Thursday, October 1, 2020

USAA Nationals : Part I

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Many of us, at one time or another, have sat glued to our computers, tuning into the latest freediving competition or world record attempt. We celebrate the success of one athlete and feel the heartbreak of another from afar. We are able to share in these moments and be empathetic with the successes and failures because we, too,are freedivers and whether we compete or not we are well versed in the depth of personal experience that freediving brings to our lives and those of our brethren.

What we don’t often hear about are the experiences of those who organize, host, volunteer or judge at these events. Though they are not necessarily in the water, these individuals are no less driven by their dedication and passion for the sport than are the competitors.

As a co-organizer and judge at USAA’s first U.S. National Freediving Competition, I hope to share with you the experience I had working with such individuals. Not everything went perfectly, but many lessons were learned. The most exciting outcome of all is finding out what a group of motivated individuals can accomplish when they come together as a team, and discovering what the word “team” really means.

Planning

Preparation for US Nationals began long before our first competitor entered the pool. USAA’s Board of Directors met frequently in the months prior trying to overcome major obstacles in our path. The goliath of obstacles was insurance. Months of work put in by Grant Graves and Tec Clark resulted in USAA obtaining insurance on an event-by-event basis. Though it was less than we all had hoped for, we celebrated our ability to announce, finally, that the U.S. would be having Nationals this year. Better late than never. We decided they would be held in Southern California as that region most closely approximates the conditions our teams would experience at the World Championships in Vancouver, Canada. From that point on, our jobs got more challenging.

The bulk of the logistical planning fell to Grant Graves due to his residing near the competition venue. All the Directors work full-time, but Grant found the energy and time to book pools, schedule boats, organize and coordinate the safety scuba diving team, and arrange for video and photography. Other Directors, including myself, were assigned to other tasks. I worked with Grant on formulating our plan of attack for hosting Nationals and coordinated with potential athletes, volunteers, sponsors and other interested parties. Matt Briseno provided advice and guidance regarding safety and remained encouraging throughout. Doug Peterson provided expert direction on safety systems, score tracking and judging and kept us on our toes with his humor. Jessica Wilson took the opportunity to focus on her performance, as she would be competing at Nationals. Our webmaster Cliff Etzel set aside time from a busy schedule to ensure he would be available for posting results and reorganizing the website for those tuning in to the latest news.

Meanwhile, members of CAFA were ready and willing to answer our many questions and address our concerns. Special thanks, of course, are extended to Kirk Krack and Tom Lightfoot for their patience and cooperation. 

 Pre-Competition

Not more than 15 minutes after my arrival in Southern California on Thursday July 9th, Grant and I were headed out on errands, including getting to the plastics store to order a base plate for the competition line. A break from errand running found us at LAX to pick up Tony Marcuccino. Tony would be serving as head of jury, ensuring we addressed all the safety concerns, and taking the lead on constructing the counterbalance system.

With Tony in tow we stopped to drop off our belongings and then headed back out on the town. Trips to Home Deport, West Marine, Office Depot, and 7-11 kept us busy until long after dark. When the errands for the day were over, we were all securely fastened in front of our computers answering the stream of inbound email. New responsibilities emerged for me at this point and I took on the tasks of keeping us organized and on-track, handling paperwork, and other such glamorous activities. Someone has to be the taskmaster, I guess.

This pace continued on Friday, and we split up in order to accomplish the final preparations for the competition. Grant went back out to the stores we had visited the day before to pick up our orders. I went foraging for clothespins, zip ties, sand paper, and a toothbrush for Tony (he had forgotten his). Tony started construction on the counterbalance system and upon my return I worked on it with him. When Grant rejoined us, he turned his focus to finishing up a few tasks and preparing the base plate and camera mount for assembly. A million little things still needed to be done and soon it was dark and we were back to the computers.

Once our minds were sufficiently fried and my need for food overwhelmed both me and my two fellow judges, we headed out to find nourishment.  Tired brains and bodies made for an interesting dinner. Knowing that was ahead of us, we enjoyed a few drinks and stared into space between humor spasms. Shortly thereafter, we headed back to the house where we were staying for some sleep. But, sleep didn’t come for any of us any time soon. None of us could rest even though we tried; there was too much on our minds.

Competition: Day 1 Dynamic Apnea

Competitors, volunteers, judges and organizers were supposed to converge on the pool promptly at 7am. Tony and I were staying at the same house and thus carpooled to the event. A coffee stop (tea for me) took only minutes and we were on our way. Thanks to my lack of spatial prowess, we were late. Cursing ourselves because of how we each hate to see “those in charge” showing up late to important events and meetings with coffee in hand, and then doing that ourselves, we walked onto the pool deck hunched over and in a hurry.

I began introducing myself to people and was pleased to finally meet folks with whom I had previously had only phone or e-mail contact. I met the volunteers, spectators, athletes, family members, and pool staff. Personally, I considered my job as a co-organizer as also one of hosting, and as a host, I wanted to do my best to ensure our guests were welcomed and treated well. We had a solid group of interested, competent people in attendance and they proved this over and over again during the course of the competition. I collected the remaining liability releases, medical forms, and other paperwork and tucked everything away into my red and blue clipboard, which ended up to be a permanent attachment of mine throughout the competition. – I highly recommend them !

Grant gave the competition briefing. Because we had so many new competitors, he went into far more detail than one normally would. Tony, Matt and I participated as well, each throwing our two cents into the hat in an organized fashion. There would be 4 judges (Tony, Grant, Matt and myself) and one competition lane. Matt would be the in-water judge and safety for the competition lane with the help of two volunteers. I would be the on-deck safety and judge. Grant and Tony would focus solely on judging. Warm-ups would occur one lane over. We went through zero time, timing and how it all worked. Grant gave an overview of rules and regulations. Papers were passed out. Questions were answered.

Just before zero time I met with the volunteers. Trying to ensure we had enough safety divers in the water and all the on-deck tasks covered, I also wanted to make certain the volunteers had tasks they were interested in and would enjoy doing. Thankfully, that day we had plenty of help and everyone went about their duties excellently. Bob Coats tracked time and helped remind competitors when they could enter the water, as well as keeping us entertained with his sense of humor. Josh Coats and Amanda Harris took direction from Matt and acted competently as safety personnel in the pool. Chuck Gossett took brilliantly to being a backwards-walking videographer as he filmed the performances of the athletes. Brett Kirby amazed us all with his photography skills. Rebecca Garrett, our professional photographer, seamlessly disappeared into the background and produced some excellent shots, only to further instill awe in us all the next day as she became more familiar with the sport. Chris Iten assisted in warm-ups and timing and along with Josh and Chuck would become a valuable member of our ongoing support team for the rest of the competition. Our physician Ralph Potkin enthusiastically asked questions and prepared for any mishaps.

Zero time. We all stared up at the clock on the wall as though looking to space for UFO’s, and in unison hit “start” on our stopwatches. The competition had officially begun. Our volunteers took their places. Spectators found spots from which to watch. I watched friends and new acquaintances begin their warm-ups. Each competitor brought something unique to the competition. Be it their sense of humor, their passion, enthusiasm, or seasoned expertise, each one shared a bit of himself with hisr fellow competitors and fostered a supportive and enjoyable competition environment for all.

I called a brief judges meeting and then the competitors began their attempts. The dynamic competition went better than hoped. No major glitches presented themselves. Glen Garrett was our first competitor and gave us our first and only blackout of the day. Our newest safety’s learned a lot from Glenn. Glenn’s positive attitude shined through and our competition continued. Our other competitors performed cleanly and I saw some of the biggest and most genuine smiles I have ever seen upon the completion of their performances. Once all the competitors had finished, we opened the pool to National Record attempts.

 

After the competition, Grant, Doug and Cliff coordinated to get the results posted at mach speed (they continued this each day after the competition). We all headed out for lunch, at which I barely had time to eat. There were papers to organize, plans to confirm and announcements to be made. We all had some time to congratulate each other on a day gone well, and en mass left the restaurant with a general feeling of relief and happiness. The competitors went about their business, volunteers about theirs, and Grant, Tony and I headed up the coast a ways to make additional preparations for the next two days. 

Next Week: A few steps more on the road to Vancouver.

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