Tuesday, September 26, 2023
FreedivingReality Czech - The Martin Stepanek Odyssey

Reality Czech – The Martin Stepanek Odyssey


Fat Guy Meets the Terminator

My wife refused to get out of the car, and I heard the clunk of the power door locks as I cautiously stepped away from the vehicle, through the gap in the chicken wire and into the warrens of the infamous Wilton Manors trailer park. I made a mental note that the movie version of this should have my character getting flashbacks to combat foot patrols in that long-ago war a world away. The overgrown tropical flora, the shanties, and the smells – it was definitely Third World. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Who knew ?

I’d come there to pick up the next freedive champion of the world.

I had met Martin Stepanek a few weeks earlier, and watched him set a new static apnea world record (8:06) under the tutelage of veteran waterman Doug Peterson. Doug, Martin and I were connected through the Performance Freediving alumni network, and I’d volunteered to help prepare Martin for an assault on Pierre Frolla’s free immersion world record of 80 meters /262 feet. Doug and Martin had planned a rigorous open water training schedule off the South Florida coast, 4 days on, one day off. Doug had a perfectly serviceable 23-foot Dusky launch and an aquatic career dating from the Year One. Martin had the will and the physiological assets, and I had the time.

Nobody had any money.

What was missing was the financial wherewithal. Sponsors had not exactly lined up to finance an obscure nobody’s dream of world conquest. Jay Riffe had faith and offered some of his new fins, and Martin’s world record for static apnea brought Mormaii onboard with custom wetsuits and apparel. The gear was a great help, but we still had no money

This was to be bare-knuckles freediving: raw, rough and pure. No frills. No freebies, no perks and no walking-around money.

“No air conditioning” Doug whispered to me that first August morning as we prepped the Toy Chest. Martin looked like he had welded his mouth to the marina water fountain. ” The guy is living in a trailer – a part of a trailer – in Lauderdale’s worst slum. It gets up to 120 degrees in there during the day, not much less at night. His part of the trailer is so small he has to fold his cot up to make enough room to get dressed .”

“No clothes, no money” Martin replied when I threw out the idea of going for sushi after docking back at Pompano.

“I’m buying” I offered. Doug’s eyes rolled up.

“I have no clothes.” said Martin matter-of-factly ” All I own is this T-shirt and this swimsuit. I cannot go to a restaurant like this”.

“He’s not kidding.” Doug added.

And so I became fully appraised of the situation as of early August, 2001, with 6 weeks to go before the scheduled record attempt in Grand Cayman. The prospective world champion had no previous experience deep freediving, was living in a Viet Cong tiger cage, working 10-hour shifts as a commercial diver while training 4 hours a day, had almost no sponsorship, no budget and a support crew consisting of Doug Peterson and me. And no clothes. And no money.

“Oh yeah, fuel and time are a big problem, too” added Doug. ” You know the mid-water and bottom currents around here. To get a straight drop line down to the depths Martin has to hit we’ve got to go 8 – 10 miles offshore into over 1,000 feet of water, and let the boat and rig drift in the Gulf Stream. We drift another 5 miles or so north with the current, so it’s an even longer haul back. If there’s any kind of seas running, you’re looking at an hour each way.”

At about a buck per mile, in the best case, for the Toy Chest‘s 250hp Johnson outboard.

“This is impossible !” I declared. “Get real ! No can do !”

Martin shrugged. ” Depends on your point of view.”

Doug laughed. ” For Martin, this is normal. His whole life is a series of impossible obstacles. Think about it: it was only 12 years ago he and all the other Czechs were sitting under Soviet occupation and wondering if they’d ever see the light of day ! Since then he’s made it to the States, learned English, qualified as a commercial diver and as a chef, and now blown all that off to go for world records in freediving !”

Doug was right. It was not hopeless, it was inspiring.

At home that night I asked my wife if Martin could come stay with us for the duration. I figured it would save him a few bucks on rent and provide him with an environment in which he could focus on rest and recovery rather than mere survival. She readily agreed.

So there we were, the next day, poor Gila locked in the car while I reconnoitered the trailer park for young Stepanek.

Following Martin’s directions, I came upon a mound of plywood scraps, formica shards and assorted personal items attended to by a sweaty, toothless West Indian gentleman with a sledgehammer, lounging in the shade of a coconut palm.

“Hot day !” I called in greeting.

“Yep, it is surely that.” he nodded, shouldering the sledgehammer and advancing on the pile of rubble. ” Too damn hot fo’ bustin’ down this here damn trailer”.

He rose, advanced and began pounding on the rubble, reducing it to smaller fractions.

I looked again at my map with increasing puzzlement, and again at the ongoing demolition project. Not good – according to the map, this was the location of Chateau Stepanek

“Here ! Here!”

I turned and saw a shirtless Martin calling from behind a ragged plywood fence, leaning around what seemed to be a rusty shipping container.

I looked back at the increasingly agitated activities of the one-man demolition crew, at the map in my hand, and again at Martin.

“No, no !” he called. “That is my neighbor’s trailer. I live over here !”

I walked over to Martin’s hooch.

“Nice digs”. I pointed back at the man with the sledgehammer, now cursing as he attacked a section of composition board. ” What’s with your neighbor ? What happened to his trailer ?”

The Terminator shrugged. “Did not pay the rent. Landlord evicting him.”

What could I say ? “There goes the neighborhood.”

Facing Facts

With Martin Stepanek settled at long last into lodging acceptable under the Geneva Conventions, his open water training began in earnest.

Martin’s free immersion record attempt was scheduled for mid-September on Grand Cayman, so Doug Peterson did the math and worked out an incremental training schedule that would get Martin down to his record depth before leaving for the event. Pretty straightforward : if you dive X meters deeper every day for Y days, you become a World Champion.

I was, I confess, a bit skeptical. Two middle -aged beachboys and a Euro trailer-park guy with zero competitive freediving experience are going to cobble together some hardware from Home Depot , splash around in the Gulf Stream for a few weeks, and come up with a world freediving record ?

Doug was pleased by my quick grasp of the situation. He laid out the good news for me as the Toy Chest ploughed through the Atlantic swells. He reminded me that Martin’s world record breath-hold time of 8 minutes 6 seconds suggested extraordinary potential and cited Martin’s commercial diving experience as a foundation for comfort at depth.

“Wanna hear the real kicker? A few weeks ago, I made up a simple, cheap, thin, 60m drop line for us to play with. Martin had never done free immersion in his life before the other weekend except for ‘grabbing the rope’ and pulling a few times. We went out Friday and with the wind and current and the small weight I had he went to the bottom. 55 meters on his first try! Saturday he also did 55m but didn’t feel as good. Sunday, we had no wind and the line was absolutely straight down. He went to the bottom where I had added a boat anchor for more weight. The gauge read 61.7m so he probably did 62-63m. He was totally clean, not anywhere near his limit. I met him at 20 meters and he was perfect and happy as a clam! Hell, the current record is only 80 meters! This was only the third time in his life he ever did free immersion and only the second time ever with no fins on the ‘cheat’ with..”

Summer in South Florida waters means stupefying heat and humidity, invisible clouds of stinging sea lice, and thunderstorms. Team Stepanek launched each morning from the Hidden Harbor Marina in Pompano. We motored through the Intracoastal to the Hillsboro Inlet, where Doug scanned the horizon, reviewed his Internet radar data and chose a zone somewhere in the range of 10 miles offshore. The Toy Chest is a fast boat, and on good days we kept up nearly 30 knots on the way out, but often the seas were running high enough to keep us down to a bone-rattling 10 knots. Masssive thunderheads were usually in abundance in every direction, but Doug, a master yachtsman and a longtime familiar of this stretch of ocean, expertly threaded between the squalls and got us to the designated coordinates.

Martin would spend the ride out doing his stretching and breathing up forward.

Once in the zone, and with Doug satisfied that the configuration of wind, current, squalls and shipping traffic would yield up 50 minutes of undisturbed water time, we deployed the floats and drop line. The line was 100 meters long and weighted with 80 pounds of lead, a detail I appreciated in full only after the first day’s session, when I noted the absence of a winch.

“No budget for that”, Doug explained. “By the way, I’ve got a dicey back and Martin needs to save his energy. Lower that on down, would you ? Oh, and we’ll need you to pull it up later, too.”

Each of us should do what he does best. I had found my place.

The session plan was simple. Martin and a safety diver in the water, the other guy on the boat. We had at least 1,000 feet of water below the keel, so we usually got the clean vertical drop line which was our reason for going that far offshore. With both divers in the water, the boat man cast the dive rig loose and motored away to an orbit downwind of the divers.

The divers, Martin and his safety (Doug and I alternated days in this role), completed a series of negative pressure warm-up drops followed by Martin’s warm-up free-immersion to somewhere in the 50-meter range. He then would roll onto his back, do a 7- minute ventilation, and dive the target depth specified by the plan.

Our first day out, Doug drew water duty while I stayed with the boat. The seas were up, and the run out to the Stream was smack into them at 12 knots . We deployed the rig, dropped the divers and on Doug’s signal I cast the rig loose and pulled the Toy Chest away downwind.

The boat man’s job was to keep visual contact with the divers while maintaining enough distance to keep exhaust fumes and engine noise out of Martin’s world, all the while monitoring shipping and pleasure traffic, weather and any other hazards.

When the seas were running, as they were on this first day, the divers themselves became invisible in the leaden Atlantic swells, and even the bright orange float got lost in the morning sun’s glare. I decided on 25 yards as the stand-off, a tentative compromise which I hoped would give Martin the space he needed while keeping him in visual contact and the Toy Chest in close enough for a quick pickup, if needed.

The waters of the Gulf Stream, 10 miles southeast of Pompano Beach, are fairly heavily trafficked. Commercial shipping lanes carry heavy freight along the Florida coast to and from Port Everglades. Pleasure craft of all sorts frolic, chase game fish and make the Bahamas run. I drove the Toy Chest through slow figure -eights at idle speed, eyes fixed on the float between 360-degree scans of the sea surface and skies. Pretty busy! Container ship at 290 degrees, making at least 20 knots, possible intercept within 45 minutes, re-evaluate in 15 minutes. A little lightning to the South, tracking West , no threat. Pleasure craft to the northeast, looks like he’s coming to check us out – I’d adjust my maneuvering to keep the Toy Chest between the oncoming yachts and my divers. Like the crew of the Coast Guard cutter that approached one day, the yachtsmen must have puzzled over the somewhat bizarre spectacle of a 23 – foot Dusky idling 10 miles offshore, a diver -down flag up in over 1,000 feet of water!

The boat man had authority to abort the session and recall the divers, and also the responsibility for making an immediate pickup at the divers’ signal. The more problematic contingency would be one in which immediate pickup was desperately needed, but neither of the divers was able to signal. As a precaution, I added yet another item to the boat man’s task list. I followed the session schedule with my stop watch, observing the divers as best I could with the ship’s binoculars, looking for any irregularity in dive times or in progression through the training plan, either of which might signal a blackout or other problem.

In the water with Martin, bobbing in the open Atlantic with occasional glimpses of the boat over the swells, the safety diver had his own world of worry. Martin’s preference on his target dives is for his safety freediver to meet his ascent at 20 meters / 66 feet, and escort him through the blackout zone to the surface. Simple enough, on the face of it, but stir in two additional constraints, factor in Martin Stepanek’s physiological capacities and the task becomes quite challenging.

A freediver ascending from extreme depths ( and at this point in his training Martin was exceeding 65meters/213 feet ) is at the margins of his hypoxic stamina. The last thing in the world he needs is a surprise of any kind.

Martin liked to make visual contact with his safety diver, in position at 20 meters, as soon as his ascent reached the edge of the visibility range. We had pretty consistent visibility of about 25 meters, so this meant the safety diver had to be in position by the time Martin had ascended to 45 meters / 148 feet. Martin, pulling himself hand-over-hand up the line, expected at that point to look up and see his safety diver in position. The safety diver had to make sure his expectation was met.

On the other hand, a safety diver’s ability to execute a rescue at depth is constrained by his own hypoxic stamina, and so our aim was to place the safety diver at the 20-meter rendezvous no sooner than necessary to provide Martin with the sighting he expected, and so to minimize the safety diver’s apnea time.

Not a terribly complex calculation, inasmuch as Martin’s training dives were pretty tightly programmed. Doug had acquired a prototype of the latest hi-tech depth recorder, a box half the size of a cigarette pack, and spent his evenings in minute scrutiny of Martin’s dive profiles. Given a dive plan, it was no big trick to calculate the safety divers’ drop time to get him to depth neither earlier than necessary nor too late.

The young Mr. Stepanek, however, is an extraordinary fellow.

Let’s take a moment and get clear about this: The training paradigm you’re reading about right now would be borderline insanity for anyone who is not one of the world’s top freedivers. There is no way in the world Doug and I would have signed on to this if Martin had not proven himself, in increments, to be up to it. Do not try this at home.

A few days into the campaign, I was in the water with Martin while Doug drove the boat. The scheduled target dive was to 83 meters, 3 meters beyond the standing world record.

Martin had, by this time, switched from a low-volume mask to the fluid goggles he and Doug had designed and built. The goggles relieved him of the need to waste precious air equalizing a mask, and enabled him to pull his noseplug and flood his sinuses at depth, thus relieving the pressure there as well.

We reviewed the dive plan in the boat, and after checking the visibility, which was better than usual, calculated that I would drop 1 minute 10 seconds (1:10) after Martin began his planned dive profile of 2:45. This would position me at the 20-meter rendezvous at Martin’s T + 1:40, at which time he’d see me as he reached about 55 meters /180 feet on his ascent.

We went through our warm -ups, and then Martin signaled the beginning of a 7-minute ventilation for his target dive. He rolled over on his back, one hand on the float.

I called time for Martin, treading water upwind of him, trying to keep the seas off his face. I counted the final seconds down to zero, and Martin took his deep breath and began packing. Per plan, I began calling the count of packs off to him and after the 15th pack he rolled over, reached for the drop line and began pulling himself down into the blue. I started my timer.

I watched him carefully from the surface, completing my own breathe-up and monitoring the time on my stopwatch. The first 20 meters of Martin’s descent are a zone of high concern, as he is prone to hypocapnic blackout after packing. He passed the 20-meter mark, going strong, and quickly disappeared into the deep.

At precisely 1:10 into Martin’s dive I dropped and began to fin down along the line, head arched back, scanning the featureless blue void for any feature, any sign of my diver. Any glimpse of Martin at this point, ahead of schedule, would imply he had aborted the dive, indicate an emergency, and cause me to rocket down to him at maximum speed. Not today. So far, so good – nothing but blue space and the drop line going to its vanishing point.

Reaching the 20-meter mark on the line, I grabbed it to fix my depth and checked my timer. Martin’s dive time was 1:40 – perfect. Staring down the line, I would expect to acquire Martin within seconds..

Not today. Nothing. The time passed – 1:50, 2:00, 2:10. Martin was now 30 seconds behind schedule on an 83-meter open-ocean freedive over a 1,000- foot bottom, 10 miles offshore , with no deep scuba support. Nothing and no-one between him and the abyss.

And I was now a full minute into my dive.

And I was no longer enjoying the deep calm a freediver needs to keep his heart rate down and bottom time up. I was, in fact, becoming somewhat anxious.

Time slowed down to a crawl, allowing my thoughts to race through the entire variable set and the full range of options and outcomes:

“I am at 20 meters / 66 feet. Visibility is about 25 meters, so I am seeing down to 45 meters. I do not see Martin, so he is deeper than 45 meters. He is now 2:20 into his dive, which is not much for him if nothing has gone wrong. I’m now 1:10 into my dive. Okay. If I jet down fast, right now, when I first see Martin it will mean he his still 25 meters below me, so add another minute to reach him and get him back up to the depth where I first sighted him, plus getting him from there back to the surface……. but if he is already unconscious, or becomes unconscious before I reach him, he sinks like a stone, and is gone…..If I wait here, and he is struggling, he may not become visible before he blacks out and sinks…..”

I decided on a middle course, hoping he was still conscious and making some upward progress. I relaxed my grip on the line and allowed myself to sink.

The time was T +2:30 for Martin, T +1:20 for me. My depth was now 25 meters / 82 feet, and I felt the line sliding through my palm as I continued to sink. No sign of Martin.

What does one do ? I wondered. I was alone, 100 feet down in the open Atlantic on a breath of air, sliding down a rope toward a man I could not see. Does one simply continue to slide, down and down until everything turns black and goes away forever ? Can one, at some point, make the sober judgement that the other diver is beyond one’s help, and save one’s self ? If so, when ? And how ?

It was the pale palm of Martin’s gloved left hand the I first saw, then, as his dive time reached 2 minutes and 45 seconds. Hand over hand, pulling vigorously up the nylon rope, the beige Home Depot garden gloves ($4.95) the only things visible against the indigo depths. A pair of disembodied white hands! My depth was now 30 meters, my time 1:35. I immediately finned up to the 20 meter checkpoint and backed away from the line.

When he reached me Martin looked fine, good color, calm. I finned upward facing him at an arm’s length. We broke the surface together, and Martin rolled onto his back. His dive time was 3:20, mine was 2:20.

I signaled to Doug for urgent pickup, shoved my knee under the small of Martin’s back and was reaching my left hand under his armpit to the classic rescue hold when he rolled his head toward me and puckered his brow.

“What ?” he asked, “What’s the matter with you ?”

I was breathless. “What happened ? You okay ? Look here -look at me! Breathe!” I commanded.

Martin peeled off his fluid goggles, glanced at his Stinger, and laughed. I relaxed. He was perfectly okay, not in the least distressed. Not even close !

“Oh , I see that was a little longer than we planned. It was the funniest thing – we never see any fish out here, but there was this little one waiting for me at the bottom at 83 meters, just waiting there. Interesting- what is he doing way out here in the middle of nowhere, anyway ? I stopped to look at him, and he just looked right back. I guess we were looking at each other like that for a little while. Sorry – it was just so surprising to see a fish out here at that depth. ”

Doug, timing Martin’s dive from the boat, had already pulled the Toy Chest close in a few meters upwind and was letting it drift toward to us. Reassured that everything was okay, he helped us aboard and secured the rig.

“Long dive, Martin” he commented. ” What happened ?”

Story told, Doug shook his head and pronounced his verdict: “Martin Stepanek has now reached a level of performance where his safety diver needs a safety diver !”

Maybe so.

This incident highlighted the extraordinary risks inherent in Martin’s quest. At such extreme depths, Martin had become one of the handful of human beings who have experienced nitrogen narcosis while freediving. The 10 liters of air packed into his lungs on the surface, under 9 atmospheres of pressure at depth, were saturating his tissues with nitrogen. Rapture of the deep. Trip city. Loo-ney tunes.

We knew this was in the cards from the outset. A couple of months earlier, we’d worked with another freediver who’d come to South Florida to set a world record in the constant ballast discipline. This man, a superb athlete in peak condition, had failed. A number of factors had contributed to this disappointment, but narcosis was clearly one of the more serious problems. This diver had serious cognitive problems at depth. Doug noted, however, that while this diver had risen to world prominence as a competitive freediver, he had no background at all in scuba. Doug and Martin were both highly experienced in deep air scuba, trimix and every other aspect of technical scuba diving. Both had logged plenty of time narc’ ed at depth, and were confident of Martin’s ability to function in this state.

We discussed the narcosis issue in the boat on the way in, and Martin promised to postpone any further study of deep water marine life until after the record attempt.

Are we having fun yet?

The days and weeks slid by. Four days on, one day off. Paul in the boat, Doug in the boat. Martin had begun to fall asleep in my car on the way back home from the ocean, which he felt was a positive development related to his increasingly powerful mammalian dive reflex. ” The blood shunt is really happening” he explained. ” By the time I reach the bottom my legs are almost completely numb. They are getting no blood at all, so they are running on anerobic metabolism. Recovery from this is very, very tiring”.

There were a few welcome breaks in this Spartan routine.

One day we were lucky enough to be joined by Karoline dal Toe, the astonishing Brazilian diver who, just a few weeks earlier, had set a womens’ world record for static apnea. Karoline was back in town, working with Pipin Ferreras and Audrey Mestre on a women’s tandem no-limits record attempt .

Karoline’s idea of a day off from record no-limits diving with Pipin and Audrey was to do some off-the-charts free immersion diving with Martin Stepanek.

Doug couldn’t come out that day, so Martin, Karoline and I took the boat and set out in typical South Florida summer weather. The ocean was glassy smooth, the visibility infinite. Martin and Karol pushed depths and times while I tended boat.

Idling back through the canals toward the marina, it slowly became clear that in Doug’s absence, there was nobody aboard who felt competent to maneuver the Toy Chest into the slip at Hidden Harbor.

“I certainly don’t know how ” Martin declared. ” I have no experience whatever.”

Karoline grinned, rolled her eyes, and whistled. “I thought you knew how to drive the boat” she pouted, at nobody in particular.

“It’s pretty tight in there” I protested. “No room to screw up ! Concrete pilings all around. A tight fit ! I haven’t done this since before you were born !”

We motored on. I had the helm.

The slip in sight, Karoline, dressed for success in what by Brazilian standards might be considered a modest bikini, pushed me aside and took the helm.

“I can do this !” she asserted.

She could certainly steer, but seemed to have no interest in the throttle. As the slip neared on the port side, I slipped the engine into neutral to lose speed. Karol instantly sensed that her steering had lost effect and demanded forward power. We approached the slip, popping in and out of neutral, boisterously negotiating Karol’s demand for steerage way with my urgent desire to slow down!

With the slip now 10 yards off the port bow, Karol expertly heaved the wheel over to starboard, and then froze. The bow came over nicely, the stern lining up with the narrow entry between the pilings to the slip.

She turned to me, wide-eyed, whispered “I’m done. Now you !” and stepped away from the helm. I noticed Martin, clutching his sides in the stern area …. half asleep already.

There was no choice. I stepped up, took the helm, pulled the throttle back into reverse and centered the outboard. Incredibly, the boat was inching into perfect alignment with the slip, and her forward motion was halted inches away from collision with a concrete seawall. Seconds later she was making way astern, and slid between the pilings. For some reason, all of the marina guys had been following our progress closely, and were waiting there to take charge.

Karoline dal Toe, Martin Stepanek and Paul Kotik : The Three Stooges Go Freediving.

On another day, Tony Marcuccino, founder of the Longfins freediving club, joined us with his new digital video camera and housing. There was a brisk northeast breeze blowing , and the chop was starting to come up as we cleared the inlet and Doug throttled up. I had found my spot up forward and soon I spotted a dark dorsal fin breaking the surface off the port bow.

I turned astern, shouted to Doug and pointed. Doug brought the Toy Chest around, yelling ” Everybody in the water ! Everybody in the water !” And so we were, a few minutes later, Martin, Tony, me and a pair of bottlenose dolphins ! Doug and the Toy Chest idled downwind, Tony hovered in midwater with his camera, while Martin and I tried, but failed, to engage them.

Our wild dolphin encounter was short, unlike the discussion and debriefing which followed. We blew off the day’s training plan and talked dolphin. Doug Peterson’s intimate familiarity with cetaceans, much of it gained in Hawaiian waters, drove the discussion. Martin, Tony and I quickly realized how inept we had been.

“The reason they bugged out so quickly is that you guys were B-O-R-I-N-G !” Doug explained that wild dolphins’ behavior is similar to that of a Hollywood director at an open call audition. ” You have about 20 seconds to make yourself interesting before they go thank-you-next !”

Doug explained that one thing that kills a wild dolphin’s interest immediately is a diver’s attempt to show off his aquatic prowess. This, of course, is what both Martin and I had done as soon as we hit the water, diving deep, breaching at the surface, and in general trying to show the dolphins how cool we are.

Doug snickered. ” Right. You guys are going to impress dolphins with your swimming. Maybe later the dolphins will impress you with their piano playing !”.

No, he explained, it is important not to let the dolphins see how feeble we are, how helpless and maladapted to the waterworld. This turns them off right away. What gets their attention, Doug continued, is …conversation and play.

“Be dolphin-like in ways that you can actually perform ! Stick together, vocalize all kinds of sounds back and forth, and you know what ? Face away from the dolphins and slowly fin away from them! They’ll become curious – maybe they think you’re talking about them behind their back in a foreign language. ”

Martin told us later that this had been his first encounter with wild marine mammals. We resolved that we’d remember Doug’s advice and put it into action at the next opportunity.

As it turned out, there was no next opportunity. The days slipped by like dominos falling, one after the other, each day’s training defined and delimited by Doug’s engineered schedule of warm-ups and target dives. Martin was moving into undiscovered country on a daily basis, and easily, too. The goal for his free immersion record attempt in Cayman had tacitly settled at the 90 meter mark, a giant 10 meters deeper than Pierre Frolla.

Martin’s concern for his performance at the AIDA World Cup, on his schedule in Ibiza a couple of weeks after the Cayman event, led Doug to include some constant ballast diving in Martin’s regimen. Martin was worried that training for free immersion exclusively would diminish his legs’ strength and stamina. This worry was put to bed when he casually did an 83 meter constant ballast dive, wearing a mask no less. The world record for constant ballast was 81 meters at that time, by Performance Freediving colleague Brett LeMaster.

The night before our departure for Cayman we attended a lovely party thrown by Pipin, celebrating Audrey’s and Karoline’s successful tandem no-limits dive. The setting was a trendy Miami restaurant lounge, with a lavish buffet and video of the event on a huge-screen TV. The ladies were stunning, the music boffo, and everyone in great spirits. The event itself had been a media extravaganza, with a fleet of pleasure craft turning out and superb footage made with a sled-mounted camera. The contrast between all this and our bargain basement campaign was a little bit discouraging. I found myself sitting alone in a corner wondering who we thought we were kidding. Martin had a long tete-a-tete with Pipin, and then we headed home.

Two if By Air

Team Stepanek’s budget was deep in the red. Doug stayed behind in Florida, but Martin and I met up with a woozy Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and a snoring Kirk Krack in the gate lounge at Miami International Airport. Kirk and Mandy had flown the redeye overnight from Vancouver, and Martin and I were late in arriving. We four intrepid freedivers greeted, fumbling our way through airhugs, shoulder kisses and disjointed conversation which might have continued all day but for Mandy’s observation that the lounge had emptied – our flight had boarded ! We scrambled onto the plane. Kirk and Mandy immediately dozed off.

The Caymanian immigration authorities snared Martin in Georgetown Airport, and after detaining him for about an hour, released him, minus his passport. He was ordered to appear at the proper government office the next day to learn what fate had been decreed for him. Nobody was willing or able to say what the problem was. It turned out they had never before seen a Czech passport and had no idea how to process it.

We were met outside the terminal by Dan Hodgins, a Team Canada freediver, our Cayman host and indispensable master of ceremonies. We somehow packed ourselves and our luggage into his tiny minivan, careened through the narrow twisties and not many minutes later had the luggage ensconced in Dan’s oceanside flat in South Sound. It was only a little after noon.

“Let’s go diving !” someone suggested.

A short while later we began a perfect afternoon of soul freediving on the miniwall at Turtle Reef. How much better can it get? By the time we hit the water we were 6 freedivers and two DPV’s generously supplied by Divetech, the support contractor for the record attempts. Crystal clear water, glassy smooth surface, brilliant sunshine, the incomparable Cayman wall, some world-class freedivers and a couple of enthusiastic hangers-on.

It was like a six-ring aquatic circus !
Here one sees Martin Stepanek – finally ! – reappearing from around a corner of the wall, another 5 – minute scooter dive. Over there Kirk and Mandy doing one of their patented synchronized ascents, attached at the palms and the waist, a two-backed sine wave at 20 meters. Dan, pulling long statics way, way down on the white sandy bottom , looked just like a tiny pair of pliers with his long fins and outreaching arms. Kirk again, hanging at depth, head back, blowing perfect air rings , expanding as they rose, gigantic silver-thread lassos by the time they reached the surface. Somebody steered a yellow DPV through a series of corkscrews and loops, then rocketed to the surface through one of Kirk’s air rings.
It was an afternoon of unbridled joy. In the afterglow we easily agreed to violate our solemn fiscal vows, break our budget and treat ourselves to a great Italian restaurant dinner. I think that we all closed our eyes smiling that night and were swept off to sleep by angels.

It was the night of September 10, 2001.

I was awakened quite early the next morning, September 11, 2001. I had bunked with Dave and Kate Alexander in their flat in West Bay, near Divetech , while Kirk, Mandy and Martin had settled in with Dan Hodgins down in South Sound. Dave rose early to head out to work and I got up to see him off. It was about 7:30, I think, when Dave left the flat.

I made myself a cup of tea and sat with it for a while on the balcony, looking out over the ocean. After a while I heard Julia, another guest of the Alexanders, moving about in the kitchen and went to greet her. Julia meant to join us on the Divetech boat and help support the training and record attempts.

Julia and I decided that it would not be decent to phone Kirk before 9:00, so I ducked into the shower and had a long one.

When I came out, I could hear Julia in the kitchen, on the phone. I could not make out what she was saying, but it sounded like she was repeating the same thing over and over.

She came rushing into the living room, where I was bunked on the sofa, and flicked on the TV.
“That was Dave. He said to turn on the TV. He heard a plane hit the World Trade Center”.

So that’s where I was when I heard the news and saw the first images: in the Alexanders’ living room in West Bay, Grand Cayman, clutching a bath towel around my waste and dripping on the floor.

This is not a story about the events of September 11, 2001. That story is much bigger than this one, has been far better told by others and is still being told as of this writing.

We, the Performance Freediving Team and crew there on Grand Cayman, had to figure out what to do, how to adjust our lives and plans to the new configuration of the world, just like everybody else around the globe.

Dave came home, and when Kirk and Mandy knocked on the door they found us riveted to the television. Kirk said that which was taken for granted, that there was no possibility of diving on that day, and we all went back down to Dan’s and huddled around the television until late that night.

September 12, 2001

Life must go on. The day after. Focus on the here-and-now. By 9:00 AM the Performance Freediving team and crew were aboard the Divetechboat Ten Ata, cruising around the northwest tip of Grand Cayman and making for the planned dive site at the edge of the North Wall.

Kirk tinkered with the sled apparatus throughout the boat ride, verbalizing his thoughts and actions for the attentive team as he examined the winch, steel cable, drop line, releases, locks, latches and other paraphernalia.

Divetech instructor and Team Canada member Calista Johnson was at the helm and would be providing deep scuba support at the dive site. As we approached the mooring on the edge of the wall, Cali and Kirk noted the southeast wind and quickly calculated how much line to pay out to the mooring buoy after hooking up. It worked out perfectly. The light breeze held Ten Atataut on the line, 500 feet beyond the edge of the Wall. The depth, for all practical purposes, was infinite. There was no discernible current at the surface or, we noted after dropping the sled’s base plate, at depth.

Mandy’s first sled dive was only to 30 meters (100 feet), just a little baby step to test the apparatus and re-acquaint her with no-limits diving. Mandy simply does not have the means to train no-limits at home in Vancouver, but nonetheless here she was, with one previous sled experience under her belt, a credible threat to the womens’ world record.
Martin’s free immersion target dive did not work out very well. He surfaced early, having aborted at a shallow 60 meters/ 197 feet. Back on the boat, he took us all by surprise when he announced he had turned around because he could not equalize one of his ears. Mandy chimed in with a complaint that hers had felt sticky as well.

This was bad news, for these two divers are notable for their no-hands style of freediving. Martin’s ears had always equalized without his conscious intervention – the concept of pinching one’s nose shut by hand was unknown to him when he’d attended the PFD clinic a year earlier. Something was very wrong. Mandy, though she generally did have to consciously equalize, generally did so without pinching her nose. Now she reported having to keep her hand involved all the way down to the bottom of her dive.

“Maybe you both got dehydrated on the plane and got your Eustachian tubes all sticky.” Kirk suggested, “Probably be back to normal by tomorrow.”

Martin was less sanguine.

” This is really no good if I have to pinch my nose”, he grumbled. ” I don’t see how you people do it. I don’t think I would enjoy freediving if I had to pinch my nose to equalize. What a bother !”

Kirk, always the trainer, always the leader, had coaxed them both back to the optimistic side of the boat by the time we docked. Tomorrow, he reminded us, would be another day.

September 13, 2001

Everybody watched TV news until late the night before. The Cayman cable – TV monopoly arbitrarily and randomly switches the only news channel between various foreign feeds. CNN mysteriously morphs to the BBC, and then to a Caymanian government public service spot promoting …….what ? One sees, and hears, but does not understand.

An early morning rendezvous at Divetech, then back aboard Ten Ata and across North Sound to the edge of the Wall. Deploying the sled is a considerable athletic achievement in its own right, as manipulating the 100- kilo base weight and cabling carries certain very physical penalties for error. Everything was soon in place, thanks to the experience and precision teamwork of Kirk and the Divetech crew. It was a beautiful, sunny Caribbean day. The deep safety diver, Team Canada member Tara Cunningham, shrugged into her twin 80’s and descended to the base weight at 100 meters. Conditions were perfect for deep freediving.

No. The mysterious, unwelcome demon made another appearance, and both contenders’ ears were boxed. Wedged. Mandy couldn’t equalize on her first warm-up dive and sidelined hereself for the day. Martin aborted after trying to muscle his way down past the pain, and thought he had ruptured an eardrum. No bubbles when we did a pressure test with some distilled water in the ear, but his day was over, too.

September 14 , 2001

Kirk made appointments for Martin and Mandy with Cayman’s wonderful Dr. Glatz, the eminent ENT specialist in the aquatic and aviation communities and a great supporter of Grand Cayman freediving . To everyone’s relief, both divers checked out with nothing fundamentally awry, ” Just a great deal of gunk in there”, pronounced the good Doctor. ” Probably y’all got dehydrated on your way down here, flying and then diving all afternoon.” The prescription was for water, water and then more water, plus a little pill for poor Mandy. Never mind. The rest of the day went for personal and project overhead, rest and, inevitably, more television news.

News reaching us by telephone from the outside world was not so good, either. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks had reached out and touched our project. We knew that all flights in and out of Grand Cayman had been cancelled until further notice, and it was now becoming clear that the cancellation wave was rippling throughout the world aviation system and into the indefinite future. The AIDA judges scheduled to observe and certify the record dives would not be able to fly into Grand Cayman. No judges, no records. No good.

That afternoon Kirk, Martin, Mandy and I sat for a while in an internet cafe on Seven Mile Beach, sipping decaf and catching up on e-mail and news.

Dirty old man that I am, my roving eye was caught by a group of winsome twenty-somethings frappolating around the next table. One of the girls was trying to talk the others into taking a freediving lesson at Divetech ! As social opportunities go, this seemed like shooting fish in a barrel, so I nudged Martin, who instantly caught on and alerted Kirk by way of a kick to his ankle. Mandy, noticing the sudden reconfiguration of her three gentleman companions into a slathering wolfpack, turned to see what it was our targeting radar had locked on to. And so it was, our little tableau, just as the nearby freediving enthusiast assured her friends that ” ….the world record was set by an American girl, Mehgan. Right here. It was on TV. People keep trying to break her record, but nobody can do it, not even guys !” On and on she went, Mehgan this and Mehgan that, a nonsensical patois of exaggerated depths, wrong locations, incorrect dates and mangled terminology. Kirk, Mandy and Martin are, of course, freedivers who exceed Mehgan Heany-Grier’s old record by way of warming up before breakfast. They were getting roiled. “Let’s go” I suggested, and so we did. In the car, Kirk saw the light: “Media. Publicity. Sponsorhip. Media, publicity, sponsorship…….”

“Yes, those things we don’t have” Martin grumbled. “Add money to list!”

September 15, 2001

Up early, back on the boat, out to the Wall. The sled deployment went smoothly, the safety tech diver dropped on schedule, and the freedivers hit their target depths with no problems. A textbook session. The Performance Freediving Team was back in the Zone.

Stopped at the Cobalt Coast resort on the way home to discharge a favor to our Divetech hosts. As the sun set over the Caribbean, Kirk and Martin delivered a coaching session on static apnea to an assembly of World Cup competitors from the Canadian, Dutch and Caymanian teams.

Ibiza was at this point less than a month away, and Kirk’s revelation was that at this late stage competitors should have stopped doing the traditional static apnea tables and begun training the event itself.

” There’s not much you can do in a few weeks to improve your carbon dioxide or hypoxic tolerance”, Kirk pointed out. ” Block out a 45-minute window, do a couple of warm-ups and then go for it, just like it will be in Ibiza”. An hour or so later a bunch of pretty happy competitors were sitting in the hot tub, with a couple of new personal bests to celebrate. It worked.

Kirk spent the evening working on solutions to the judging problem, which still threatened to derail the record attempts. E-mails and phone calls arced over the wires to AIDA headquarters in Switzerland and from there out across the planet to the Board members. It was terribly frustrating, having overcome poverty and disease, only to face this final snafu. No AIDA judges, no AIDA records.

Flights out of Grand Cayman had resumed, and my wife insisted, reasonably, that I fly back to Miami the next day in the afternoon. There was, after all, a war on.

September 24, 2001

Miami International Airport. I waited behind the plexiglass panes at International Arrivals, and had no trouble spotting the Performance Freediving Team as they came through passport control. The airport was a ghost town, the air transport system still reeling from the September 11 attacks.

Kirk and Mandy had a couple of hours before their connections to Vancouver, so we went up to the 8th floor lounge of the airport hotel and persuaded the bartender to let us run some video through the bar TV. We were the only customers, so the staff, Cubans, joined us as soon as they realized the subject was freediving.

And there we sat, nibbling finger food in an empty airport, the dogs of war loose outside, and watched a video replay of a positive alteration in our world. The barman and his colleagues whooped and whistled, Kirk fiddled with the camcorder, and we saw that on September 23, 2001, in the waters off Grand Cayman, the Performance Freediving Team once again had changed our concept of human aquatic capability.

The AIDA board, after trans-continental phone consultations, had responded to wartime contingencies by authorizing two Cayman residents to judge the record attempts: Dr. Robert Glatz, veteran diver and aviation physician, and Nienke Reigenhardt, a World Cup competitor on the Dutch women’s freediving team .

Mandy-Rae rode the sled down to 139 meters, taking with her three styrofoam coffee cups which were squeezed down to thimble size by the pressure. She became the deepest woman in the world.

And Martin Stepanek completed this phase of his journey. An improbable dream that began behind the Iron Curtain in the waning days of the Cold War became reality after winding through monofin competitions in Prague, 18-hour shifts in a Key West restaurant kitchen, self-taught mastery of English, a commercial diving school in New Jersey, empty pockets and a rat-infested trailer park in Fort Lauderdale. Martin’s 90-meter free immersion dive had shattered the previous record by a stunning 10 meters and established him as a contender for the top spot in world competitive freediving.

“What next ?” I asked after we saw Kirk and Mandy off and merged into the Miami traffic.

“All the records in all the disciplines!”, deadpanned the Terminator.

“No,” I laughed. ” I mean today !”

“Sushi” was Martin’s reply. “Lots and lots of sushi”.

“Back to reality !” I agreed. ” Tokyo Bowl, all-you-can-eat, $12.95 ?”

“It is good to have pants “, said the World Champion. “You can go anywhere.”


Paul Kotik
Paul Kotik
Paul Kotik has been a Staff Writer and Freediving Editor for DeeperBlue.com. He lives in Florida, USA with his family.