In May of this year, SaltFree Divers announced the “Mermaid Challenge”. We decided that we had had enough of our pontoon being full of blokes, with the UK Women’s team roster being almost a foregone conclusion every year and with a general lack of female touch about the place. We also had a sneaky feeling that there were a lot of ladies out there with stacks of freedive talent that was, as yet, untapped.
And how right we were! A few magazine ads, web articles and posters later, the applications started coming in. All over the UK it seemed there were water babies who wanted to grow up, swimmers who wondered if they could do it even better under the surface, scuba instructors who were bored of carrying a tank around and quite a few who had fantasies of growing a tail and swimming off into the blue.
Somehow from these many applicants, we have to select one Mermaid. Whoever wins will receive free training from SaltFree up to AIDA *** Freediver and regular coaching up until the UK Team Trials next year. Deeper Blue has also kindly offered to provide our Mermaid with a tail (in fact two, both a monofin and set of bifins from Special Fins) and a weekend at the SETT Tank to complete the Deep Tank Freediver Course. Quite a prize if I say so myself!
After an initial sift through the application forms, as many as we could fit in were invited along to pool sessions in London and Bristol. London took place on a sleepy Sunday morning when anyone sane was recovering from a night out, holed up at home with the Sunday papers. Our intrepid mermaids had instead got up at 5 am to get the train down to the city, followed my complex instructions and located the “blue truck by a brown door in Baker St” to find the pool. Incredulous that they had a) all found it and b) mostly turned up early, I had high hopes from the start.
Six potential mermaids came along to the London session and Deepest Dave King came out of freedive hibernation to help me put them through their paces. We started with a rather un-brief briefing as I tried to tell them everything they needed to know about freediving in 30 minutes and then stretched and belly breathed until it was time to get into the pool. In buddy pairs, Dave and I then watched as the girls made several attempts at Static Apnea and all ended up looking like total pros by the end of it. The best part was seeing how well everyone worked together, encouraging and congratulating each other on good performances even though they were all essentially in competition with one another.
To be honest, the Static session gave Dave and I much more of an idea of how well everyone worked together as a buddy team than of how good their static times would be. After an earlier one-off meeting with a potential mermaid who pushed herself almost to samba with a long static, we had decided in advance to limit the times we let anyone try at these sessions. Buddy skills are however also crucial, and they set everyone up well for the rest of the session.
Moving on, we had everyone present attempt a Dynamic swim. With very little direction from us, each team moved off, one on top with a snorkel, one underwater and some pretty impressive distances got covered. This part of the day was probably the most revealing as we could really see how aquatic, comfortable in the water, streamlined, calm and focussed each girl was.
The next trick was to let everyone play with a monofin, more for a laugh than a real test but once again it was surprisingly revealing. Some had already been finning mono style on the dynamic and got to grips with the monofin instantly. They do say that visualising yourself performing certain motions will help you develop the motor skills to do it. Clearly some of these girls had had some serious mermaid visualisations going on as none had ever tried a monofin before and many of them took to it instantly.
The final part of the day got really competitive. Stolen from Umberto’s book, we played a few games of snorkel hockey. Try it some time, all you need is a snorkel as a hockey stick, a half kilo weight as a puck, and a couple of goals made out of weight belts. Good laugh and a real chance to see just how far these girls can push themselves when they want to win!
A quick debriefing and our mermaids disappeared full of laughs and stories back to where they came from. Dave and I retired to a pizza cafe to deliberate, cogitate and catch up on the year so far. The best news of the day was that we both agreed without any discussion on who we would like to invite back for Round 2.
A few days later and it was time to do it all again. This time, in Bristol, the group was much larger. Eleven candidates came along and my regular Bristol buddies Franck “le shrimp” Rondello and Ed MacFarlane were there to help. Maybe it was because I myself was a bit nervous of how this one was going to go (11 people and only an hour and a half in the pool was somewhat daunting) but the girls this time seemed far more wary. I kept the briefing briefer and there were a few pale faces when we talked about sambas and black outs. Luckily no one left, but the conversation in the Ladies changing room as everyone got ready was fast, high-pitched and somewhat manic! I did my best to calm everyone down. Luckily Franck and Ed are pretty chilled out guys and they managed to help relax the proceedings with their jokes and general mellowness.
As in London we started with Static, again limiting the maximum times. This worked well but I did have to race around the pool a bit to catch a view of everyone and see how they all worked together. As before, people were mostly supportive and encouraging of each other, and genuinely so. It was clear from the start that it would be very hard to pick one or two winners.
Dynamic gave a bit more away but with so many in the pool, Franck, Ed and I were wearing ourselves out racing up and down watching everyone. By now it was almost ten o’clock at night so I have no idea where their energy came from. One thing that was really noticeable is that when you ask someone to do a Dynamic swim with minimal instruction on how, they tear along at a rate of knots! I felt for the buddies on the surface, frantically trying to keep up snorkelling above them.
Eventually we realised that this was not going to work from a selection point of view. A whole shoal of women were tearing up and down the pool and Franck, Ed and I had no idea who was who! We got everyone back to the shallows, had them do a dynamic four at a time and safetied them ourselves so we could watch more carefully – oh yes, and told them all to try slowing down! This helped immensely and we could see who was streamlined, who was clumsy, who was racing to get it done, who was calm and looked like they had loads left in them, and quite simply who was “born in the water”.
Sadly we didn’t have time to play with monofins this time around, but we did fit in a few rounds of snorkel hockey – a lot more crazy this time with teams of six. No one had every played it before and they had ten seconds to work out a game plan, so you can imagine the sight in the pool. The local scuba club had luckily got out of the pool by this time so we had the whole space to ourselves – and lots of confused looking scubie guys wondering what the hell was going on in there as the pool whirled and waved around the fins of eleven desperate females!
And suddenly, round one was over. We had met all our mermaids and put them through their paces. It was time to go home and think it through. At the start of each session I had asked each girl to hold up a sign with her name on and taken a photo – this was rather embarrassing to do at the time, but proved invaluable later. By the time Franck, Ed and I left the Bristol pool we were starving and tired and in no frame of mind to make a decision, so we postponed it for a day or so. I then emailed them the photos so they could remember who was who and asked them for their views before they heard mine. Again we all agreed on the final choices, but with so many in the pool it was not as clear cut as London. A very tricky decision!
The best, and worst thing about the Mermaid Challenge so far has been that without exception, every girl that has entered has shown serious promise as a freediver, even those who did not make it as far as a pool session. To have to whittle that list down has been really hard and has been based on so many factors. Of course we are looking at performance but we also have to bear in mind that most of the girls who entered have had no training whatsoever. Whoever is chosen will need to be able to make it to Chepstow for training, be available to come to the Worlds next year, be able to cope with the UK waters all year round, not be too busy at school/Uni/work to put their heart into it, fit well with the rest of the SaltFree mob, and talk to the press about what they are doing – there are quite a few boxes to tick!
So from the 25 initial applicants, we now have seven girls that we would like to see in the open water. Four of them were from Bristol, two from London and one could not make the pool sessions but comes highly recommended from our “guest selector” Lotta Ericsson. Everyone else has been bombarded with info about freediving in the UK, invited to training sessions and offered hefty discounts on AIDA Courses with Saltfree – so hopefully plenty of them will carry on as well.
The next round will involve some Free Immersion and Constant Weight Dives in the mystical green waters of the National Diving and Activity Centre, SaltFree’s home. After that, we will be tasked with the hard job of choosing one final Mermaid. Once chosen, we will introduce her to you all and Deeper Blue will be publishing an occasional diary recounting her progress. Will she go on to make the UK Team and break records? Or have I got it spectacularly wrong and will that be done by one or more of the people we have turned away? Watch this space! Either way, there should be more female talent on the UK ropes next season, which has to be in everyone’s best interest!