The Freedive Show — Part III

The men’s constant weight category is perhaps the most respected event in freediving.  The Sony Freediver Open Classic 2003 may be the venue for the deepest and most entertaining dives to date.  The risk of accidents will rise accordingly.

It seems like a simple thing to do. Take a very deep breath, swim down the length of a rope to grab a tag and bring it back up for the judges to see.  Just like diving for sand dollars from the bottom of a shallow sea cove, except in this case, the bottom is at three hundred feet below the surface.  It is a simple challenge, yet a complex feat of athleticism, mental control and body awarenes

The Experience of 85m+

In all likelihood, the winner of the men’s constant weight competition in Cyprus will dive deeper than -85m.  As a spectator, it is important to understand that the experience of a constant-weight freedive changes dramatically at these depths.  Diving deeper than -85m is a world apart from -65m, due to many compounding factors involving pressure and dive duration.

Although many divers have previously announced plans to become the first to hit -100m in constant weight, in the end not a single competitive diver even attempted it.  Coste and Nitsch, after both reaching -92m in constant weight, simply cancelled further plans on becoming the first to -100m.  Nitsch reported fear, narcosis, leg failure, equalizing problems, and lack of oxygen.  At the Pacific Cup, even though Nitsch was not competing, he had a chance to train, but said he could not motivate himself to hit a personal best.  Among the select few divers who have surpassed -85m, most report the experience as unpleasant—in some cases, the experience causes extreme fear.

The Dangers of the Abyss

Many people are afraid of the idea of holding their breath underwater for longer than a few seconds.  Deep constant weight divers discover many new reasons to be afraid of going deeper.

The debilitating physiological effects of nitrogen narcosis, carbon dioxide narcosis, and oxygen toxicity mean that the primary danger is no longer a blackout in the last few metres of the ascent. A freediver spending three minutes underwater at over eight atmospheres of pressure now has to worry about blacking out from the toxic pressures of oxygen and carbon dioxide in bloodstream as he makes the turn at the bottom and suddenly engages in physical exercise.  Never mind a deep water blackout, he may also lose the ability to think clearly as the increased levels of nitrogen and carbon dioxide impede brain function—imagine forgetting to kick back to the surface!

This fear is further compounded by the extreme blood shift at depth, which can cause the legs to feel an oppressive fatigue when the ascent begins. It takes a great degree of concentration and poise to make it back to the surface without giving in to panic.  Even then, the diver realizes that even if things go perfectly during the dive, he will only barely make it back to the surface conscious. The slightest error will mean a blackout or even worse.

These dangers are dependent upon the freediver’s level of training, physiology, psychology and the ocean conditions for the dive. There is no way to know when a certain diver will run into these challenges. If they have not yet met them, they are not going deep enough!

When the freediver does manage to make it back up, more often than not he raises his hands in triumph—happy to be alive and to have survived the torturous voyage.  Then, looking around him, he sees people cheering, and waiting expectantly.  He suddenly realizes that he is in a competition, and that he is holding a tag in his hand.  He lifts the tag, and gives it to the judges.  He is not thinking about his victory.   All he can think about is how he narrowly escaped oblivion.  And in all likelihood, he will have no plans for going that deep in the future.

The Men’s Field

The competitor list for the Sony Freediver Open Classic in constant weight is topped by Coste, Nery, and Nitsch, the most recent AIDA world record holders in this category, with depths of -90m, -87m and -86m respectively:

Despite the fact that the above list includes world record attempts, all of the above dives were done with non-modified masks, as will be required at the Freediver Open Classic.

Now, we will analyze the key players in this event, one by one:

1. Carlos Coste

At the top of the ranking list is Venezuelan Carlos Coste, the current AIDA world record holder in both constant weight (-90m) and free immersion (-93m).   Coste managed a -68m constant weight dive in Ibiza, and hit the depth limit of -70m at the Pacific Cup.  In 2002 he made a -92m training dive in constant weight.  His world record dives were both done with a Sphera mask, making him the deepest mask diver in the world, even when taking into account rumoured training dives from other divers.  Coste has never officially reported any problems with equalizing, even at such extreme depths.  Furthermore, Carlos has never failed to hit his target depth in the last two years.  He is also very confident; he has stated in a personal interview that he expects to win the constant weight competition in Cyprus.  He expects Nery and Nitsch to place 2nd and 3rd after him, respectively.

2. Guillaume Nery

Second on the list is Guillaume Nery, the young Frenchman who earned himself the nickname ‘Young Gun’ after his first world record, an -87m dive in constant weight, done with a mask.  Unfortunately for Nery, his -87m record was broken only a few weeks later by Carlos Coste.  Then, at the Pacific Cup 2002, Nery had a chance to show the world he was the real deal, and although he hit the depth limit of -70m, he was subsequently disqualified for shifting his hand along the line while playing with the bottom camera.  By all reports, Nery looked very good upon surfacing, but his inexperience and arrogance cost the French team a victory at the Pacific Cup.  He had reportedly reached -88m in training before his world record attempt.  After his record, he reported that he had ‘no problems equalizing’, possibly implying that he had previously experienced such problems.  While Nery shows promise in terms of depths achieved, his inexperience in international competition may prevent him from realizing his potential. 

3. Herbert Nitsch

The Austrian ‘Flying Fish,’ Herbert Nitsch is considered by many to be the greatest freediver in history.  Herbert first appeared on the international scene at the Swiss round of the AIDA World Cup in Montreux, Switzerland, in August 2000.  Unheard of at the time, he surprised everyone by announcing the depth limit of -60m.  At the pre-competition event committee meeting, AIDA President Sebastien Nagel bet a bottle of whisky that Herbert would black-out or samba from this ‘crazy’ announced performance.  Herbert made the dive look easy – even using a lanyard with which he had never trained before.  Herbert then left his mark at the AIDA World Cup in Nice, France, in October 2000, when he dove to -66m, second deepest at the competition.  This was soon followed by as series of world records in dynamic apnea.  

In June 2001, he set his first depth world record, a -72m freshwater constant weight record in Austria.  At the time, Herbert was still limited by equalizing.  Then, keeping ahead of his peers, he became one of few to master the Frenzel-Fattah mouthfill equalizing technique while training for the Ibiza 2001 world championship.  His personal best jumped to -89m, and then he did the impossible; he set a new world record in constant weight, during the Ibiza competition, using a mask.  Many had theorized that equalizing a mask below -80m was impossible, and in fact the AIDA organization insisted upon the use of masks in competitions to ‘limit’ the depth of the athletes.  The previous king of freediving, Umberto Pelizzari, was competing at the same competition, and dove a conservative -73m.  To many in the freediving world, the title of grand champion had been passed on from Pelizzari to Nitsch.  Pelizzari himself said he had been awed by Herbert’s performance.

Following that record, Herbert announced record attempts in Tenerife, Spain, in the summer of 2002.  He reached -92m in constant weight during his training, but he reported that he was running into all sorts of problems simultaneously, including equalizing, narcosis, lack of oxygen and leg fatigue.  He reported equalizing problems even though he was no longer using a standard mask.  After a failed attempt on Stepanek’s free immersion record of –90m, Herbert finally achieved –92m in his familiar Austrian lake. While training for that free immersion record, Herbert reported reaching 97m in 4’15. In 2003, he had announced a series of record attempts for late April, but these were cancelled, no doubt putting more pressure on him to perform in Cyprus.

Although Herbert does not currently hold any depth records, he still is the only person to have set a depth record during a competition, and this fact alone will make him the favourite in many people’s opinion. He has shown tremendous consistency, as well as an incredible ability to perform under pressure.

4. Pierre Frolla

Pierre Frolla has been on the freediving scene since the dawn of AIDA.  He has competed in every major competition since the ’98 world championships.   He has set several AIDA world records in free immersion, including dives to -72m, -73m, and -80m.  His most recent record event was a failed attempt to break Martin Stepanek’s -90m free immersion record.  During that record attempt, Frolla reported turning around at -80m—possibly due to equalizing issues.  Frolla registered the 3rd deepest dive in Ibiza with -75m, but was overshadowed by the -86m and -81m dives by Nitsch and Giankos at the same competition.  He has shown quite good consistency, although he was disqualified for a samba at the Red Sea Dive Off in 1999.  Pierre is known as an avid smoker and a party animal. For these reasons, it is unlikely that Frolla will win in constant weight, yet he could very well come out in first place if the big guns get disqualified.

5. Martin Stepanek

Martin Stepanek became an instant celebrity in the world of freediving in June 2001 when he astonished the community with his world record in static apnea of 8’06, which destroyed the ancient and legendary record of 7’35.   No one had ever broken the static record by this much before.  Martin discovered the world of competitive freediving when he took the Performance Freediving clinic offered by Kirk Krack.  Kirk began training Martin and within months Martin had gone from a 5’30 man to an 8’00 man.  Not long after breaking the static record, Martin obliterated Pierre Frolla’s -80m free immersion record—by diving to -90m, a 10m jump—again, something unheard of in the freediving world. 

After these records, Martin developed a reputation of being nearly undefeatable.  However, when Martin came to Ibiza in late 2001, people quickly found out that he had issues with competition.  In constant weight, Martin was forced to use a mask due to the AIDA competition rules, whereas he set his -90m record by flooding his sinuses to equalize.  So, in Ibiza, unable to use water equalizing because of the mask rule, Martin had problems equalizing at depth, and turned around at -65m despite announcing -83m.  Once again, Herbert succeeded in his depth of -86m, defeating Stepanek head-to-head. 

In 2002, Martin had been training for a constant weight record when he suffered an ankle injury while running.  After the injury, he could only use short snorkeling fins.  He used those short snorkeling fins at the Pacific Cup in 2002, and still managed to hit the depth limit of -70m, humiliating the other competitors who did the same depth with a monofin.  Martin definitely has the athletic capacity to beat the world. If Martin can learn to equalize deep with a mask, he might surprise the record holders in Cyprus. Of all the competitors, Martin is the only candidate in our opinion who might make a successful attempt for -100m. Whether he could do it at the competition, with a mask, is another question entirely. 

6. Ronald Laurens

Ronald Laurens is a Venezuelan diver who has lived in the shadow of Carlos Coste.  He announced -60m in Ibiza 2001, but was disqualified.  At the Pacific Cup in 2002, he hit the depth limit of -70m.  He could be a dark horse at the Cyprus competition.

7. Stephane Mifsud

Stephane Mifsud became instantly famous when he became the first person ever to break a record set by Herbert Nitsch.  His tremendous statics and dynamics imply a massive apnea capacity, but his constant weight performances don’t reflect that.  He dove 66m in Ibiza, and also 66m at the Pacific Cup.  Interestingly, in Ibiza, he was initially disqualified from his 66m dive—it was called a samba—but a protest from the French team resulted in an over-ruling of that decision.  The reason why Mifsud has not registered a dive over -66m is unclear—perhaps he has equalizing issues.  As it stands, Mifsud remains a long-shot for the Cyprus constant weight competition, but his tremendous apnea capacity in static and dynamic imply that if he can overcome his limiting factor in deep diving, he could surprise everyone.

8. Bill Stromberg

Bill Stromberg is one of the founding members of freediving in Sweden.  For years he has led the Swedish team, and he has established the web site http://www.freedive.nu, which is now holds the official AIDA ranking lists.   Stromberg is an innovator, and he showed up in Nice, France, in 2000 with giant custom made bifins with shark-fin like stabilizers.  Since then, he switched to a monofin, and he set a new Nordic record in constant weight with -66m at the Pacific Cup, using a ‘winged’ monofin.  He has hinted that he plans on achieving huge depths in the near future—perhaps the Swedish team has discovered something new.  If so, Bill could surprise many people in Cyprus.

9. Fred Buyle

Fred is the vice-president of AIDA.  He was the deepest man at the Red Sea dive off in ’99 with 60m.  He has set several records in freshwater diving, one of which was a -65m freshwater constant weight dive in a cold UK lake in 2000.  Since that dive, Fred hit -60m at the world cup in Switzerland in 2000, but turned at a shallow -38m in Nice, France, in 2000, despite announcing -65m.  In Ibiza 2001, trying to redeem himself, he announced -65m again.  Perhaps haunted by nightmares of turning around in France, this time he did not turn around, but he should have–because he blacked out at the end.  He did not compete at the Pacific Cup in 2002.  Recently he began training with Pierre Frolla, and he has followed a training program set out by Pierre Frolla’s coach.   He has reported good results from this training, but has not had a chance to show it internationally.  Although his previous dives were done with bifins, he said he had problems going over -73m with bifins, and he is rumoured to have switched to a monofin.

10. Lee Donnelly

Lee Donnelly is one of the most experienced competitors from the UK.  He competed as far back as the ’98 world championships.  He smokes heavily, and he is famous for his ‘deep-water statics’ (the idea is to do a middle depth dive and remain there for as long as possible).  He holds the unofficial record for the longest dive to the bottom of the 30m Dolphin Tank in the UK: 5 minutes and 40 seconds, at 30m!  He pulled off a respectable -64m at the Pacific Cup, and we expect another good performance from him in Cyprus.  However, he is not likely to challenge the big guns.

12. Jonas Landen & 13. Mathias Lanner

These two Swedish divers are experienced, and both incredibly consistent, both registering conservative -62m dives in Ibiza.  Given that that the Swedes have hinted at a new discovery, we could expect something new from these two.

14. Kazuaki Ichikawa

Kaz is best known for his friendly personality, and Japanese accent.  For a time, he was the undisputed champion of Japan.  His team members looked to him as the leader and captain.  Then, in the Red Sea in ’99, he performed the deepest official Japanese dive ever, -50m, but was disqualified for a rope violation.  Kaz felt crushed and was in emotional turmoil for letting down his team.  Since that time, another Japanese diver, Ryuzo Shinomiya, has taken over the Japanese records, and Kaz may very well try to redeem his honor and retake the title of champion of Japan.  This alone will be interesting—to see if Kaz can retake the Japanese records.  On the grand scale, he will not likely challenge the big guns, although the Japanese have been rumoured to be testing a special kind of monofin, so who knows?

Unranked Divers 

The top finishers in constant weight will not necessarily come from ‘ranked’ divers who have registered deep dives in previous official competitions.  Freediving is a sport which is famous for surprises from unknown divers or unranked divers.

One unranked diver who is well known is Kirk Krack, coach of many world freediving record holders, including Tanya Streeter, Brett LeMaster, Martin Stepanek and Mandy-Rae Cruickshank.  Kirk, founder of Performance Freediving, has previously concentrated on coaching, teaching clinics, judging and managing CAFA (the Canadian Association of Freediving and Apnea, which he also founded).  Kirk uses bifins, and he trained Brett LeMaster, who set the deepest bifin record in history at -81m.  Kirk’s personal best is -74m, and he has stated that he will be trying for personal bests in all three categories.

Summary

The constant weight competition in Cyprus will be difficult to predict, mainly due to the depth limit at Pacific Cup 2002.  Because seven divers hit the depth limit of -70m at the Pacific Cup, it is impossible to say how deep they could have gone.  Because of that, we must look to older results and rumours to determine how well each diver is doing.

Although the winner of the constant weight competition in Cyprus will most likely be either Coste, Nitsch, Nery or Stepanek, if either these three run into problems or are disqualified, the field will be wide open for the dark horses to make a name for themselves.

As a final note, the expert divers Patrick Musimu (Belgium), Jean-Michel Pradon (France), Stig Severinsen (Denmark) and Manolis Giankos (Greece), will not be competing, but they would have been favoured to make the top ten.

Authors Predictions:

  • Peter – Martin Stepanek
  • Eric – Carlos Coste

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