligo, Ireland where the water temperatures aren’t exactly balmy (8 – 10 degrees Celsius), demonstrating his keen desire to learn no matter what the conditions. Stephen’s first apnea class was taught in a pool by Feargus Callagy, who is an Apnea Academy Instructor and a fellow Irishman.
“Watching Stephen’s static apnea would give you quite the fright!” regaled Feargus with a chuckle. “He’d look like he was having a samba one minute, and then the very next he would appear completely relaxed.”
As unconventional as his approach may have been Stephen was completely smitten with freediving from the start and would quickly move on to completing his AIDA Instructor course with Samphire Amps at the Saltfree school in Chepstow, the UK in the year of 2011.
Stephen would continue blazing his trail into freediving by advancing his specialized training to attain status as a multi-agency Instructor with both SSI & PADI, and as an Instructor Trainer with AIDA.
“When Paul Sutton purchased Saltfree from me, he needed to do his instructor course,” shared Samphire. “I didn’t have time to do it, so I sent Paul to Stephen. Keenan was the Instructor Trainer I trusted the most to do a good job. And he did.”
Everyone who Steve met along the way seems to have both fond and indelible memories of him. Anna Paraiyar met Steve at Desert Divers where they trained together for freediving competitions.
“Steve completely loved competing and I think it was a way to let his Irish pride come out by achieving national records. I remember after one comp where he had set a record, I was taking photos of him with the Irish flag and he was just so happy! I believe it made him feel closer to his people back home in Ireland.”
Stephen still holds all three of the Irish national freediving records in depth: 81m CWT, 74m FIM, and 52m CNF respectively. As luck would have it, along with the way in his apnea career Stephen would cross paths with an inventive Swiss man (Pascal Berger) and a charming Spaniard (Miguel Lozano). It was as if the universe had conspired to ensure these three men would meet because although they were from different countries altogether, and had different mothers, they were the metaphorical peas-in-a-pod destined to be partners.
The mischievous threesome formed a special brotherhood; their enduring friendship was palpable and their senses of humor perfectly matched. In tandem with the national record-holders from Spain and Switzerland, Stephen would launch the incredibly successful Dahab Freedivers in 2015.
(You can catch a glimpse of the playful nature of their bond here in this video below at time stamp 1:49).
“Steve and I were both long-term Dahab residents,” offered freediving trainer & yoga guru Sara Campbell. “Each time we connected, I was touched and surprised by his depth and openness, and was also left wondering what else was behind the happy-go-lucky exterior — that I would like to know him more. The greatest sadness I feel is when I remember his hugs — maybe cuz we’re both so short! But it was a real heart-to-heart connection, and I’m full of regret for what I’ll never know now. I’ll miss the Steve I knew and the one I always thought I’d have the time to get to know.”
I had the distinct privilege of meeting Stephen when we both first went to work as crew for Vertical Blue at Deans Blue Hole, the world renowned freediving competition organized by William Trubridge in the Bahamas. Over the years of our co-inhabiting communal living space, setting-up logistics, coordinating on media & platform collaboration, running drills, assisting with safety, sharing meals & pints & espressos I feel like Steve and I really got to know one another. It’s been a pleasure to share moments of triumph (and sometimes heartache), to expound together on secrets and hopes. However, what I found in the development of my kinship with Steve (yes he was like family to me) was that the ordinary, little things grounded our friendship, and the everyday experiences revealed the depth of our understanding one another.
Sure, there were plenty of times when we were together that were larger-than-life and broadcast on a global stage, but today I find the most comfort in knowing that I knew “Keen-O-dubs” would only take real whole milk for his cereal and only cream would do for his coffee, which he loaded with way too many sugars — and he desperately needed caffeinating both in the morning and in the afternoon. I knew that Steve liked to take a long swim to decompress after a hard day’s work; that he was as fit as a fiddle. That he was a perfectionist and wanted to make sure everything was properly taken care of for each and every person, no matter their level. That he had the biggest heart and viscerally felt the jubilation of a clean dive or the disappointment of a missed protocol for each every one of the divers he watched. That he was hysterically funny and always up for a prank, and took being on the receiving end of any jokes all in stride as well. He was a genuine good sport. He was thoughtful, sweet and honestly albeit sometimes moody, we had grown to be such pals that I always instinctively knew when he needed a little alone time and respected that as an introverted creature myself. Did I mention that you could never have enough salt for his supper? or beer! Stephen liked his T-shirts tight fitting and his hair-cuts super-high and super-tight, and he liked his friends happy.
So while the aftermath of a dive gone wrong, leaves myriad questions and immense sadness in our freediving community and for Stephen’s loved ones, I’d like to focus on the legacy he leaves for each of us: memories of laughter and love, a sparkle in his eye and a penchant for coaching us all to a better place with good humor and compassion.
“Steve you kept freediving hilarious and serious at the same time. Being such a perfectionist at your job made me feel safe, whether you were in the water or on land.” said Danish champion Stig Pryds. “I promise to keep my chest and shoulders relaxed, and my chin in 🙂 Thanks Steve!!”