Every record attempt has a preamble, a foreshadowing of things to come. For Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, it was a 5:31 at the Western Canadian Regionals in April. For Martin Stepanek, a no-fins dynamic in practice to 135m in April seemed like the perfect foundation for an attempt on both dynamic disciplines.
Mandy-Rae Cruickshank is a competitor by nature. That she hadn’t equalled the world record before announcing her attempt doesn’t faze her a bit. She is confident her concentration and Kirk’s training regimen will get her into the record books for the second time.
By the last week before the attempts on May 26-28, 2002, when AIDA Judges Fred Buyle and Marcelle De Matteis had arrived from Europe, the suspense is already building among local freedivers. We hear that Mandy-Rae had reached 6:15 in practice. Then she discovers lumps on her neck. She is checked by a doctor and diagnosed with a deep tissue infection.
Luckily, the required antibiotics are not on the IOC prohibited substances list, but with only days to go before her scheduled attempt and still stricken with a fever, sore throat and flu symptoms, everyone fears the worst. Despite her bad health, Mandy attempts a practice static a few days later during the CAFA Nationals and makes 5:35, but it is obvious from the look on her face that her illness is affecting her concentration.
Sitting on the deck of the Emerald Tide, watching the CAFA Nationals constant ballast competition, Martin Stepanek can feel that something is wrong. The day before he has made a 200m dynamic with fins in practice. But his body isn’t recovering. "I felt a whole body weakness," he said. Then comes flu-like chills and aches. What are the odds of both world-record hopefuls falling to illness only days before the attempt? Fighting off sickness drained his body of the oxygen he needed for over three and a half minutes of dynamic apnea.
May 26-Day 1
On Mandy’s first attempt, she makes 6:15 with a samba. Kirk is confident that with a little more work on her recovery breathing, Mandy will break the record handily. Martin, pushing well beyond 182m, suffers a loss of motor control.
May 27th – Day 2
Mandy takes a day off and Martin goes in for a massage, desperate to oxygenate his legs which still feel like lead.
May 28th – Day 3
Martin asks for a marker to be placed at 185m. He makes the turn at 150m and heads for the far wall. He pulls up a few metres from the marker. His position is measured: 181m, equalling Herbert Nitsch’s record. The people watching speculate that had the marker been at 181m or 182m, Martin would have made the extra kick or arm-pull necessary to break the record. Martin waves this suggestion off: He wants to break the record.
Time has run out and both competitors feel that they are getting better. They ask the judges to stay an extra two days for two more attempts. But the iron vice of stress is tightening….
May 29 – Day 4
It’s all quiet on the pool deck and a curious lifeguard watches with his arms folded. Mandy-Rae has been down for five minutes, listening to the waterproof radio fastened to her head. Martin stands in the water beside her, counting off the minutes. Kirk starts encouraging her: "Coming up on five-thirty, Mandy, you’re looking strong. You can do it." Her body is racked with contractions of her diaphragm. "Six minutes. You’re good. Keep going. You’re almost there…"
Mandy comes up at 6:16 and like a gymnast flying through the air from the high bar, she "sticks" the landing. The static is good and she flashes her winning smile. Cheers rebound off the walls of the Vancouver Aquatic Centre. Mandy has conquered her deep tissue infection (she would never get a "shallow" tissue infection, would she?) and perservered for the static record.
Day 5 – The Last Day
It is Martin’s final chance to break the dynamic record. The crowd, made up of local freedivers, EMTs, and friends, are hopeful and nervous. Martin floats face down in the pool under Kirk’s watchful hand.
It’s time. Martin breathes slowly on the pool deck with the screams of children leaping off the dive platform and thrashing in the water echoing in his ears. He is wearing a bathing cap, neck weight, speedo, and plastic bi-fins. A former member of the Czech finswimming team, Martin wears the bi-fins as an extra personal challenge.
He’s off. It takes a long time for Martin to make each length. We all stand around waiting for the final turn at 150m. The marker, more prudently, is at 182m. Martin massages the water slowly with each fin, his arms locked over his head. His shoulders have turned a bright crimson.
Suddenly he surfaces a few metres behind the marker–a few metres short of the world record. A gasp of surprise ripples through the crowd. With a dive time of 3:31, Martin looks rough in his recovery and has a samba. He recovers without assistance and grabs a kick board to swim a few lengths and flush away the lactic acid that has set his legs on fire. Evidently, the
schedule his illness set for him is too tight for Martin to secure the ideal conditions required for a world record.
At Nevermind, a local pub, Mandy and Martin celebrate their attempts. Mandy smiles quietly and eats and drinks with gusto. She has broken a record that was owned by Karoline Dal Toe for three years. Surrounded by friends, she is toasted by a freediving friends from all over the world.
Martin is animated and relaxed for the first time in months. In the end, he is the philosopher. For him attempting the record with bi-fins was a goal to prove that freedivers in the year 2002 are still far, far away from human limits. But above all, he looks forward to returning to the open ocean and perhaps an attempt in constant ballast.