In a perfect world, there would be no static or dynamic apnea competitions. One spectator at the Club Med in Ibiza at the 2001 World Championships, looking at the teams of freedivers of lying facedown in the outdoor pool in their black neoprene suits, quipped that they looked like the victims of a mafia retribution.
The reality is a lot of people love the cachet of telling people they can hold their breath “longer than you.” Martin Stepanek once said he could hit five minutes at a party, no matter how drunk he might be.
Dynamic is a little more beautiful, with soft bifins or monofins plying the chlorine waters of pools around the world. Pushed to the limit, it is possibly as dangerous as deep diving.
The main attraction of the pool events is that they are easy to stage and easy to enter as a competitor. You don’t need to live in the Mediterranean to enter a static competition. You can turn yourself blue in the comfort of your own bed, clutching a watch in one hand and visualizing yourself as Stepanek or Nitsch, pulling up at 8 minutes with a smile on your face.
Men’s Static Apnea
Static apnea, or simply ‘breath-holding’, is the simplest of all events. The athlete simply floats face down in a pool, and tries to hold his breath for as long as possible, without moving. NOTE: Holding your breath underwater is dangerous and should never be done alone without a trained buddy.
Taking into account all AIDA competitions since 1999, and including only freedivers who will be competing in at the SONY Freediver Open Classic 2003, here are the top nine static apnea performers:
*Martin Stepanek holds the world record of 8’06, but this was not done in a competition.
The 6’40 Barrier
If you look at the above table, you will notice that the top nine athletes have all registered breath-holds of over 6 minutes and 40 seconds in official competitions. For some strange reason, holding your breath for longer than 6’40 is far more difficult than anything in the 6’30 range. As an example of this phenomenon, if we included athletes in the 6’30 – 6’39 range in the above table, the table would be twice as big. Even our personal experience shows that statics over 6’40 are rare compared to statics under 6’40. Most competitions are won with statics over 6’40. In Cyprus, there will be so many fantastic athletes competing that the winning time will almost certainly be significantly over 7 minutes. However, have great respect for any athlete who pulls off more than the magic 6’40 in Cyprus.
A Static World Record?
You may be wondering if Martin Stepanek’s world record of 8’06 will be broken in Cyprus. Let’s investigate the idea. First of all, only one world static record has ever been set in a competition – it was 6’02 in a women’s competition, and the athlete was Karoline Dal Toe of Brazil. The event was the Red Sea Dive Off ’99. The only time a man ever attempted to break the static record in a competition was in Ibiza 2001, when Herbert Nitsch tried to break Stepanek’s 8’06 record. According to the rules, you must break the record by 2 seconds or more. Herbert pulled up after 8’07, with a slight samba, disqualifying himself. However, given that the next place competitor in that competition reached only 7 minutes flat, many considered Herbert as the static winner, despite the disqualification. In all likelihood, we will see a similar situation in Cyprus. In other words, we may see the top athletes going a bit beyond their limit, and coming up around 8’08 or 8’10 with questionable recoveries. It may very well come down to the judges to decide if a world record has been set.
Ask any of the top competitors in the static competition and you will likely find the same attitude: ‘I can do such-and-such a time on a good day.’ Unfortunately, what causes a ‘good’ day or a bad day is so complicated from a physiological standpoint that no one has managed to exactly figure it out. As a result, even the best athletes are not always able to repeat their personal best when commanded to do so. For example, in Ibiza, Herbert Nitsch managed 8’11 in training, and 8’07 (with a samba) in the competition. The following year, in 2002, he made an official attempt on the static record outside of any competition. Again he reached 8’09 while training in the days before, but despite literally dozens of official attempts, he could not break 7’40.
To Purge or Not to Purge: Acidic vs. Alkaline
Athletes in the static apnea event typically use one of two styles: the acidic method or the alkaline method. The alkaline method involves a very aggressive breathe-up, similar to hyperventilation. The term ‘purging’ refers to forceful exhalations which are used to ‘blow off’ carbon dioxide, which creates ‘alkaline’ blood. Athletes who ‘purge’ frequently before their breath-hold manage to delay the involuntary diaphragmatic contractions until the last 20% of the breath-hold. An athlete using the alkaline method might get his first contraction at 6’30 or 7’00, and then nearly black-out at 8’00. This is the method Herbert Nitsch uses.
A much less common style is the acidic method. An athlete using the acidic method breathes much less aggressively, minimizing hyperventilation and purging. This method results in a very early breathing reflex, much earlier diaphragmatic contractions, and because of that, the acidic method requires far greater concentration for a longer period of time. Martin Stepanek uses this method. For his 8’06 world record, he got his first contraction around 4’10, and endured 72 contractions over the next 4 minutes. One Canadian athlete using this method reached 8’07 in training, with his first contraction at 4’10, enduring 150 contractions over the next 4 minutes. Although the contractions themselves burn oxygen, there are complicated reasons why both the acidic & alkaline methods produce similar results. Unfortunately, without seeing the video of actual performances, there is no way to know which method a competitor is using. By the authors’ estimate, at least 9 in 10 athletes use the alkaline method. Very few people have the mental strength required to withstand 4 minutes of involuntary contractions.
Skin might Win
An interesting twist on static apnea competitions is that many athletes find that they can do the longest breath-holds while performing without any wetsuit. Unfortunately, body temperature is critical, and getting too cold will destroy any hope of a long breath-hold. Martin Stepanek’s 8’06 world record was done without a wetsuit, in a warm backyard pool. Martin only got in the water a couple of minutes before beginning the breath-hold. In competitions, that method is impractical. Martin tried it in Ibiza, and his coach Kirk Krack dragged him around the pool, the cold water flushing over his body. By the time he had to perform, he was too cold, and he was beaten by other competitors who were using wetsuits. Karl Pernett is another great athlete who likes to do his statics without a wetsuit. He has reached 8+ minutes many times in training, and he actually managed to hit 7’00 using that method at the Colombian championships in 2002. Some physiologists have calculated that humans may get up to 8% of their oxygen through their skin, and given that the athlete’s back is exposed to the air while floating face down, that could possibly explain why some athletes perform better without a wetsuit. The dive reflex is usually stronger without a wetsuit as well. If any athlete in Cyprus can manage to stay warm without a wetsuit, he might gain a significant advantage over his competitors.
No Yogis Here
Although many freedivers practice some form of yoga exercises, no freediver can yet claim to be a yoga master. True yoga masters such as Swami Rama have been documented to be able to control their heart, or even stop it altogether. An easy way to win the static competition! Not surprisingly, scientists in India have witnessed yogis holding their breath for up to 20 minutes, although these breath-holds were done on dry land. Researcher Peter Lindholm of Sweden calculated that the longest any ‘ordinary’ person could hold their breath would be 9 minutes and 34 seconds; beyond that would require conscious control of the involuntary system, which no freediver has demonstrated to date. For the time being, we will be witnessing a competition of mere mortals, trying to break the 8 minute barrier which true yogis probably laugh at! However, as the sport of freediving expands around the world, it is entirely possible that someone will figure out these yoga techniques. If that happens, the world record could jump instantly to 12 minutes or more.
The term ‘dynamic apnea’ refers to the event where the athlete simply tries to swim as far as possible underwater, horizontally, while holding his breath in a swimming pool. The athlete is allowed to use fins or a monofin.
Taking into account all AIDA competitions since 1999, and including only freedivers who will be competing in at the SONY Freediver Open Classic 2003, here are the top ten dynamic apnea performers:
* The 183m swim still stands as the current world record.
The Grim Reaper Awaits
Although diving deep down in the ocean might seem like the most dangerous event in freediving, the dynamic apnea event has traditionally produced the worst blackouts in the sport. In particular, there is some evidence that it is possible to die from a blackout during dynamic apnea, even when proper safety measures are in place. For example, during a controlled training session in Sweden, a freediver died after blacking out in dynamic apnea; attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. Herbert Nitsch reported the worst blackout of his career during a dynamic apnea swim when he blacked out underwater without warning, and remained unconscious for quite a while.
The unpredictability of blackouts in dynamic apnea is somewhat understandable. The strange thing when swimming underwater is that the urge to breathe often hits the athlete very early during the swim. For example, Herbert Nitsch often reports a strong breathing reflex at the 75m mark, yet he can continue swimming to 180m+. Given that the urge to breathe is not a good indicator of when to stop swimming, athletes simply continue to swim, possibly inviting an unexpected underwater blackout. Further, during a blackout in dynamic apnea, the body as a whole is more hypoxic than in any other event. In static apnea, the body may be out of oxygen, but there is very little lactic acid in the body. In constant weight, even in the case of a blackout, the body had the benefit of a higher O2 pressure just moments before, due to the pressure gradient. There is no pressure gradient in dynamic apnea, so the entire body has time to become fully hypoxic, down to every finger and toe, resulting in a huge oxygen debt. Then, when the athlete blacks out underwater, without even attempting to take a breath, resuscitation can be very difficult. This is why dynamic apnea is dangerous and should never be practiced alone, and elaborate safety measures should always be in place.
The 150m wall
One of the main challenges of swimming in a pool is turning around when you reach the edge of the pool. The process of turning around is much easier when using bifins rather than a monofin. Either way, turning around underwater when already very out of breath is very difficult from a psychological standpoint. In many smaller competitions, athletes fight to make the turn at 100m, and one will often find a huge list of competitors reaching 100m flat, while only a handful manage to make the turn and cover a few more meters. At higher level competitions, the challenge is not the 100m turn, but the 150m turn. Very few athletes have attempted to make the 150m turn in competition, and even fewer have succeeded. While Nitsch, Mifsud and a few others have successfully made the 150m turn in competition, most others have not been so lucky. At the Pacific Cup in 2002, the winning distance was 150m flat by Dominique Ventzke of Germany, and only one athlete attempted to turn at 150m: Haydn Welch of the UK, but he suffered a samba at 156m, disqualifying himself. We have great respect for any swimmer who turns at 150m and comes up clean.
The 200m barrier
With the current record at 183m, one might wonder when the 200m mark will be reached in the dynamic apnea event. In fact, it may have already been reached unofficially. At least two athletes have claimed to have successfully swum 200m underwater: Martin Stepanek is one of them. The other is Sebastien Murat, a Swiss/Australian diver who has not competed in an international competition since 1998 (and he will not be in Cyprus). However, even these two fantastic athletes have only reached 200m a handful of times, despite very many attempts. Nevertheless, their occasional success in training shows that it is possible, and that it is only a matter of time before it is done in official conditions. Murat, for example, insists that far more than 200m is possible with the correct technique & training.
Choose your Style
Just as there are two main styles in static apnea, there are two main styles in dynamic apnea. The longest distances have been achieved by slow bifinning, or by fast monofinning. Martin Stepanek, Andy LeSauce and Stephane Mifsud, using bifins, will cover 170m+ in over 3’30, and sometimes closer to 4 minutes. The other style is exemplified by Herbert Nitsch, Sebastien Murat, and many others. Using a monofin, they will swim very fast, covering the same 170m in around 1’50, approximately half the time of the slow bifin swimmers. It is very interesting to note that until now, no one has achieved a massive distance by swimming fast with bifins, or by swimming slowly with a monofin. One might also assume that dynamic apnea athletes swim with their arms extended, to minimize drag. Not so. Although some athletes such as Nitsch extend their arms, neither Mifsud nor Murat extend their arms, and the latter can cover 50m in 16 seconds, even with his arms by his sides!
We will now profile the key athletes in both static and dynamic apnea. Most athletes are specialists in either static or dynamic, and will challenge in only one of the two events. There are only three athletes who will challenge in both events, the ‘big’ three pool masters, Nitsch, Mifsud and Stepanek, and we will start with them.
Herbert Nitsch, Austria
Herbert holds the current world record in dynamic, with 183m, which was done in a competition. He has held many dynamic world records, most of which were done in the pressure of competitions. He uses a monofin and swims fast during his swims. His invincible reputation in competition dynamic was slightly reduced at the Pacific Cup, where he announced 202m but made 144m and was disqualified. He has stated that he rarely trains for dynamic, but relies on the fitness he develops from training for the other events. In static, he has performed some of the longest statics ever in competitions, including his longest ‘clean’ official static of 7’06; he also did 8’07 with a samba in Ibiza 2001. He has since made several failed attempts to break Martin Stepanek’s 8’06 record. Herbert’s biggest issue in static is not his ability, but his reliability and consistency. If he can hit times & distances near his best in Cyprus, he will be tough to beat. He has stated that he is not going for overall points, but instead he will be trying for records in every event. In other words, don’t expect him to pull off conservative performances. He will be going for his max.
Stephane Mifsud, France
Mifsud is an inhuman machine when it comes to the pool events. He previously held the world record in dynamic apnea at 172m, a bifin swim which lasted three and a half minutes. At the 2002 Dolphin’s Cup competition, he did 174m in dynamic and 7’05 in static – to put things in perspective, the 2nd best performances at that competition were 140m and 6’17. Then, during the French trials for the Pacific Cup in 2002, Mifsud set a French record in static apnea with 7’48, by far the longest static ever at a competition. But Mifsud was just getting warmed up. At the recent French nationals (May 3-4, 2003), Mifsud hit 8’02 in static and 182m dynamic, just hairs away from the world records in both categories – and the next best results were 6’20 and 149m! With these types of results one might think that Mifsud is unbeatable in the pool. He didn’t compete in dynamic at the Pacific Cup, but in static, he did 6’17, and in Ibiza he only managed 6’01. So, he may suffer a bit from nerves when at the big competitions. If he can stay calm and hit performances near his limit, he could destroy everyone, including Nitsch and Stepanek. Interestingly, Mifsud is one of the few French divers who does not come from Claude Chapuis’ school of diving (the NUC Subaquatique).
Martin Stepanek, Czech Republic
Martin holds the current world record in static at 8’06, which was done back in June of 2001. Martin has reached significantly less stellar times in international competitions; in Ibiza 2001 he managed 6’07, and at the Pacific Cup he tied for the longest time with 6’49. In Ibiza he was beaten by Timo Kinnunen of Finland, among others. Martin’s record was done without a wetsuit, but at the Pacific Cup he used a wetsuit. If he can learn to hit big times in a wetsuit, he will be tough to beat.
In dynamic, Martin has not yet competed in any big competitions. However, he announced a dynamic world record attempt in 2002, and reached 200m in training, using the slow bifin style. However, he fell sick just before the attempt, and managed 191m with a samba. Still, Martin has shown that if he can stay healthy, he could set a new record in dynamic.
Timo Kinnunen, Finland
Timo has been rumoured to have surpassed the static world record in training. He has registered 7’09 in an official competition, one of the longest times ever (and a Finnish record). He beat Martin Stepanek head-to-head in Ibiza. We expect a huge time from him in Cyprus.
Nicolas Druine, Belgium
Nicolas is the king of Belgium static apnea. He has consistently registered the longest static times of any Belgian. At the Pacific Cup, he had announced the longest time of any competitor (6’01), and reached 6’32. Way back in 2001 he hit 7’06 in a competition, but since then his time have been in the 6-minute range. For that reason, he probably won’t challenge to win the static competition, but anything can happen.
Karl Pernett, Colombia
Karl Pernett is one of the great unknowns in the sport. His brother Frank Pernett frequently spoke of Karl’s performances on the DeeperBlue forum. Frank reported that Karl would repeatedly break 8 minutes in static apnea. Interestingly, Frank & Karl live at an altitude of 2600m, which might give them an advantage when competing at sea level. Karl then competed at the first Colombian championships, and won the static apnea event by a large margin, registering 7 minutes flat without a wetsuit. Unfortunately, Karl suffered a serious lung squeeze in late April while training for Cyprus. If he can recover from his injury in time, he could be a contender in static apnea.
Paulo Atherino, Brazil
Atherino was a total unknown in the sport until he broke the 6’40 barrier at a Brazilian competition by registering 6’44. We know very little about him, but even from that one result, it is safe to say he could be a contender in static.
Luc Gosselin, Canada
Luc is a static apnea specialist. In his first ever competition May 2-4, 2003, he broke the Canadian static apnea record by an astounding 41 seconds, and in the process broke the 6’40 barrier, by registering 6’42, and he came up with a one-breath recovery, looking like it was a joke. Days before he had reached 7’14 in the water, and he shows no signs of stopping. He just gets better and better in this event. Since Cyprus will be his first international competition, he needs to control his nerves, but if he can stay calm, he could create a dramatic upset in static apnea.
Nestor Aparcedo, Venezuela
Nestor’s strongest event is dynamic apnea. He registered 149m in 2002, and he normally surpasses his Venezuelan teammates Ronald Laurens & Carlos Coste in the dynamic apnea discipline. If Mifsud, Nitsch or Stepanek screw up, Aparcedo could take the crown in dynamic.
Deron Verbeck, USA
Deron is a strong competitor in static apnea, holding the US record of 6’49, which he did at the Pacific Cup 2002. Deron calls himself the ‘7-minute man’, and signs his e-mails “Deron Verbeck, US National Static Apnea Record Holder 6:49.” His 6’49 static at the Pacific Cup was the longest static at the competition, tied with Martin Stepanek. We expect another strong performance from Verbeck in Cyprus.
Haydn Welch, UK
Haydn is a dynamic apnea specialist. Of all the events in the sport, dynamic is his passion. He holds the UK record of 139m, and he also did 131m at the 2002 Dolphin’s Cup. He had been dreaming about an international world class dynamic apnea competition, and he got his wish at the Pacific Cup in 2002 in Hawaii. At that competition, he felt victory was in reach at last, but pulled up at 156m with a samba. He stated afterwards that he was emotionally crushed. As if seeking vengeance, he has been training in Tomsk, Russia, with Russian finswimming coaches, who are putting him through a hell he could never imagine. From his reports, it sounds like he is over training, and his immune system might collapse before Cyprus. If he can stay healthy and recover in time for the competition, he might be granted his wish and win the dynamic competition. He has predicted that top three finishers in this event will all be over the current world record of 183m.
Many freedivers would be happy if there were no freediving events in the pool at all. Nevertheless, those who excel at it, probably enjoy the attention and the atmosphere of the pool events, even if it seems pointless when you think about it long and hard.
It is ironic that, from the spectator’s point of view, static and dynamic are relatively exciting to watch. The tension builds during the warm-ups and as the announced times and distances increase, and people start gathering around the judging area to watch the big contenders. In Ibiza, when Stepanek and Herbert were going for it, you could hear a pin drop. Static and dynamic also inevitably attracts those people who go to Formula One races only to see the fiery accidents; you can count on at least a couple of vigorous sambas or scary blackouts—that floats your boat. Until someone designs a real time camera system for constant weight, the pools events will no doubt continue to be popular, if only for the spectacle of it all.
- Eric – Stephane Mifsud
- Peter –Karl Pernett
- Eric – Stephane Mifsud
- Peter –Martin Stepanek
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