We are all familiar with athletes who rise to the pinnacle of their sport in meteoric journeys…gaining Gold and grabbing headlines with flashy performances, loud bravado, or onstage theatrics. Then there are those athletes who, through hard work, discipline and attention to their craft, gain the respect and recognition of their peers and the public…not through on-camera antics, but by quiet, professionalism and true leadership.
Lena Jovanovic Balta came to Vertical Blue 2016, held this past month at Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas, not as a competitor, but as a spectator. Unknown to many, she was battling through a recent debilitating illness and had stopped training altogether to recuperate.
“I didn’t train at all, I was so sick. But I decided to go and hang out with my friends. They talked me into doing a couple of dives for fun” says Lena.
With a goal to have fun, Lena entered the water in the early afternoon on Day 4 of the competition for the Free Immersion (FIM) event. Two minutes and 36 seconds later, Lena surfaced with a White Card dive to 58 meters. It was a game-changer. Balta explains
“I was not coming to compete, but after the dive to 58 meters, I felt strong and more relaxed…more confident.”
That confidence and renewed competitiveness paid off the next day when, at 9:10 in the morning, Lena Jovanovic Balta dived to 61 meters in 2 minutes and 45 seconds, setting a new Serbian National Record in Free Immersion.
Champions are never satisfied to walk off the field while the clock is still running…and Lena Balta is a champion. Day 6 of the competition found Lena diving to 70 meters in the Constant Weight (CWT) discipline, which was a preview of the great dive to come. On Day 8, Balta completed another CWT dive to 76 meters, setting a new Serbian National Record in 2:40, her second National Record at VB2016.
At the conclusion of the competition, Lena posted on her Facebook page
“…And the extraordinary things happened. I go home with two national records, with a healthy body, overjoyed mind and my head held high. I’ve never had more fun in competition, it was a blast!!”
Unlike many sports that have national sports federations, stipends and training facilities for national teams, Freediving competitors are, for the most part, lucky to have some small sponsorship from equipment manufacturers. There are no Million Dollar endorsement deals and the vast majority work full-time, raise families, have all the other concerns of daily life that we all face…while still making the time to train and compete at the highest level of the world’s fastest-growing extreme sport.
Lena started her competitive freediving career in 2011 at this same competition, and five years later, has set numerous Serbian National Records. Lena has also won a U.S. National Championship 2 years in a row, as well as a Mexican National Championship. In addition she has won a bronze medal in the World Championships.
Balta shared with DB that she “does not have the luxury of training full-time” so she is dedicating herself to “training smarter, not necessarily harder…more strategically.” Living on the California coast, Balta acknowledges that while the Pacific is beautiful, the much colder waters preclude consistent depth training…requiring travel to warmer waters.
“This competition really emphasized how much fun I had competing. There was no stress.”
Though Balta suffered a small Black Out on her last dive of the competition as she surfaced, she says she felt stronger and healthier than she has in quite a while.
At 38 years old, Balta attributes her continued successes and consistently deeper dives to being more mentally disciplined.
“Maturity is important in this sport, knowing what you are capable of. Don’t put too many expectations on yourself, that is the killer…too much pressure“
When asked what it feels like to be an “extreme athlete”, Balta exclaimed
“It feels amazing! As a freediver, you get to go somewhere most of your species never gets to go, gets to experience.“
She observed that the future of the sport should show growth and expanded opportunities.
“As it becomes (more) commercialized, safer, there will be more people doing it.“
Asked what advice she would give new divers to the sport, Balta said “Only dive for yourself. Only dive happy. It’s really important to enjoy it. That’s what changed my state of mind, sitting on the line with a smile on my face!” Great advice from an outstanding champion.