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Quiet Men: Alun George with Umberto Pelizzari

Umberto Pelizzari needs no introduction to readers. He is one of a handful of true freediving legends, and a true gentleman as well. Contributor Alun George, the Quiet Man of British freediving, was the perfect foil for Umberto, and his exclusive interview continues next week. – The Editor

DB: Can you tell us about what you’ve been doing in 2004 and what your plans are for the remainder of the year?

UP: I’ve been working on a primetime Italian TV documentary about nature and the sea. I present the program with a lady who’s in charge of documentaries on dry land. I present aspects related to water and the sea. This work kept me busy from January to May this year. Then in June I went to Sardinia which is my paradise. I spent three months there training, spearfishing and kite surfing. Then I travelled around other parts of Italy including Sicily and Elba islands, where I present spearfishing in another TV program called SeaPlanet. I have just finished this job and I’m going to the Red Sea in 2 days to run an Apnea Academy instructor course. Then I’m back in Italy for 10 days before flying back to the Red Sea for another clinic.

Umberto Pelizzari 1

DB: Where in the Red Sea?

UP: The clinics will be held at our Apnea Academy centre in Sharm El-Sheik. It’s perfect for freediving because you can swim just 25m from the shore and you have 80m of depth. There we can dive constant weight or use our variable sled. The bay is sheltered so the water is always flat even if the sea is very rough.

DB: After all the teaching and media work, do you have much time to dive purely for yourself these days? How do you spend this time?

UP: I always dove for myself. The main reason for diving is to have a pleasurable experience and have fun in the water. When I dive I have strong feelings and sensations, and that’s why I dive and train all the time. I consider myself a lucky man because freediving is my job and my job is my passion and pleasure. I’m still training a lot. In the last two months I spent 6-7 hours a day in the water. I now no longer have the sports stress of competition and records but even before I dove for pure freediving and pleasure, except for the last six weeks before an event when you are completely concentrated on your goal.

DB: I heard that you did 88m using a monofin in Sharm earlier this year with very little training. Have you been thinking about diving beyond 100m?

UP: I don’t know who told you that. Probably someone who was there when I did it. I actually went even deeper than that, but I don’t like to say how deep I dive. I just dive for myself. I think it’s for respect to other freedivers. If I wanted to prove myself in freediving then I would set another record. I don’t want to set any more records so I just dive for myself. I stopped setting records because I wanted to stop. In Italy we say that any beautiful story has a beginning and one end, and that is why I wanted to stop with a world record. Since my last record I have sometimes felt that I wanted to go on, but it’s not right to set another record and then disappear again. At the moment I don’t want to concentrate on competitions or records. Now I’m training for myself. I’m diving deeper than before but I dive for myself and I don’t think it’s right to say how deep I go. If I wanted to do that then I would set another record. That’s for respect to the other freedivers.

Umberto Pelizzari 2

DB: So you’ve never been tempted to come back again since your last variable record?

UP: When you spend the last 10-15 years or your life training every day for competitions or records you get used to the sports stress. When you stop competing the stress disappears and it’s like your daily life is without meaning. That’s true not only for freediving but for any sport at a very high level. I now have many other projects keeping me busy so I don’t regret choosing to stop. I had nothing to gain by setting another record. If I did attempt another record and failed then the image of my freediving career would be destroyed. I wanted to stop in 1999 when I did 80m constant weight and 150m No-limits. At the time the sea was very rough and I couldn’t attempt the variable weight record. Then in 2000 I was involved with the making of the IMAX film OceanMen and I was very busy for about 18 months. I then finally attempted the variable record and decided to stop. When I train now I still feel strong, probably not as physically strong but I’m stronger in my mind and that’s very important in freediving.

DB : I wanted to ask you about the monofin, because I heard I did you did some of these deep dives with a monofin in Sharm. Did you find it difficult to learn the technique in the beginning? Do you think the technique is harder to master than for bi-fins?

UP: I think it’s easier to kick with bi-fins because it’s more natural. Kicking with bi-fins is like walking. With the monofin it’s different. The technique is more difficult and even psychologically it’s more difficult when going deep when you have your legs connected together. In Italy we say that only stupid people never change their minds, and I think I was very stupid when I chose not to use the monofin. I remember Claude Chapuis and the other French guys from Nice telling me that I should try the monofin. At the time I was completely concentrated on bifins and did not seriously consider trying the monofin. After training seriously with the monofin I saw my performances improve and I realised that it was easier with the monofin. I didn’t find it very difficult to learn the technique because I had been a competitive swimmer for 16 years, so I’m very aquatic in the water. I have a good feeling with the water. Probably for this reason it was easier for me to understand how to use the monofin in the correct way.

DB: And so do you now prefer the monofin for deep diving?

UP: Yes, sure. I always use a monofin for deep diving, but I still like to use bi-fins when I go spearfishing. You have to use bi-fins when spearfishing. Sometimes I dive deep with bi-fins but when I go really deep I use a monofin.

DB: What type of monofin do you use?

UP: I use a Mat-Mas.

DB: What type of Mat-Mas?

UP: The number 8. Ksp:8 I think. They have a code from 5 to 20. The higher it is the stiffer the blade is. 8 is pretty soft and that’s what I like. Even for two fins I like a soft blade.

DB: Most top freedivers pack before diving. I heard that you never practised packing. Can you tell why is this? Do you not think it’s beneficial?

UP: Jaques Mayol was my master and I started freediving according to his teaching, and so I breathe the way he taught me. I think when you breathe completely relaxed using the diaphragm you cannot increase the amount of air in your lungs. I would never use packing because you need to feel relaxed when you go in the water.

For example, I could understand why freedivers use this technique when diving deep because the water pressure reduces the lung volume and so it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. So the sensation of explosion in your chest dsappears with depth. I could never do statics after packing because I cannot reach the relaxing sensation that I’m used to feeling when I freedive. This particular mentality or philosophy of freediving was passed to me by Mayol.

I remember the first time I met him in January 1990 and he invited me to train with him in Elba. At the end of our first training session he told me “try to use your mind more and not your muscles”. He also told me “if you want to stay here for some months and train with me, then you must forget your watches and depth gauges and whatever keeps you connected to the external world. When you go underwater you’re in another world and you forget your nature”. He said “if you want to stay here, then go in the water completely free and don’t check your depth, but make sure that you feel better each time you go in the water. Try to feel stronger sensations each time you dive. This has to be your goal from now on”. When you look for the pleasure it’s not helpful to pack. Packing is forcing the technique. Relaxed breathing is at the base of all Yoga techniques.

DB: I heard this story that you had a blood test the day before one of your record attempts and the test showed that you were anaemic, but you still managed to break the record the next day. Is this story true?

UP: Yes, that happened in 1991 when I did 3 records in 2 weeks. A medical team came to Elba to study me and my performances. At that time there were only two freedivers at a very high level: me and Pipin. After a blood test they discovered that my haemoglobin was very low and they wanted to stop me from training and diving deep. The level was 8.5 g/dl. Normally haemoglobin is 14, 15, 16. So it was very low. They couldn’t understand why it was so low. I couldn’t understand either because I felt good. They called their colleagues in Milan who specialised in haematology and they asked “where is this guy? Is he resting or in the hospital?”. I was diving every day, deeper than 100m, so I felt good. I didn’t have a problem and I don’t know why it happened. Then after the record I underwent further medical tests and gradually my haemoglobin went back to normal. From 1992 until the end of my career I had my haemoglobin checked regularly and it never decreased as low since, so I still don’t know why it happened.

DB: Did you have any good luck charms or rituals during your record attempts?

UP: No, no rituals, but I used to wear swimming trunks under my wetsuit. On the trunks I used to pin a small medal of the Madonna. My mother asked me to wear the medal for all my deep dives. I believe in God and my mother wanted me to wear it, so why not!

DB: Can you tell me about the future plans for Apnea Academy? Are you going to open other branches in other countries.

UP: Yes, we’re trying to develop Apnea Academyaround the world on the basis of the experience of Apnea Academy in Italy. That’s what I’m working towards. Now Apnea Academyis the most well known freediving school in Italy. Last year for example, we gave more than 3000 certifications, which is not bad. We have 250 instructors and we run a 3 week long clinic every two years for instructors. We select the instructors from 200 people. The selection process is very complicated. They have to practice teaching with other instructors and dive deeper than 30m amongst many other things.

So on the basis of all these experiences I would like to spread Apnea Academy around the world like a school. I don’t want to have any connections with diving federations or associations such as CMAS or AIDA. I want to be politically free. It’s a school and we like to teach freediving in our own way. We have many teaching materials such as videos and manuals. We’re also making a manual for the monofin, a video for the monofin. I want to make these things available all over the world. We already have Apnea Academy Egypt. I’m talking to Sweden, Holland, Austria, Germany and Australia.

AG: Can you tell me about the freediving research you’ve been doing recently? Are you involved with the Blue 2005 conference?

UP: Yes, I’m involved. I’m not the organiser, but some members of Apnea Academy form a scientific group which is in charge of the organisation of that conference. The group is working with the department of Underwater Medicine of the University of Rome and the CNR (the Italian National Centre of Research). They are trying to understand more about freediving and deep freediving. They have made special instruments to monitor the heart at great depths. They are preparing an X-ray machine for underwater. These instruments will tell us more about our nature and our physiology. I think it will be a good and important meeting, open to all schools and all the researching medical groups. I hope we will be able to understand more after the conference.

AG: Will the conference be mainly in Italian?

UP: I still don’t know. The conference will be held in December 2005 and I have to finish the organisation. I think that’s just a detail. They do many conferences like this and I think they have translators. Any particular program or speech is going to be translated for people who don’t understand Italian. There will be other speeches in English and Greek so I’m sure that it will be translated.

AG: Which of your personal qualities have helped you the most in your freediving career?

UP: I don’t know. You should ask this question to the people who met me during my career. I think having Jaques Mayol as a mentor helped me to forget the performance and look for the pleasure when diving. This made me change my technique underwater. I think the elegance I acquired during the first few years of my career was very important for my technique. I think you can improve with your muscles or improve with your mind. Probably improving with your mind takes longer and is more difficult to find the goal and it’s more difficult to realise that you’re getting better and better every day.

It’s easier diving with muscles. I think if you keep diving with muscles then when you stop improving you stop freediving because diving with muscles doesn’t allow you to understand the real pleasure of freediving. That’s what I think and that’s what I’ve learned during my freediving career. For example, I really like Carlos Coste. In my opinion he’s a really strong freediver, but not only for his performances. I like him for the way he dives and his elegance. He is strong for that reason. Guillaume Nery is a very elegant freediver and is very aquatic. I think the strong freediver is the freediver that make freediving look easy and effortless.

The message you have to pass to the people watching you is that freediving is the most simple thing in the world. You don’t want to give the impression that freediving is about strength and force. You have to show the people that you are going underwater as if you truly belong in the water. You don’t have to show that you are forcing or making a great effort. A strong freediver is strong when he’s able to pass a message of peace, freedom, well-being and relaxation when he’s going underwater. That’s why I like Carlos Coste and Guillaume Nery. For example, in Italy we have David Carrera. In my opinion, he’s not a champion in his mind but he’s the most elegant freediver in the world that I’ve ever seen. Looking at him it seems as if he is breathing underwater.

AG: Apart from Jaques Mayol were there any other role models that influenced your freediving career?

UP: No. I did my first world record in November 1990. At that time Pipin was completely unbeaten for three years. He was the king of freediving and when I arrived very few people were at a very high level in freediving. That was a very difficult time for me because I didn’t know how to train and I didn’t know how to prepare for a record or competition. I didn’t know when I had to start freediving to get ready for an event. I didn’t know how to train repetition and I didn’t know how to increase the depth of my dives and when I had to make the increases. I learned all these things from Mayol. No one else helped me with my technique.

AG: Have you had much contact with Pipin over the last few years?

UP: No, I didn’t have many contacts, but we’re not very friends, or strong friends. When he had the accident for his wife I wrote an email to him so he called my sister and he asked for my telephone number and he called me just 2 or 3 days after the accident. I was training in the sea with my team and some friends and plenty of people having dinner and he called me.

AG: Were there any moments in your freediving career that were turning points, i.e. one particular moment that really changed the course of your life or your freediving career?

UP: No, perhaps only in the beginning. When you spend nearly 25 years at school or university you can leave and realise that’s not what you want to do with your life. This was how I felt. I choose to pursue a career in freediving and follow the sea. That was probably the most important decision I made in my life. I can’t remember a particular moment during the last 12 years than really changed my life. It was a gradual discovery of everything. Whenever you go in the water are able to completely open your mind and understand yourself and your body. This is what I wanted. So there was no particular moment but gradually many moments together.

Umberto & Alun

AG: Do you have any regrets in your freediving career?

UP: No. If I could go back 15 years I would do exactly the same things. Jaques Mayol told me many times “Remember, Umberto, when you’re old it’s better to leave only souvenirs rather than regrets”. I think I have many souvenirs and I don’t regret anything. Maybe I regret not using the monofin for constant weight!”

AG: I heard you’re close to you sister Stephania. How has she has supported you with your freediving career over the years?

UP: Stephania was like my manager. She helped me with many things, such as the organisation of records, my important contacts, dealing with my agent and organising my schedule. She was very important. I think it’s better to have a person like a sister or someone close to you as a manager, because you’re sure that the person has your best interests at heart. So I was very lucky in this sense to have my family close to me and my sister working for me. She has never worked for me 100% because she has her own job too, but I knew I could always rely on her help and that was very important psychologically. She’s still working for me now because I am travelling all the time,and so many people call her asking for information or whatever.

AG: What are your long term plans or ambitions in your life or in freediving in general?

UP: I don’t know. Probably having a little Pelizzari but I really don’t know. I’d like to have a baby but for what I’m doing now it’s not possible. I spend 8-10 months a year travelling around the world, and I like doing that. If you want to be a father you have to be there, so at the moment it’s just a fantasy belonging to my nature. I could be ready in my mind but I’m not ready in reality. That could be an important goal, more important than any world record.