The Kona Challenge 2003: Part I

Setting a new world record is always an exhilarating experience, especially when it happens in your home town. Your closest and most supportive friends are there to toast the victory with you, and the world’s biggest freediving names are there to watch. And that hometown is none other than lovely Kona, Hawaii,

That was the scene set in November 2003, when Annabel Briseno, 52, Hawaii, U.S.A, attempted four freediving world records in four different disciplines in her hometown, Kona, Hawaii, fringed by jewel-like seas where dolphins play and rainbows tinge the horizon with color. Annabel’s plan was to cement her place in freediving history with a remarkable achievement: setting four world records in just ten days. The event was slated for November 8th to the 17th, just before Hawaii’s winter season starts. The ocean is calm and divers can expect crystal-clear visibility.

From the outset, this challenge had Annabel’s name written all over it. She described it as a "reach-the-depths-of-this-year’s-goal" event, even while conceding that setting a new world record was not "just" a personal goal. The event also turned out to be a freedivers’ reunion of sorts, as Kona had been the venue for the Freediving 2002 Pacific Cup international competition held a year earlier. Many familiar faces from last year’s competition were present, with top international freedivers either entering the challenge or acting as support divers. There were five challengers in all, from Australia, Japan, Hawaii and Alaska.

The lineup of challengers included:

Walter Steyn from Australia, a national record-holder in the Constant Weight (CW) and Dynamic Apnea disciplines, who was keen to set a new national record in CW, CWNF (no fins) and Static Apnea.

Megumi Matsumoto from Tokyo, who had set a Japanese national Dynamic record at the 2002 Pacific Cup, and was in Kona to attempt new Japanese records. Cheering her on were current Japanese champion in three major disciplines and national team captain Ryuzo Shinomiya, and his partner, Tomoko Yamanouchi.

Bill Graham, aged 64, a Kona resident and support freediver for the Pacific Cup, had registered to attempt a U.S. record in the Static Apnea discipline.

The judges, AIDA International Board member Kirk Krack of Canada and world champion Martin Stepanek from Czech Republic had flown to Kona from the mainland.

Dozens of local Pacific Cup supporters, led by Larry Keen , and including safety divers, boat operators and lifeguards were on hand to ensure the attempt was a successful and safe one. Brett LeMaster, former world champion, took the helm as a boat captain and did double duty safety diving. Nassim Haramein and Amber Hartnell accepted the deep scuba mission, with Garret Wykowski at 30m/100ft. Jessica Wilson, previous U.S. team competitor at Nice and Ibiza, flew in to give mom Annabel medical and training support. And who could forget everybody’s favorite, Kaz "comb-your hair" Ichikawa? The previous Japanese champion was also present as an official photographer, and production crews from New York were filming the event for a TV documentary.

The first day was Sunday, November 9. Annabel and Megumi were both attempting a Constant Weight dive without fins (CWNF). It was a beautiful day, with the sun shining and Honaunau Bay calm. The water temperature was about 25C/77F and the waves as gentle as a rocking cradle. Dolphins were frolicking among the boats and snorkelers, obviously enjoying the company. Although the boat operators and judges had begun their work at 6 AM, hurrying to moor boats, set the comp and deco lines and place the bottom video camera, the challengers had to wait at the beach an hour longer than scheduled. Annabel was looking tired, perhaps because of the previous day’s excitement entertaining participants, being interviewed by TV crews, and attending meetings on safety and regulations.

At around 9:40 am, Annabel was ready at the comp line. But confusion still reigned: there hadn’t been an official top time announcement yet, and Annabel started to descend even before the safety divers had assumed their positions. Realizing she’d begun her dive too early, she seemed to fret, burning through her oxygen faster than usual as a result. She touched the bottom, ascended, and blacked out 3m/10 ft below the surface, requiring the intervention of her well-trained safety team.

Meanwhile, Megumi was at the deco line, where she accidentally dropped her weight belt. A scuba diver recovered the belt before she had time to panic, and despite the incident Megumi remained calm and successfully executed a beautiful 30m-froggie dive. She set a Japanese national record in Constant Weight No Fins.

The second day of the challenge was Tuesday, November 11. Annabel was to make another attempt at the CWNF. Walter was also slated to take a swipe at the CWNF mark, and Megumi to attempt a Free Immersion dive.

Everything was to go as expected – that is, if you expect the unexpected !

Tune in next week as the plot thickens, and we learn the rest of the story!

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