Warning: You are about to read an article written by a person that just two years ago was terrified of being under water. (Only a few people know that, so don’t tell anyone, okay?) I preferred land-based sports, was good at them, and saw little reason to set them aside for even a minute to be in the water.
So, how in the world did I end up competing at CAFA’s WRC?
The sequence went like this: Agreed to learn scuba after sincere plea from my “sweety” …..(see: graceful stealth of spear fisherman) …thought to self “must learn that thing where they dive without tanks and stuff”…enrolled in Performance Freediving Clinic…lost fear of water…found freediving challenging…loved challenge…became freediving addict…now more hooked on diving than is “sweety.” PFD introduced me to the United States Apnea Association…asked how I could help their efforts…accepted nomination for Board of Directors position…was elected…decided to learn more about competitive freediving to better serve membership…determined learning would best be facilitated by becoming a judge…had to compete to fulfill requirements of being a judge…bought ticket to Vancouver, Canada.
Don’t you just love long stories made short?
I stepped off the plane in Vancouver with a bit of anxiety. This was my first time out of the United States, my first competition, the first time I would dive with my beloved new monofin, and the first time I would be in the water in over a month! Yipes! When Mandy Cruickshank picked me up from the airport, I quickly found out that she was every bit as wonderful a person as she is a freediver. The scene was set for the rest of the trip: kind people and good times were ahead.
But I didn’t know that at the time.
I hadn’t done any preparatory training and as a recreational freediver was quite nervous about entering a competition with the stellar competitive freediving athletes they have up there in Canada. But, it was the last task on my list to fulfill the requirements for becoming a judge, so with the bright eyes of a competition newby, I was open to learning some valuable lessons. I am happy to have a chance to share them with you.
Lesson #1: You don’t have to be an elite level freediver to enjoy competing!
I have heard quite a few people say “Oh, I am not good enough to compete.” (I know, I was one of them). But now I say, forget that attitude! While I was there I hit two new personal bests, met a number of friendly and helpful individuals, could talk all I wanted about freediving without getting any “you weirdo” vibes, learned tips and tricks from other divers, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I recommend that anyone who wants to indulge their enthusiasm for freediving, dive with other passionate individuals, and wants to challenge themselves take advantage of opportunities to compete. There’s nothing lose, and so much to gain!
For me, competing in freediving was different from my competition experiences in other sports. Previously in my land-based sport endeavors I was a hard-nosed competitor bent on winning trophies. But if I had to compare the elation of receiving a trophy for a drag-race versus beating my previous personal bests in freediving and not coming anywhere close to winning the competition, I would take the latter now. It’s a rare occasion when we have a chance to challenge ourselves while in the company of individuals whose main priorities include our safety. Competitions like CAFA’s WRC are excellent opportunities to test your limits (both psychological and physical) while in the company of well-trained safety personnel and in the supportive environment created by your fellow competitors.
And thus, I don’t care too much that my skill level doesn’t necessarily measure up to the elite class of freedivers, and I dare say that you shouldn’t worry too much about your skill level either. As long as you are a safe and relatively strong diver whose main motivation stems from challenging yourself and appreciating the personal experience freediving brings you, then participating in a competition is likely to be a rewarding and educational experience. Give it a try!
Lesson #2: Canadian diving is awesome!
Before I left the US, I was convinced I would be turning blue while in Canada; not from lack of oxygen, but because of the cold water I thought existed off the Vancouver coast. Um, wrong! As it turned out, the water there was actually warmer than the water I dive here in Northern California. Coming up from a dive and being surrounded by majestic snow capped mountains, lush green forests, bald eagles circling above while not shivering was a memorable experience. For the first time in a long while, this cold water diver was actually warm, and in Canada nonetheless! I also got a sunburn….but, that’s not a new lesson – redheads need sunscreen, apparently even in Canada.
Lesson #3: Just because you’ve hit your announced performance doesn’t mean you should stop (in the case of static and dynamic apnea, at least)!
The first night of the competition was static apnea, my personal least favorite. After training dives the previous day, Kirk Krack had asked me how I planned on warming up for the event. “Well, I think I will chill for a bit and then hop in the water, hold my breath and get it over with,” I said. After all, my plan was just to meet my modest announced performances. I was there to fulfill the judging requirements, not to stress over my performance. (This occurred previous to me learning Lesson #1, so taking advantage of the opportunity to compete against myself hadn’t quite occurred to me yet. Sometimes I’m a little slow.) Kirk then proceeded to describe a warm-up routine for static. Although I quickly grabbed pen and paper and began recording these pearls of wisdom, just listening to him relay this information in his calm way left me relaxed enough to melt into my seat! I was pretty sure the routine would work.
So, I took his advice. At the event I warmed up and then, as I waited quietly during the countdown, something amazing happened; I found the “zone!” This was truly a big moment in my freediving existence. As a high-strung, fast-paced Type A personality, this was the first time my mind actually shut up! And the silence was beautiful! I was completely detached from what was going on around me. I remember watching reflected light dance around on the pool bottom, but I don’t even remember taking a final breath before my face entered the water. Hmm, I hope I took one.
Anyway, during the static, I somehow lost count of my very capable safety’s taps on my shoulder. I figured that I had surpassed my announced time and since my goals were set low, I came up. Smiling, I gave the ok sign, and when released by my judge Tom Lightfoot, I hopped out of the pool to practice timing the other athletes and assist in some warm-ups. I was ok with my performance for the rest of the night, but when I woke up the next morning, I wanted to kick myself! (Ever wake up with that feeling?) There I had been, floating pleasantly in a very nice pool, relaxed as could be, having no contractions, generally feeling rather good in my own little apnea world, surrounded by capable safety personnel and experienced staff, and what did I do? I just randomly decided to come up! I’m almost embarrassed to even admit it, but hey, we all make mistakes.
Lesson #4: Don’t declare what you consider an easy depth just to avoid stress – …it may create more.
Constant ballast was the next event. I was excited to get back in the water – the visibility had been lovely and I couldn’t wait to dive for the second time with my newest buddy, the monofin. I had declared the shallowest depth of all the competitors and therefore was the last to dive. Impatiently prancing around, I watched the other divers suit up and swim out. I had done a personal best during our training dives a couple of days beforehand, and was anxious to dive again. But, when I finally did get my turn to dive, I was limited by what I had announced. And so, when I reached my announced depth and grabbed the tag, my heart sank. I wanted to go deeper and couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t. In constant ballast you aim for only your announced depth, no deeper or your point totals will indeed suffer the consequences. Although it was a nice dive and I was happy I didn’t miss the tag, I had felt as though I was leashed (and it wasn’t the lanyard). Next time I will be less reserved in announcing my depth.
Lesson #5: Don’t let the view of a 50m pool freak you out, and try to be calm when you hit a personal best.
The last event was dynamic apnea. The longest pools near where I live are 25yards long. I was the second competitor as Eric Fattah had announced only 10m. During my warm-up, the 50m pool began to morph into what looked like a never-ending river of water. Trying to relax and “be cool”, I couldn’t help but ponder whether I would make it to the other end. I tried to comfort myself by thinking about what my favorite fish would do. Dory would “just keep swimming, swimming, swimming” and thats what I would try to do too.
Finally, it dawned on me to shift my gaze from the other end of the pool to the water in front of me. Then, as in the other pool event, all the noise, the people, the uncertainty, and the insecurities just floated away. I was once again lacking conscious thought, and don’t even remember entering the water to start my dynamic attempt. I got to the other end of the pool before I knew it. It was a great feeling, and I got really excited. Note: Getting giddy under water uses up oxygen. Woops! I went as far as I could after my “Holy cow, I made it to the other end!” moment subsided, but the damage was already done. Though my performance yielded me a personal best, I am again reminded that I have to learn to curb my enthusiasm a bit. I am slightly comforted that at least I didn’t embarrass myself by spastically waving my arms around like I sometimes do when excited to share an underwater discovery with a dive buddy. Ultimately, some lessons are hard to learn, but way fun nonetheless!
Lesson #6: There’s more to a diving competition than diving you know…
While I was there, I had ample opportunity to practice my judging skills and spend time with the event organizers. I am thankful the regulations require would-be judges to participate in a competition and I learned a lot from my experience on the athlete’s side of the stopwatch. Thanks to the openness and generosity of the CAFA folks, I picked up some valuable tips that I hope we can apply here in the US for our competitions. It is my hope that we will quickly be able to host competitions that are as professional, efficient, and enjoyable as our northern neighbor’s.
In addition to learning some valuable lessons, the icing on the cake (as if a sunburn from Vancouver wasn’t enough) was witnessing Glen Garett’s graceful dynamic no fins US record, and Peter Scott’s smooth dynamic with fins Canadian record. What a treat!
In my view, learning is one of the best things life has to offer (apart from clear water and good dive buddies) and competitions are a great way to learn more about freediving, your fellow freedivers, and yourself. Whether you can hold your breath for 1 minute or 8+ minutes, and whether you can dive to 10m or 80+m, the wise words of Meatballs’ star Bill Murray ring true, “It just doesn’t matter!” As long as you enjoy the sport, you’ll be good company.
Here’s hoping that other recreational freedivers out there find their way into a competition like CAFA’s WRC, enjoy themselves as much as I did, and come up with their own list of lessons learned!