The Kona Challenge 2003: Part II

Tuesday, November 11 dawned. Annabel arrived at the beach looking fit and bouncy, announcing she was feeling much better than on Sunday. Walter was ready to go. Megumi remained impenetrably silent as she stretched on the beach, a sign of her concentration.

The day began without a hitch. Water visibility was immaculate and the ocean’s surface as glossy as blue glass, making the bottom camera visible even 53m below the boat.

Walter was first, moving straight to the comp line and not taking any extra time to warm up. He scored a solid 52m-froggie dive in 1 minute and 50 seconds, setting an Australian national record in Constant Weight No Fins (CWNF).

Megumi also completed a strong Free Immersion dive, resurfacing cleanly although taking four seconds too long to remove her mask. Fortunately, this does not lead to disqualification according to AIDA -Japan regulations.

Then , the first hitch of the day emerged. Kirk discovered that the official surface video had shut down for several minutes during Megumi’s performance, making her dive invalid. Megumi would have to try again, another day.

Annabel’s second attempt at the CWNF dive started smoothly, and afterwards she described it as an initially easy dive with no equalization problems. She had touched the bottom and ascended comfortably. But just 3m below the surface, when she thought she’d made it, she had lost control and blacked out on surfacing.

Thursday November 13, was the third day of the competition, with challengers moving to the Static Apnea discipline. Tension was beginning to mount. Annabel was feeling the pressure, and seemed frustrated by her unsuccessful dives thus far. What if she didn’t set any records? And another issue was emerging — she was getting distinct symptoms of the flu.

At least the challengers and crew didn’t have the bobbing boat or ocean conditions to contend with that day. The competition was held at a turquoise pool on the premises of the luxurious Mauna Lani Resort, and by 8:30 am all the divers were gathered around the poolside. Four would attempt their static records: Annabel trying to beat the 6:18 world record, Megumi going for a Japanese record of 5:04, Walter for an Australian national record of 6:10, and Bill Graham attempting a U.S. record of 6:53.

Megumi was the first challenger. "I’m getting nervous," she whispered to the timekeeper, Leo Matsuoka, during the warm-up session. When she surfaced, the stopwatch indicated she hadn’t reached 4 minutes. The judges suggested that she try again. She did, but couldn’t hold her breath longer than 4’30". "I’ve been practicing a new breath-holding technique for my static performance since coming to Hawaii 2 weeks ago. It worked well, but I didn’t have the confidence to use it on this attempt, so I became nervous. I would have needed more time to get used to the new style," Megumi explained later.

Walter also started faster than everybody expected. But he appeared relaxed and confident. When his face reappeared on the pool surface he was clean, looking exuberant as he took off his goggles. He had just recorded a 6:10 breath-hold, setting a new national record.

Next was Annabel, whose subsequent dive was one of the event’s most exciting achievements. Her daughter and former U.S. team "nurse," Jessica Wilson, had flown in from California the previous day and assisted Annabel during the warmup. Her daughter’s care and support proved a boon for Annabel, and despite her tension, she looked in good form during the warm-up. She took her place in front of the judges and then took a further 10 minutes for breathing practice. Finally Annabel turned on her stomach smoothly and her face slid quietly below the surface. There was total silence. The crowd of spectators seemed to be holding itsr own collective breath, watching Annabel floating on the water. Four minutes. She gave a clear sign. Five minutes. She again signaled an OK. Six minutes. She responded to the tapping. 6’10". 6’15". She was still holding her breath. 6’18". She had achieved her goal, exceeding the current world record. She began exhaling and lifted her face at 6’21". She began breathing in and out, showing no signs of samba. After one minute, judges Kirk and Martin gave her the OK sign and a huge grin. A new world record had just been set.

"It was one of the easiest static performances I’ve ever done," Annabel said afterwards. "I didn’t have any contractions until about 4 minutes, then I had a few strong ones but was able to relax, and they got further apart again. At 6 minutes, I felt like I usually do at 5 minutes and didn’t have to struggle. I needed several good breaths when I came up, then I felt excited and relieved at the same time. It felt good!"

Next was another of the day’s highlights. Bill Graham, the 64-year-old tough guy with a big heart, stunned onlookers by setting a new U.S. men’s static record — not just a senior record — with a 6:56.

"For something that seems so simple, static apnea is very complex," said Bill. Earlier in the year, Matt Briseno, Annabel’s trainer and husband, had done some intensive coaching with Bill, and the astounding progress he made had put the goal of a national record within reach. "For the actual attempt, things just seemed to go my way. The water was a little cooler than during training and it felt better. The shorter warmup didn’t let me get as nervous as before, and having Annabel succeed five minutes earlier was great. I came up on schedule and felt that I had something left."

Three impressive new records now achieved, it was time for some relaxation — and celebration! The poolside anxiety evaporated, and champagne bubbles flowed into the turquoise waters. Just two more days of record-setting to go!

Stay tuned. Stormy waters ahead.

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