By now, thanks to television specials and online freediving media like deeperblue.net, we have a good idea of what it means to be a competitive freediver.
Our world record holders and their challengers generally fit the requisite image—blessed with favorable genetics, a professed mystical connection with the ocean, the drive to improve existing techniques and equipment, or else a history of elite-level athletic training—they walk through the crowds at big competitions with their fin tucked under an arm, waving to other "notable" freedivers with the other, in their ubiquitous black neoprene suits, and the Big Blue swagger that comes from having a big set of lungs.
And yet, where’s there’s yang, there’s also yin.
Topi Lintukangas, a Finnish freediver and Suunto employee, set a historical mark in freediving. On November 2, 2002, he dove to -60m without fins or any propulsive aid to put a new unassisted record in the books at FREE (Freediving Regulation and Education Entity).
At first glance, Lintukangas is yet another freediver with a record video on the Internet, high-profile sponsorships, and significant freediving prowess—all the makings of yet another contender for a slice of the international freediving pie, feeding the drive toward individual competition and rivalry. After all, his new record could easily be seen as a throwing down of the gauntlet to other freedivers around the world, freedivers who rest on their laurels after monofin or bi-fin dives to 70m. If I were a sensationalist, I could have easily made the title of this article, "Topi Lintukangas is Catching Up—Without Fins!"
If you’re looking for the next freediving hero, he’s a reluctant candidate. "I am really glad that I’ve been able to show the world that it is possible to make deep unassisted dives fast and effortlessly," Topi writes via email. "This category is so pure and elegant and the feeling of diving without fins is not like any other type of freediving."
After several years competing as a professional triathlete, Topi grew tired of the intense head to head competition of the World Cup. In 1998, he toyed with the idea of competing in open water long distance swimming. It was a turning point for him when he decided not to swim competitively. "Luckily, I didn’t, but instead made a promise to seek peace from what I did in my life. When I bumped into freediving, it offered me a way to dive deep into my mind in total silence and harmony within myself. It was never my intention to compete in it."
Soon, though, like so many other apnea addicts, those peaceful explorations into the underwater realm became training sessions.
Topi competed at the 2001 World Championships in Ibiza for Team Finland, his first competition ever. He admits to being dazzled by the sea (compared to the cold, dark waters of Finland) and the presence of so many freediving names like Umberto Pelizzari. He had only started freediving a few months earlier and was already doing 100m in no-fins dynamic apnea.
Still, despite his excellent conditioning and athletic focus, his triathlon "career" had a lasting effect on his mental approach to freediving. "I have carried that competitive burden with me and it is my biggest obstacle in being able to go deeper."
Topi Lintukangas gives the impression that he is somehow afraid that the ultra-competitive philosophy of triathlon will somehow ruin freediving for him.
The simple act of parting the water with bare hands and feet, pouring himself into the abyss, is relief from the mental strain of training and competing in triathlons. With freediving, Topi was looking for a different approach to sport. "Freediving for me has never been the kick-ass thing. There is always that extra push I get while diving for the records or in competition, but for me the optimal competition feeling is ‘no competition’. And if you take this issue even further, I think I have already experienced a lot physically, taken myself to the extremes, so in freediving what I’m after are mostly mental things, things that are visible only when you close your eyes."
Lintukangas has chosen to freedive deeper than anyone else for his own reasons. He has represented his sponsor well with four FREE world records and in return got the chance to make safe dives. He had the fortune of working with Umberto Pelizarri’s Apnea Academy safety team for the three records he attempted in Andora, Italy, to -54m, -57m, and -60m.
If the freediving community chooses to see his world record as a competitive challenge to other freedivers, that the prerogative of each individual freediver. "I think there are a lot of really important personal matters down there in that silence, which I have yet to discover. And those things are far more important than actual definable records. Records are merely a tool for self-discovery and if worst comes to worst, they actually drive me away from those very important things."
So is there a contradiction in looking for inner peace at the end of a 60m rope and a plastic tag with your name on it? Topi doesn’t think so. "When it comes down to actual diving, it is just you and the ocean, no brands, no crowds, nothing. That’s the very thing I love about this sport. After all records never last that long, while the peacefulness in your mind will accompany you for the rest of your life."