The Freedive Show — Part II

Welcome back to the Freedive Show, DeeperBlue.net’s coverage of the 2003 Sony Freediver Open Classic in Limmisol, Cyprus. An epic performance at the competition will require a successful training program, good equipment and a thorough grasp of AIDA rules. In this installment, we look at the challenges athletes face to achieve in competition—in front of judges, peers, and spectators—what they have imagined during weeks and months of training.

Optimal Training

freedivershow21a A discussion of training must include the subject of safety. Several freedivers are shooting for world records in all events, but especially in constant weight. Herbert Nitsch admitted that at -92m in constant weight during training in 2002 he was spooked by the narcosis, and ran into difficulties with equalizing, leg fatigue and lack of oxygen. Herbert, Martin Stepanek and Carlos Coste admitted that they reached their personal bests in training with little or no scuba safety. Coste and Stepanek relied only on a safety freediver at the surface; Herbert often used a scuba diver at 40m, despite target depths of over 90m. As the depths become deeper and deeper, divers face an increasing numbers of risks: blown eardrums due to the difficulty in equalizing at extreme depths; losing their judgment or ‘forgetting’ to ascend due to the nitrogen narcosis; extreme fear, paralysis or deep water blackout from carbon dioxide toxicity; and convulsions or deep blackout from oxygen toxicity.

You might think of no-limits as the most demanding deep diving discipline, but a –90m freediver competing in constant weight often spends a longer period of time underwater and is doing physical work at least two thirds of the time. This results in ridiculous levels of carbon dioxide at depth, far greater than a no-limits diver will experience. This high CO2 causes many of the risks of deep diving in constant weight.

It is safe to say that the majority of freedivers do not have the resources to train with a full complement of scuba divers. Some may have one or two. Other use lanyards and a line lift system such as freedivers in France. Howard Jones of Freediver Magazine has been testing an FHOF system ("freediver hold on and forget") that uses lift bags, but this requires safety scuba divers in the water. The authors can state from experience that building a portable, in-the-water version of Sebastien Murat’s DRUMS is costly and time consuming, but hopefully worth the trouble. In general, freedivers lack the safety they need to challenge world records or even to set new personal bests. Hopefully, there will be no further accidents as the freediving community looks to find the right solution.

Does Equipment win the Day?

To be competitive in the international freediving arena, you need a smooth skin custom wetsuit, a monofin, and the right mask. The deepest dive ever made in competition by a bi-fin diver was by Umberto Pelizzari at the 2001 World Championships in Ibiza. He dove to –73m, and probably could have gone deeper, if not for the team strategy of the Italians.

One diver who has the capacity to beat that depth is Martin Stepanek, who made –70m at the Kona World Cup with small snorkeling fins and also made 200m in dynamic with plastic bi-fins, during an unofficial training session. Stepanek is a former member of the Czech finswimming team, but so far he has shied away from using a monofin.

Any deep dive with bi-fins requires a much greater level of kicking technique than with a monofin. A number of freedivers, including Coste, Musimu, Rignanilolli, Giankos and Genoni have boosted their personal bests by a good 10m after getting into monofins. The announced depths at Cyprus should give further proof to this trend.

A lot of noise has been made about freedivers diving over 80m with a mask, since Pelizzari, Brett LeMaster and Eric Fattah all set records with Fluid Goggles, contact lenses, or no mask at all. The best mask feature is not low volume, but rather high compressibility. A highly compressible mask such as the Sphera can be equalized one last time at 40m, and never again equalized down to the abyss, due its flexible skirt design.

The last piece of equipment that should be discussed is the lanyard, a rope that links the freediver to the descent line with a rock climbing carabiner. On April 1st, AIDA International declared that all AIDA competitions must use the lanyard. The idea for this safety equipment is that whatever happens, the freediver will not drift away from the line in a current, or plunge out of reach of even the deepest scuba diver in the event of a deep blackout. We mention it as an important piece of equipment, because there are many divers unfamiliar with lanyard use, and others, like most French freedivers, who have been using them for several years.

Understanding those pesky AIDA rules

Every kind of competition has rules; just as typical sports have "offsides," "faults," and "fouls," the freediving "penalties" are just as numerous and certainly controversial.

A joke we have for first-time competitors in any competition is that they if they score any points at all in their first freediving competition, they are doing better than average. It is very easy to get disqualified for a simple lapse of concentration. Just ask Guillame Nery of the French team after his gaffe at -70m at the Kona World Cup. A simple shift of his hand on the line while he was playing with the bottom camera cost him 70 easy points, and cost his team victory.

Everyone trains to go deeper, longer or farther, but the best divers also focus on ‘extra-curricular’ skills for the extra edge. Such skills might include taking advantage of obscure rules, adapting to changing conditions, being prepared for the worst, adapting to jet lag, and avoiding sickness in a foreign country. These extra-curricular skills are too often overlooked by novice freedivers, until they get the big, fat "ZERO" on the points board. Many novice divers will complain that they ‘got sick’ and have ‘stuffed sinuses’ and can’t equalize for their deep dive. They blame their sickness on ‘bad luck.’ They don’t realize that hundreds of books have been written about boosting the immune system, staying healthy on airplanes and in foreign countries, and many of these techniques are exchanged among the elite freedivers, who can’t afford to get sick.

The basic formula for AIDA competition rules is something like this: "you have 45 minutes to warm-up; then a 2 minute official countdown in front of the judges; then "official start" is announced (time to dive or static your static); you have 10-30 seconds (depending on the event) to begin your performance, then, at the completion of your performance, you must surface, keeping your airway above water, and you must give a hand signal to show that you’re "ok," and remove your mask. Smiling at that point helps to convince the judges that you’re fine.

Scoring is 1 point per metre in constant weight, 1 point for every 6 seconds in static apnea and 1 point for every 2m in dynamic. Competitors are required to announce performances ahead of time and suffer point penalties if they fall short (a sort of "don’t waste our time" penalty). A full list of rules, penalities and disqualifications is available on the AIDA website; we would like to draw your attention to a few rules that may be overlooked by even veteran freedivers.

1) Lanyard removed (constant weight): 10 point penalty. If a freediver somehow gets disconnected from the line or unclips on purpose, they get penalized, but not disqualified.

2) Water in the mask (constant weight): 10 point penalty. AIDA believes that water equalization is too dangerous to be allowed in competitions (water taken into the sizes makes equalizing a non-issue). Interestingly, with ‘only’ a 10 point penalty for water equalizing, this technique would be worthwhile for any diver who can gain more than 10 metres of depth by water equalizing.

3) Body not fully submerged (dynamic): 10 point penalty. Divers who fail to pay attention to their buoyancy in a shallow pool may find that they lose points for breaking the surface during their dynamic.

4) Using lane rope or wall to propel body (dynamic): 10 point penalty. At the end of a dynamic performance, many competitors reach for the wall to assure a stable recovery. This will now cost them 10 points. They must surface under their own power.

AIDA Judges also can apply penalties or disqualifications at their discretion. For instance, someone displeased with their performance and who mouths off in front of the judges could be disqualified for belligerent conduct.

El Blackout Serioso

Above all, competitors try to avoid blacking out. Waking up on a safety diver’s knee can be a humbling or frightening experience; it all depends on the freediver’s mental and emotional reaction.

All blackouts are not equal. A delayed samba or blackout after surfacing and taking a few laboured breaths usually results in a short memory gap and mild disorientation. After an initial "where am I?" period, most freedivers recover within minutes because the oxygen they absorbed manages to make its way to the brain.

A serious blackout is altogether a different beast. We define "serious" as blacking out underwater without the opportunity to take a breath of air. The lack of oxygen to the brain means that resuscitation will be more difficult and tissues will remain hypoxic for much longer. Brett LeMaster blacked out underwater on his first 81m world record attempt; it took several minutes before he was revived. After a "bad" blackout, some freedivers report unpleasant physiological and psychological effects, including a ‘rigor-mortis’ like stiffness in the limbs for days afterwards. If an athlete blacks out in one event, it can certainly affect the other performances; according to AIDA rules, any diver who blacks out must be inspected by a doctor before he can continue. The doctor may prevent the athlete from competing in subsequent disciplines.

Participating in an international competition is not easy. Fit and tanned water-types in body-hugging wetsuits mill around wherever you look. There are enough freediving "stars" to distract you from training altogether. Deciding what performances to announce and convincing yourself after the fact that you can actually follow through takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. Overcoming personal limits is one of the reasons why people like to attend freediving competitions. Then there are the formal requirements of freediving by the rules. In short, doing well at a competition is something of which to be proud; setting a world record under these conditions is awesome.

Next Week: The Competitors Spotlight

Now that we’ve covered the basics—the broad themes of the 2003 Sony Freediver Open Classic and what lies ahead for competitors—we’ll move on to what you’ve all been waiting for: Profiles of the competitors to watch, starting with the men and women in the constant weight competition. It’s time to pick your favourites and underdogs and make your bets.

Official Website

In addition to the coverage here, why not visit the Official Competition Website

Partners

Why not visit Apnea Magazine for Italian, or SportalSub.net for Spanish translations of our coverage?

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Stephan Whelan

Stephan is the Founder of DeeperBlue.com. His passion for the underwater world started at 8 years-old with a try-dive in a hotel pool on holiday that soon formulated into a passion he pursued in all his spare time. In 1996 his passion for the underwater world led him to setup DeeperBlue.com. When he gets time he enjoys both Freediving and Scuba Diving when not traveling for work or enjoying time with his family in London.

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