The Freedive Show — Part IV

The women’s constant weight competition at the 2003 Sony Freediver Open Classic will definitely be exciting, but it has a much different aura than the men’s competition. 

It is tempting to focus on the absolute depths reached by the men and discount the women performances because they are shallower. However, a closer look at the women’s field reveals a drama even more compelling than the head-to-head competition between the top male freedivers.

The Psychology Game

Tanya Streeter broke her own constant weight record with a dive to –70m in early 2001. That same week she also set a new –70m free immersion record. A few months later, at the World Championships in Ibiza, she was the deepest woman at –60m. Her apparent dominance of the event must have been very intimidating, because two years later, no woman within AIDA had even attempted to break her constant weight record. Only Yasemin Dalkilic tried to go deeper and blacked out from her  –72m attempt under F.R.E.E. rules and judging. 

The absence of any attempts for two whole years makes you wonder what some of the top women were thinking. Did they feel that they had no chance to challenge Tanya? Did Yasemin’s failed attempt scare them away from going deeper? Could it be that while Tanya was out “redefining her limits,” the rest of the women were reluctant to go up against a freediving star?

A shift in the balance came when Mandy-Rae Cruickshank of Canada dove to –65m at the Kona World Cup.  The dive was a big risk in a team competition; Mandy’s dive was seven metres deeper than the next deepest woman. When she looked at the announced performances on the day of her dive, she and her coach Kirk Krack were nervous that the other women knew something that they didn’t about the conditions or some other factor that would cause them to announce a more conservative depth. Luckily, the gamble paid off and Mandy blew away the competition. While Mandy is unable to compete in Cyprus, it looks like her performance last year has been an inspiration to other divers like Lotta Ericson and Annabel Briseno. In the collective consciousness of the challengers to Tanya’s world record, they are a mere five metres away. This is important: because where one goes, others will surely follow.

Even in the absence of a -71m+ attempt, the real challenge will be to break Mandy’s -65m competition ‘record.’  If any woman announces -66m+ and makes it, she will essentially claim the title ‘Queen of constant weight.’ No woman has ever broken the constant weight record in a competition.  If it happens in Cyprus, we will witness history in the making.

With Mandy absent, there are really only three women with a good chance to break Tanya’s record: Lotta Ericson of Sweden, Annabel Briseno of USA, and Sophie Passalacqua of France. 

Mermaid Profiles

Considering only women who will be competing in Cyprus, here’s how the top five rank in terms of official performances:

Now we’ll profile each of these competitors individually.

Annabel Briseno, USA

Annabel Briseno is a veteran of the women’s circuit.  She began her international career at the World Cup in France, in 2000.  During that competition she blacked out in constant weight.  Since then, however, she has performed consistently well.  She reached a respectable -49m in Ibiza, and then at the Pacific Cup she pulled off the 2nd deepest female depth, -58m.  Only Mandy Cruickshank dove deeper.   Admirably, Annabel does not limit herself to a single freediving organization.  She has worked extensively with both AIDA and IAFD, setting several IAFD female records in the ‘senior’ category, and she has proven beyond a doubt that you don’t have to be young in order to dive deep & long.  On her website, she claims a personal best of –62m.  In a private interview, she reported an even deeper personal best in constant weight, which she preferred not to reveal for the sake of competition strategy. It looks like she will use this opportunity to go for a new personal best, so we may even see a world record attempt from her.  With coaching and support from her husband Matt Briseno, an accomplished freediver himself, we expect great things from Annabel in Cyprus.

Sophie Passalacqua, France

Sophie is another veteran, the queen of the French women.  Sophie has registered solid performances in constant weight as far back as the 2000 World Cup in France, where she was the deepest woman at -46m.  She has suffered disqualifications in other categories, but constant weight appears to be her specialty.  She has held many French female constant weight records.  On August 3, 2002, she improved on her previous -58m French record with a dive to -62m, one of the deepest official female dives ever.  In Ibiza 2001, she dove -56m, second only to Tanya Streeter.  At the Pacific Cup, she dove -57m, third after Annabel Briseno & Mandy Cruickshank.   Interestingly, her -57m performance at the Pacific Cup came after her -62m French record, implying that she used a conservative strategy at the Pacific Cup, which was a team competition.  Since the Sony Freediver Open Classic 2003 is primarily an individual competition, we may see Sophie go for it.  Don’t count her out for a world record. 

Lotta Ericson, Sweden

Charlotia Ericson (aka Lotta) is the ‘new kid on the block’ in women’s freediving.  Like Annabel, she blacked out at her first international competition, which was the 1st Carinthian Invitational in Austria in 2002.  Following that, she showed up at the Pacific Cup 2002 and amazed everyone.  She reached -60m in training, and then announced -55m.   During her dive, her weight belt fell off, but she managed to catch it as it fell.  She completed the dive with the weight belt slung over her shoulder and scored full points for her dive.  Lotta has stated in an interview that her strategy for Cyprus will be to announce a conservative depth of about five metres less than her training dives, just as she did at the Pacific Cup.  So, if she uses this strategy, she would need to reach -76m in training in order to announce a -71m world record, which is unlikely.  Still, Lotta may very well take the crown if Sophie or Annabel go full out and get disqualified.  Although Cyprus is technically an individual competition, competitors are allowed to form teams, and there will be a trophy for the top placing men and women’s team.   In an interesting twist, Annabel Briseno and Lotta Ericson will be competing on the same team. Lotta is certainly one of the more competitors to watch because she has enormous potential and is relatively inexperienced.

Brigitte Banegas, France

Brigitte is another experienced member of the French women’s team, and usually competes alongside her teammate Sophie Passalacqua.  In Cyprus, however, she will be competing against her.  In 2000, Brigitte registered a -42m dive at the World Cup in France.  She then pulled off -46m in Ibiza.  At the Pacific Cup, she announced an aggressive -52m but only realized -45m.  Although Brigitte is definitely an experienced competitor, we don’t expect her to challenge at the Sony Freediver Open Classic.  Brigitte has been competing in the shadow of Sophie Passalacqua for years.  Will her motivation to best her former teammate spur her on to new depths?

Aurore Asso, France

Aurore was the alternate for the French women’s team in Ibiza 2001.  At the Pacific Cup 2002, she registered -50m and made it with air to spare.  She often trains with Claude Chapuis’ group in France.  The authors had a chance to meet Aurore when she came to Vancouver in 2002.  Although she has great potential, she told us she has profound fear of diving deep.  For this reason we don’t expect her to challenge for a top spot in Cyprus.

Women in absentia

While the absence of Mandy-Rae Cruickank and Tanya Streeter is disappointing, especially to members of the media, several other excellent divers are also ‘out.” Karoline Dal Toe, of Brazil, has withdrawn from the competition due to a back injury. As with the men, the Italian women, especially Sylvi Da Pon, who easily dove to –55m in Ibiza and would no doubt have challenged for top spot, will be boycotting the competition.

Monofins vs. Bifins

In 2001, the monofin craze began with Eric Fattah’s world record of –82m in constant weight. Since then, most of the deep men have switched over to a monofin and found that they can reach depths they could never reach before. On the women’s side, Tanya Streeter set her record with custom bifins and Mandy-Rae Cruickshank made –65m with carbon bifins. We believe that if they took the time to switch and train as monofin freedivers, they could certainly go deeper. The challengers in the women’s field, Lotta, Sophie and Annabel have all switched to the monofin. Lotta uses a closed-heel Sebak ‘Wing’ monofin; Annabel favours a Waterway medium; and Sophie has previously used a Guidone model. If the women take the next step in their progress as freedivers, we expect that the women’s constant weight world record will be held eventually by a woman with a monofin.

Rivalries

The top women who will compete in Cyprus have so far been neck and neck in the last few years of competition. These unofficial “rivalries” will be interesting to watch, even if no world attempts are made. Freediving has been a fairly friendly affair between competitors. Maybe because no one really wishes for a fellow competitor to black out underwater, which, deep down, is one step away from drowning. There are no knee-cap breaking attempts or intentional body checks in freediving! We call these match-ups ‘rivalries,’ but most of the athletes mentioned are on friendly terms and wish each other successful performances. Nevertheless, they are competing against each other, and in the words of Howard Jones, the organizer of the Sony Freediver Open Classic, “there can be only one.”

Here are some rivalries to watch out for:

Annabel Briseno vs. Sophie Passalacqua

After Annabel’s blackout in Nice, 2000, Sophie beat her by seven metres in Ibiza. But in Kona, Annabel improved by a dramatic nine metres and bested Sophie by one metre with a dive to –58m.  The individual format may have the biggest impact on these two divers and they will not be held back by team strategy. Who knows what Sophie is capable of when she is not trying to win a spot on Team France or get points for her team at a World Cup? She will certainly be aware of Annabel’s progress and even bet on a dive closer to –70m. 

Annabel Briseno vs. Lotta Ericson

Annabel and Lotta competed head-to-head at the Pacific Cup, with Annabel winning that meeting, -58m vs. -55m.  Lotta is a rising star and may not be contained by Annabel for long!  These two women will be competing on the same team.  This will make for an interesting tension.   Each will try to do her best, yet the team attitude may hold them back.  Watch out for this one!

Brigitte Banegas vs. Sophie Passalacqua

These two French women have been competing on the same team for years, with Sophie diving deeper on every occasion.  Finally, they will be competing in an individual competition, where each one can dive as deep as she wishes, without worrying about team points.  Will Brigitte finally take the crown from Sophie?  We’ll see!

Summary

The Sony Freediver Open Classic could provide a big boost to women’s participation in the sport of freediving. Constant weight is probably the most appealing event to the general public and media coverage of the women’s showdown should be positive. Annabel Briseno is a great ambassador for women’s freediving and her competitive spirit is admired by many. The rise of Lotta Ericson is also encouraging. After only one year of competition, she is already nipping at Mandy-Rae Cruickshank’s heels in constant and, as we’ll see in the final installments of our series on Cyprus, in static apnea as well. How many other women are there around the world with Lotta’s potential, just waiting for the right reasons to compete?

Do not be surprised if the sport of freediving catches the eye of an elite female athlete in the wake of Cyprus. Someone will come on the scene out of nowhere, like Martin Stepanek, for example, and put the women’s constant weight record down to –80m, forcing everyone to change their idea of what is possible and what is not. Will it be an international level finswimmer from Russia? A former competitive swimmer from Australia? Or another synchronized swimmer from Canada? This woman is definitely out there and it is just a matter of time before she shakes up the record books.

In the meantime, look for Sophie Passalacqua to extend her personal best beyond –62m, for Lotta Ericson to keep her weight belt securely fastened and go for the upset, and Annabel Briseno’s possible attack on Mandy’s –65m.   And if they falter, some of the other women will seize the opportunity to shine.

Authors Predictions:

  • Peter – Lotta Ericson
  • Eric – Annabel Briseno

Poll:

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