The competition began much the same way it had on Day 1, except this time Tony and I managed to get there right on time.
Jessica Wilson and Annabel Briseno greeted me with a spectacular cheesecake and an assortment of cupcakes the moment I walked on deck. (Oh yeah! Today was my birthday!) All the participants gathered on the bleachers to sang me Happy Birthday – freediver style. I was touched by their sentiments and promised not to dig in until they were done with their statics – it was the least I could do.
Day 2 presented a new challenge. We had fewer volunteers. In order to insure safety in the two competition zones, we decided to have both Matt and myself as in-water safeties and judges. Volunteers doubled up on duties and once again a detailed competition briefing was held. A new face joined us on Day 2 – Roger Yazbeck. Roger willingly took on the duty of helping to video the performances.
The first competitors in each lane had a smooth transition from the warm-up to competition zone. After that some problems arose. There were not enough volunteers in the warm-up lanes for each competitor to have his own warm-up timer. No one’s fault – we had to manage with what we had. Athletes and volunteers both lost track of time and thus some competitors’ warm-up routines suffered. It was frustrating for all involved. After the competition I held a debriefing to review the complications the athletes and volunteers had experienced and as a team we brainstormed solutions for next time. Athletes were reminded that they could have their coaches help them warm-up. More volunteers would be mobilized for next year, volunteers would benefit from having official stop watches, etc. Reminder: it is ultimately the athlete’s responsibility to keep track of time. In my mind, the competitors performed well despite the timing mishaps they experienced and the volunteers made a valiant effort to help them. A lesson was learned by all of us. Problems were addressed and we moved on.
After the competition we held our annual members meeting. Grant described the work done to date and communicated plans for the future, all the while making sure everyone had an opportunity to add to the discussion.
Hungry freedivers make for a busy restaurant! We reviewed pictures from the day and shared stories. Tired-but-happy divers, volunteers, organizers and judges retired for the rest of the day.
Once again, Grant, Tony and I headed back up the coast to make final preparations for constant ballast. By midnight we had done everything we could and reviewed our final plans before turning in for the night. Tony and I had to be up at 4:30am in order to get to the support boat on time, so there wasn’t much of a chance for us to snore that night. Tony got to sleep first and I followed suit about two hours later as Grant and I burned the early morning oils with more preparation and review.
Day 3: Constant Ballast
I slept through the alarm.
Tony knocked on my door half-asleep himself. We loaded up my car with equipment and headed to the dock. The first on scene was Fabien Cousteau, one of our safety scuba divers for the event. The boat we were about to board was the Second Stage and it would transport the entire safety crew and me, Tony and Grant. Matt would accompany the competitors aboard the ferry.
After all the equipment and dive gear was loaded on board (and there was a lot), and a quick run to market for water and candy by Fabien, we set out for Catalina. The competitors were boarding the ferry down the coast and the sea was full of divers intent on the tasks for the day. Grant prepped the safety scuba crew and took them through the program, discussed timing, depth, and what to do if something unexpected were to occur. The divers were ready to go and were among the most well-organized teams I have seen.
We were short on volunteers again
When we docked at Catalina, the competitors and volunteers were waiting for us. We held a competition briefing on the lawn above the ferry dock and answered many questions. A few announcements later we were headed for the King Neptune which would transport everyone but the safety scuba crew ( who were aboard the Second Stage) to the competition site.
On the ride to the dive site Tony and I held a safety training session. All interested were invited to observe, including our youngest and newest volunteer, Rory West. He got to join the USAA crew for the constant ballast event for his birthday. Tony and I took people through signs and symptoms of samba and black-out, what to do, when to do it, and what to do if something wasn’t working. We quizzed them on timing their dives with the competitor’s, when to dive, how long to wait and what to do if the competitor didn’t show up on time. We had them go through mock scenarios and do some hands-on skills practice. It was a review for some of the “students” and new information for others. Chris and Josh, who would be part of our in-water safety crew, proved their competence once again.
We then cleared the stern of the King Neptune so that Tony, Matt and Grant could start assembling the counterbalance system. It took a while to assemble the contraption, but finally it was done and in the water it went, along with Matt, Tony and Grant, who had to set the camera.
We set zero time and after some final on-deck preparations, I lubed up, slipped into my wetsuit and started the swim to meet up with the other judges. I had prepared a dry bag filled with everything we would need in the water: timers, cards, pencils, depth tags, an extra lanyard, waterproof paper with all needed info, and water. I met up with the other judges and our volunteers at the competition line. Annabel was first up and was starting her warm-up as I approached the line. I watched as the safety scuba divers descended and marveled at the sight of their team slowly sinking and the bubbles some left as trails. Then, two pods of dolphins swam by and we thought it was a great sign.
Annabel was escorted from the warmup lines to the competition zone. Her lanyard was then attached to the competition line. She and the entire system looked good. She slipped beneath the water as I called times and Matt, who was acting as our official competition line safety diver, descended shortly after her. The seas were picking up and wind waves were causing the counter balance system to heave.
Annabel surfaced cleanly, but the up-and-down motion of the waves, combined with the length of the line holding the system to the buoys, pulled her down a bit with each wave. Two safety divers quickly came to her aid and unfastened the lanyard – both at her wrist and on the line! The lanyard was then set on a free descent towards the safety scuba folks. We thought it was lost.
The competition was put on hold as Matt, Tony and Grant worked to try and modify the system so that competitors wouldn’t dunked in the rising seas.
Then it happened.
While raising the bottom plate, the chop kinked the line into a knot. The effort to untie it caused further delay
Always dedicated to safety, we took into account the elapsed time and agreed with Grant as he called the competition. It was over. The seas were too rough and the safety scuba divers had a dive profile to follow. With the complications we had faced, their times and depths would no longer coincide with our freedivers depth attempts. Continuing would have meant unnecessary risks for scuba divers and freedivers alike. Better safe than sorry, and “safe” ruled the day. The dolphins were good luck after all and yet another set of lessons was learned.
The athletes wondered if they could just do some dives for fun. Though it broke my heart, for safety reasons and organization, I had to tell them ‘no’ and send them back to the boat. Some sad faces and a few fin kicks later, they and the volunteers were safely on board the King Neptune. The judges remained in the water for a long time while waiting for the boats to maneuver close enough to start hauling in the counterbalance system. Matt and I both dove to the safety scuba divers once they were in sight. Matt communicated that the competition was called, and that they should ascend. Grant had also communicated this them earlier, while they were at depth, but we wanted to make sure everything was clear. Some things are worth repeating.
Once the safety scuba divers were up and out of the sea, it was the judges’ turn to exit the water. The King Neptune and Second Stage had to work cautiously in the rough seas not to hit each other or a diver and it was a bit of a relief once we were all out of the water and safely on our respective boats. Hauling the counterbalance system in was a huge challenge given the conditions, and it took a large team effort to get it aboard.
The ride back to Catalina was a quiet one. The competitors ate their fill and we discussed what had happened. Disappointment was on the menu, but everyone was thankful that the competition was called as the boat rocked this way and that in the worsening seas. Hugs all around and soon we were back to the dock.
The awards ceremony was held at Antonio’s on Catalina. We all had dive gear to lug and Grant, Tony and I had the awards and prizes to lug along as well. Antonio’s was kind enough to allow us to stow our gear on their stage and we sat down to eat and drink. The safety scuba divers presented Annabel with her lanyard and head float, both of which were thought lost to the sea. Many thanks were shared with our scuba support crew.
We held a quick meeting of the jury and followed it up with a brief USAA board meeting to address the events of the day. Grant and I hurriedly filled out the award ribbons for the top three men and women competitors of each event. Once Grant, Tony and I had beer on board and some food in our stomachs (we had time for about four bites), we began the ceremony.
The top three men and women competitors received water wings and inflatable toys along with their medals. We are all about appropriate awards here at USAA. Every competitor who placed greeted us with hugs and smiles and the restaurant came alive with applause and pats on the back. The first USAA National Freediving Competition drew to a cheerful close and the competitors headed out to catch the last ferry back to the mainland.
The work wasn’t over for the rest of us.
Back on the mainland we unloaded all the gear. Daylight had long since passed. All we could think about was sleep, but there were photos to post, diary entries to transcribe, equipment to stow, phone calls to make and e-mails to answer. Grant worked on press releases announcing what had occurred with constant balance. Tony crashed first, followed shortly by me, and then Grant, who fell asleep snoring on the couch.
On July 13th, I woke up at 5:30am to head back to Northern California as there was a scuba class awaiting my lecture that afternoon. I used the drive to think over the competition and the lessons that had been learned. I had met an incredible group of people and am still in awe at how a group of people, both novice and experienced, were united under one goal and worked together to see it accomplished. There was no one who didn’t pull their weight, no one who didn’t smile, and no one who didn’t feel as though we had accomplished something. People from around the country had put their lives on hold to compete and to volunteer. All the hard work had paid off, and I was left feeling wholly rewarded for my personal efforts and proud of the efforts put forth by others.
And now the question: Why did we do it? There are likely as many answers to that question as there were participants at the event. For me, I think it is because we are a group that is passionate about freediving, sharing it with each other, and fostering a sense of community. We are committed to ensuring a safe place for our peers to test themselves, all the while personally growing a little bit more in the light of a sport we love. We all tried our best, and given this was our first time, we are generally pleased with the outcome thus have high hopes for the next round of competitions hosted in the U.S.
Now USAA’s first US Team (athletes, Directors, volunteers, coaches and all) has begun preparations for World’s. There are sponsors to contact, papers to shuffle, fees to pay, travel to coordinate…. And so, here we happily go again into what are the land-locked duties associated with competitive freediving. Look out: – here come the Americans!