An Olympic Case of the Post-Competition Blues
I’ve been watching the Olympics off and on ever since the 4th AIDA Freediving World Championships wrapped up. I have a feeling that something important, something vital to understanding the whole Olympic experience, is missing from the broadcast. Beyond medals, rankings, world records, sponsorships, and rivalries, what is surely missing from the talking head presentation of these games is what it means to be an Olympian. Spare me the whole spiel of being a role model for others or the long and sacrificial road to success. What I’ve always wondered is what it must feel like to be in the athlete’s village, interacting with teammates, athletes, organizers, fans, volunteers, and media and bringing a little something from your own life and country to share with the rest of the world. It is, I guess, one of those things that you have to experience yourself as an Olympian at the Olympics.
Thanks to freediving, I’ve had the experience of being a competitor, media representative and a volunteer in two consecutive world championships. When I represented Team Canada in Ibiza in 2001, I felt the keen edge of melancholy at the end, when so many people who share the same passions disbanded and went home to their “real” lives. But this time, in my role as volunteer coordinator for CAFA, I felt enriched because I was able to see so many more sides of this incredible event than I would have otherwise seen had I been a competitor.
Unless you’ve been under a freediving rock, you’ve seen the yellow-shirted volunteer crew that made this competition a rousing success in the photos and videos on various websites. The YellowJackets, les maillots jaunes, the freediving bananas—whatever you want to call them—have made this event a profound and life-changing experience for me.
Vancouver now boasts the best safety freediving crew in the world! From Tyler Zetterstrom’s smooth descents down to 25 metres every single time without fail on the competition line to Adam Lein’s remarkable sacrifice of personal warmth in the driving drizzle for the sake of competitor safety on the training days, these guys made all the organizers look good. Spending almost six hours a day in the water hauling weights, setting lines, video cameras and expensive lights, putting up and taking down the barge accessories, with barely a chance to have a bite to eat—this is what makes an event inspiring to all who are a part of it.
There were also some volunteers who were new to freediving and got a front row seat on the action. Anne Laure Bottier (who saved my skin more than once with her no nonsense approach to volunteering), Nancy Aguirre, Sergio Bernardo, Christine Archer, Alex Cole, Kelly Dunlap (a full member of the Ansell tribe), Miranda Malinson, Jodie Ritchie, Kevin Mullan and several others—these were some of the people who came out and discovered that freediving is not so extreme after all.
What were the highlights of this competition? For starters, all the scuba divers that provided deep safety for the competitors came together and succeeded in their task without incident or injury. Laura Storm-Harris of the SaltFree Angels came all the way from England to share her expertise with the local crew. Andy Norlander drove all the way up from his home in California to lend a hand as a safety freediver, despite having to sleep in his truck on the first night in Vancouver. Manfred Lippe made his way from Saskatchewan (look it up in an atlas) to become an AIDA judge in time for the World Championships.
The emerald visibility on the final day of the constant weight competition reminded me that despite the grousing online when it was announced that Vancouver had won the bid to host the Worlds, our diving is among the world’s best, with schools of silver minnows shimmering around harmless moon jellyfish and unseen seals spotting each diver all the way down to the bottom. It was our little secret.
Everyone celebrated filmmaker Goh Iromoto’s amazing work with the video camera with the “Goh! Goh! Goh!” chant at each screening and freediving fans everywhere were able to follow the competition in real time thanks to Tom Lightfoot’s amazing website interactivity. How about the 1100 metres of descent line, the more than 300 dives combined made by safety freedivers each day? The dozens of litres of lube squirted into cold and smelly suits each morning before competition and training. And all the while, the main organizers hardly slept more than a few hours a night but they loved it.
In the competition, there was a whole whack of personal bests and national records, despite the intimidating North Pacific conditions. Then there was the crew that took down the barge after the final day, staying late into the evening, sweating and cheering when the last bit of gear was loaded on the boat and Greg Hamilton pushed off with a reluctance that was touching, coming from someone that the organizers dubbed “the barge troll.” For me that’s when the competition was really over, when the ocean beneath the barge suddenly changed from the familiar green waters glowing around training lines, scuba diver bubbles and lanyards sliding up and down to the deep greens, blues, and greys of the unfathomable and mysterious ocean.
But let’s not forget the performances, those kernels of inspiration that keep those of us with a competitive streak stoked until the next time and widened the eyes of many volunteers and spectators.
By the latest count, there were twelve national records set in constant, static and dynamic. Most notably the UK and New Zealand teams showed that they are rising up the ranking with strong performances by both the men and the women. The Canadian women were able to show that we are deep in talent here, with three first time international competitors rounding off the winning team. And wow, the German men cleaned up in the pool, putting almost fifty points between themselves and second place United Kingdom overall.
And then there was that crazy dude from Germany, Tom Sietas. Kirk Krack announced to the competitors at the end of the static apnea competition that anyone could try for a national record attempt. I had Tom Sietas in my lane and provided safety for his attempt. I really didn’t know what to expect. After five minutes a crowd was beginning to gather. He had already been getting contractions after only two minutes or so, according to his account later on. I could only see his back ripple gently at five minutes. Soon after he reached out to his coach and touched her leg. What was he doing? Would the judges consider that an illegal touch by the coach? His hood was pulled down and he performed the static with sun glasses on and without a nose clip. Tanya Streeter, the judge for his national record attempt, called out “Seven Minutes!” That brought people from all ends of the pool deck to our little corner. They all craned their necks to catch of glimpse of something extraordinary going down.
Most people say that static is boring to watch, but in this case, everyone was riveted. I began the taps at fifteen second intervals. As he approached eight minutes Tom’s neck and face was turning a darker purple and yet his diaphragm was quiet and rippling gently under his bright yellow and red Team Germany wetsuit. No one had called out the times since Tanya had announced seven minutes and I knew that a long time had gone by since then. I can’t describe the feeling I had standing in the water next to Tom during those long minutes. I stood there shaking my head and lifting my water-wrinkled hands in protest with the universe trying to make some sense of what I was seeing. Near the end, Hubert, Curt and Katja of the German Team started to tease him in German. “Come on Tom, we want to go now.” “We want to go for coffee, Tom.” “Quit taking so long.” “Hurry up!” Tom Sietas shook his head and raised his hands, which were resting
In the last twenty seconds, Tom’s face incredibly started to regain colour, according to at least one observer. I really wasn’t paying attention to that subtlety. I just couldn’t believe that he was so lucid after what was most certainly way more than eight minutes of apnea. Finally, he pulled up, took a few quick breaths and gave the okay signal, and received hugs from his teammates. Tanya with an odd and somewhat perplexed smile on her face gave him a red card and then muttered under her breath as she checked and re-checked the numbers on her stopwatch with Manfred Lippe, the secondary judge. Nine minutes and twenty-four minutes was the time. One second more than the personal best Tom had reluctantly confessed several months ago on the Deeperblue forums after much prodding. “Well, I guess he really can do nine minutes,” I heard someone say in the gallery.
Among friends, Tom confessed his intention to pursue the goal of the ten minute static, hopefully sometime this winter. When the shock abated, which took quite a long time for me, Tom was approached by the competition doctor, Dr. John Fitz-Clarke, who appeared interested in having Tom return to Canada in the winter for physiological testing. “I’d be honored to be a part of that,” without a hint of arrogance or egotism. “There is something different with me, I think.”
Instead of feeling discouraged by Tom’s incredible performance, in which he seems to have intentionally disqualified himself from a national record attempt (incredible that it would not have counted as an official AIDA world record!), I felt inspired by it, as did several other freedivers. Isn’t that always the way these things work? If someone can do it, then it is within the realm of the possible. Perhaps that is what draws us year after year to the Olympic stories shown on television.
But unlike the Olympics, which seem removed and abstract because of their size and importance to corporations, cities and politicians, freediving is still small enough that I can call every judge, competitor, media rep and volunteer by their first name. It makes everyone feel like family. Try doing that at the Olympics!
The party night came on as inevitably as groupies at a rock concert. For Kirk Krack, it was a chance to finally relax and celebrate. Kaz Ichikawa of Japan persuaded Kirk to let it all hang out with an impromptu wet underwear sumo match (it was a tie). Throughout the night volunteers mixed freely with judges, competitors, and the heavy-drinking media, aided and abetted by the Mexicans with their free flowing tequila. It was the kind of party where airline reservations were the only limiting factor and everyone dispensed with national boundaries and engage in some exuberant international trade (t-shirts) and multilateral relations (of the alcoholic kind).
So here’s my advice: You don’t have to be a competitor to enjoy the next international competition. Sign on as a volunteer and you’ll soon realize that even the most famous names in freediving are just people who love to be in the water, share stories and advice, and party. And you’ll be part of it all.