Saturday, 22 November 2014

success and failure

It's done. The final dives of the season are gone, time to grab a coffee at Cairo airport and start contemplating the winter months ahead. It always feels a bit weird to let go of the ocean like that and not quite right to have done the last dive for a while. But the next one is never far away, and fortunately there are mountains to visit in the meantime.

I finished with a new German record in constant no fins, which was challenging - 45m in current did not feel beautiful, but was easy enough in the end. Since I had already set the record safely, I decided to have fun with it and take a calculated risk to do a pretty big dive, announcing 50m straight up next. Well. It seemed like a good idea at the time! I was (miraculously) not even terribly nervous, which may have had something to do with the stunning guest we had in the competition zone: a small (well, 2m) oceanic white tip shark spent the entire time cruising around us and came to have a good look at me during my warm up. Diving down to do a record paled in comparison to that experience!

Conditions were close to perfect, so I had no excuse for what followed, except the number one reason for failing your dive (once given to me by Johan Dahlstrom when I did a poll): I went too deep! The realization that this might be the case hit me when I took one stroke at the bottom and felt my arms go heavy. "Oh shit, I'm tired" might have just crossed my mind, together with a brief debate about bailing and pulling up, an option that was quickly discarded. Attempting to relax on the way up did not help a lot - I made it to the surface at a snail's pace, where I then proceeded to nod off for a second, earning me my first ever red card at a depth competition in the process. Swimming up from 50m with 2kg after a total of 10 days training was clearly my limit for that day. I still had a wonderful time with it though, and actually enjoyed the dive, even the physical challenge of it. Unfortunately someone filmed the mess, which means I will have to bear the shame of showing it to no fins specialist extraordinaire and one of my best freediving buddies, William Winram. I have a feeling he will be snorting with laughter and then tell me he is very impressed with me. For not blacking out in 20m with that technique, that is.

Well William, the way I see it: there is room for LOTS of improvement! Can't wait. Next up is shoveling snow off the roof of my car and using my calming freediving breathing techniques during the Christmas Bookshop Madness.

Hell - but how much worse than no fins diving can it be?

Monday, 17 November 2014


This year has been all about diving without a lot of pressure and to do some much needed work. It takes time to develop new skills, and counting the days until you want to set a record or do well in an event is not helpful for the one step forward/ten steps back aspect of this kind of journey.

The last months have been fairly free of pressure, but to finish the season I thought I'd put the new found nose clip diving to good use and return to a discipline which I have ignored completely since setting a German record with 40m in 2008: constant weight no fins. It was always my hardest depth discipline, and since it is the shallowest and I just love diving as deep as possible, also the one I was least interested in improving. Being not a naturally good swimmer didn't help and so while I moved ahead across the board in all other disciplines, this one was left untouched. For a brief moment, from the safety of my sofa back home, it felt like a good idea to finally do something about that and turn up for the Freediving World competition without my monofin. The first training dive took me to 30m, with contractions starting pretty much after the duck dive. Back on the surface, I thought to myself: I am not doing this shit again. Ever. Next day I went to 40m and cursed some more.

With training time being kind of short - just a little over a week - the secret at the moment is acceptance. I can't change a lot or spend much time on fine tuning, and just have to be mentally ok with what is coming up. Yes the way down won't feel beautiful, but it doesn't mean I can't swim up easily enough. I'm kind of enjoying the novelty of it and finding my way, and seeing that all the training of the last years ultimately translates into this, as well. Sometimes it's interesting to do exactly the things you're certain
you are no good at, because that's where surprises might just await.

Just doing what comes easy would be too simple. At least that's what I try telling myself. Until I am cursing that stupid idea all the way down tomorrow, that is!

Monday, 29 September 2014

World Championship 2014: Final&Party!

Doing well in a world championship has much to do with getting your tactics right. I thought I'd maximize my chances for a good dynamic by announcing a distance which I could make for sure (30m. No worries there!) and that would get me a mid-morning start time, allowing my coffee deprived body to wake up a bit before action. It turned out to be a terribly flawed plan, but how was I to know that?

Between depth and the pool final we had two days to kill, which I mostly spent with unsuccessful attempts to upload my blog. This is how exciting we freedivers are: we go out to do a performance of three minutes. For this we need to eat just the right food three hours before, then we need to spend the said three hours resting or stretching (I'm not mentioning yoga here. Evil coach says I'm allergic to yoga. He might just be right.), then prepare for our dive by breathing endlessly in a most boring fashion. Afterwards we need to eat immediately and a lot, then we need to rest - exhausting activity - and annoy the world with facebook posts, after which we need to go to bed early to be ready the next day. After two days of this high intensity program we need a rest day! And people out there think we are an extreme action sport! If only they could see us! 

This routine was mercifully broken by UK athlete Mike Board (who at least has the action hero look about him), who had started to feed the ponies in the field next to the hotel. Pockets bulging with apples stolen from lunch, we went out to try and charm them, but they stayed hidden in the tall growing weeds. This led to a bunch of freediving athletes hopping up and down in front of a fence doing their best to make pony-attracting-whinniying noises, which eventually drew them out! Lovely! I had a brief moment of wondering if Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt are half way up a fence with a carrot between their teeth, making horsey sounds, before a Olympic performance? I'd love to hear these tales, if you have any. 

My dynamic announcement worked out as I had planned with a mid-morning start time of 10:25. A bad mistake, as I soon realized, when a combination of extreme nerves (why? why?) and time passing at a snail's pace set my stress levels to maximum, not helped by the fact that my room mates thought my panicked-grumpy state was very funny. I told them to get lost, which led them to put the "do not disturb" sign on me. Thanks guys. Thanks. 

Out by the pool I was faced with a fresh problem: it was very chilly! Curled up with a wooly hat under my towel, I waited for this nightmare to come to an end, spoke to no one and watched others do their thing, notably Per Westin from Sweden, who swam so slowly that he was hardly moving at all. The judges set off to walk next to him only to realize that he was basically still at the start, which had them all scramble to get back, a very funny sight! He reached 185m in a dive time of 3:40. No one quite knows what he was doing - drifting with the current, maybe? Shame, since he can clearly do much more. Maybe the water just wasn't cold enough for such a Viking to wake up. The other funky performance I witnessed was Marina from the Russian team, who did just over 200m by accident: she had lost count of her turns and thought she was coming up at 150m!

My nerves kept building all the way, with my whole head tingling by the time I reached official top. Not a good way to do a dynamic that was largely (due to only 2 training dives) an unknown for me. The swim felt so awful, I spent 125m having discussions with myself over quitting and planning my excuses in my head. This kept me busy until the 125m turn, when I realized I could do something ok and started monitoring my physical state. I had a sudden idea to swim to 175m, but reigned in the devil to keep it to a safe performance at 157m - it was a team effort, after all. Afterwards, I was annoyed at myself for the useless nerves, but extremely happy to drink a coffee! I will go back to announcing 1m in the future, as just getting it over with still works best for me. In the next pool competition (likely to be in 5 years time, at my rate) it will be time to hardenthefuckup and touch the 175m wall. 

Sun out and coffee in hand, the morning starters could enjoy watching the big swims of the day, with the biggest belonging once again (boring, but incredible) to Natalia Molchanova, who did a world record with 237m in what can only be called a casual way. Complimented on it later by all of us, she said: "it was easy". Yes. Well. No surprises there. 157m? Pussy swim indeed! 

Other teams did not have everything work out so well, with the Danish men in the unlucky bunch - one of their divers got red carded on a surface protocol time violation by less than a second, losing them the top spot. Jesper Stechmann, usually always good for a very big dynamic, lost his will to push and came up 215m, which left the Danes in 5th place over all. They gave up their first place to the Russian men, with the Russian women taking gold on the ladies' side, a fantastic moment of double-win which led the Russian team to throw an impromptu party in the evening. As usual, those instant after-competition-parties are our best ones, with all the pressure gone and everyone in high spirits having a great time. This one was a bit special since it turned out to be unusually shark infested, a tale to be told in private, but that will become freediving-party-legend for sure!

It was a fun event as always, even if I missed the depth part. A big thank you has to go to organizers, safety crew, judges, coaches, our Aida board and the hotel staff. An apology has to go to the poor hotel guests who made the error in booking a holiday there during a world championship. We are so sorry. Thank you for your patience! To help you to avoid a similar mistake, here are the top signs that a freediving competition is in your area:

1. The internet is permanently damaged due to 24 hour overload of resting freedivers with nothing else to do but surf. The web, that is.

2. There are people with fins and wetsuits blocking the pool at all times. The pool is starting to get murky.

3. People with wetsuits and fins are walking around in the lobby. You step into unexpected puddles of water in lobby, lifts and corridors. 

4. If you spot a banana at the buffet, it has disappeared before you can get to it. In fact, there is a banana shortage in all the supermarkets in the area.

5. You get blinded by people with bright yellow shirts on walking around the pool, looking serious and demanding quiet while they whip out white, yellow or red cards.

6. You end up on the internet in various nations because you happened to be innocently lounging in the sun behind the only palm tree that was deemed to be a suitable team photo background.

7. All those people who were doing yoga, looking intense and meditating around the hotel the one minute are dancing around drunkenly until all hours in the morning the next without any previous warning. It only takes one beer to get them to this state.

8. The harassed hotel staff need two days to recover from the demand of airport shuttle organization and transfer of freedivers who are still in a state of intoxication. After which the hotel is mercifully quiet and yoga free, the internet works like a dream and the bananas are back!

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Sardinia: Team WC 2014!

This year's team world championship set off in the correct manner by having a massive storm roll in, forcing the organizer to bring the static event forward and yet again making a mess out of my clever preparation plans. You'd think I'd learn to skip making them in the first place, but no such thing. With my static training thus reduced from seven days to two, I quit wasting time on making it nice and went for battle. This got me safely to 05:15 on the competition day, but I have to say it's depressing to fight for over three minutes for such a mediocre performance. In the words of my Italian training buddy Sergio Soria: "also my grandmother!!". Oh well. Not doing that again in a hurry!

Next up was the job of coaching others, which I love and am keeping a decent track record with so far (I once left William Winram when he turned early. I don't coach a dive that stops in 50m. Reputation), although I will say that Liv provided me with a challenge, sending me into a state of coach-panic when she was hit by the first contraction at 1min! What do you do? What to say?? Good luck to the buddy who tries to be soft and gooey and tells Olivia Philip to relax. She will jump right up and tell you where you can put your relaxation! In the end I chose the wise words of our room 123 comp inspiration, Australian comedian the Chopper, and told her to harden the fuck up. Check it out here:

harden the fuck up, by the chopper

A collective gasp went up from the audience, but I knew she was now grinning to herself and it pushed her on to reach 06:05, becoming a #hardenthefuckup world championship fighting legend in the process.

All in all, the static part went well for most teams, with Goran beating Natalia's 08:30 with an easy hold of 09:13 - after she put him in his place in Serbia last year, he is terrified of a repeat incident - Alexey (who is well used to being beaten by his mum) already loves to remind him of the last one and has been known to offer Goran a chance to compete against his older family generations next. Meanwhile, the most notorious item to have emerged from these world championships are the Russian team shorts - emphasis on SHORT - which Alexey has designed to adequately display his newly acquired leg muscles.

He told me that the night before his 115m training dive he was doing squats with his 80kg team mate on his shoulders. It appears that the rest of us had it all wrong! We thought we needed to rest before our measly dives! Stupid! One of my favorite lucky charms here are Goran's lilac Hello Kitty flip-flops. Feminine side and all that, they appear to be working just fine for him, since he surfaced from his 09:13 static looking like I do after 45seconds! If you see me performing monster breath holds at the next worlds, it will be because I have gone and nicked my niece's pink Hello Kitty hairband. I hope.

With the ugly static out of the way, it was time for the teams to go back into the sea for constant weight.  I fell into a fit of depression when everyone headed out to the boats and I was left behind with my broken ear to swim up and down in the pool. Resistance was building up by the minute during my breathe-up, made worse by the fact that my room mates had forbidden me to drink coffee to prepare myself for this misery. Once I started, I was grumpy enough to swim to 150m. It was easy even with contractions at the 25m turn, but did nothing to lift my spirits.

At least I got to go out on the competition day to coach Liv to her first 70m dive and to take care of one of my team mates who unfortunately did not quite make it to the surface on his own, putting the German men back several places in the current ranking. He's inexperienced in depth competitions and underestimated what it meant to dive under these circumstances, but has lots of room to go deep with practice. The German ladies have dropped right down, too, all my fault because my bad-ear-no-diving has lost us my depth points.

Over all constant weight was smooth enough, with only three black outs and a number of early turns. People are conservative and those who compete with a strong team spirit and well thought out performances are at the top, with the Danish men currently in number one spot, demonstrating once again how strong they are in competition tactics.

Much is still open and Friday will bring an exciting dynamic final. I'll be nervous as hell. At least I get to treat my depression with coffee afterwards, followed by:

Beer! Tequila! Party!

But first I have to hold my breath in the pool. Again. Oh shit.

Saturday, 9 August 2014


After watching coach breeze through his record, I felt fully motivated to get on with training and move ahead. The plan we had made for this year was to not worry a lot about records, taking time to continue working on deep equalization without the stress of approaching deadlines. I have been enjoying the lack of pressure, announcing a German no limits record attempt for fun more than anything else. Most of the work has been spent on trying to learn to dive with the noseclip, which has been going a lot better than I expected, although I must say: how ugly are these things? It's impossible to look cute with one of those on!

Apart from minor problems it was all going quite swimmingly until yesterday. We put the line down to 120m - I already did 119m three weeks ago - and it seemed like it was going to be a beautiful dive. Feeling relaxed and happy on the way down, I had air to spare when I heard the 100m alarm and was just getting very pleased with it all when I swallowed most of the nice air, losing the pressure on my ears in the process. I was just checking if I could get them to equalize again, when I felt a very sudden, piercing pain in my right ear (while the left ear was just gently getting under some pressure) and in the split second it took me to hit the brake the eardrum broke. I'd stopped in 119.6m.

This was a first for me, I can tell you! The surprise was as big as the instant frustration. Interestingly for those that have not (I don't recommend it!) experienced this: the eardrum braking actually didn't hurt at all, there was just a gentle release of pressure. Fortunately the water here is very warm at the moment, so I did not suffer any vertigo and since I am well acclimatized to depth I felt clear and free of the added stress of narcosis. What really struck me was how fast it happened, and that I had no problem with the other ear, although I had lost equalization on both at the same time. At that depth, I normally would have many meters to go and plenty of time to calmly brake and quit the dive, which is how it worked out for my left ear - pain free on the dive and symptom free when checked by Dr. Ahmed at the hyperbaric chamber. Bizarrely, the right side broke with a very small hole at the same time. It appears to have been completely accidental and I have learned something new: many divers break their eardrums with no prior pain at all. All it takes is a small infection with no noticeable symptoms to be present - it's enough to weaken the eardrum and result in a surprise injury. I had a mild infection from the residence pool three weeks ago, but it cleared after a couple of days and I had no problems with it - until now!

At least I get to work on my tan for a couple of days before flying home early, coach cannot complain or tell me to eat more! When something like this happens it's easy to feel foolish, embarrassed and weak. Whether it was accidental or whether you actively pushed it too far, it doesn't matter. Making mistakes is part of learning. What's important is to own up to the mess that you created, to those around you and especially to yourself. There is no shame in this. Denying mistakes, downplaying accidents and pretending that it was "just a little thing" is dangerous, and not just for the diver himself. Others take a cue from this attitude and before we know it, everyone just shrugs off things that have gone wrong.

Facing the real state of affairs can be incredibly hard. Aaron Bruce, my very direct technical diving instructor, told us something I never forgot: "The first sign of decompression sickness is denial." I believe this applies to many things in our sport. DCS can be a simple accident or it can be a result of stupid choices, as can be a lung squeeze or middle ear barotrauma. The urge to ignore the symptoms and go "I'm fine, it's nothing" is often overwhelming. We do not want to be "that kind" of diver. We also know it could mean we have to take a step back or stop, ruining chances to reach our goal, which makes us feel weak because we did not achieve what we set out to do. It's easier to convince ourselves that all is fine.

Only it isn't. This kind of denial can get people killed. It's a type of insanity that is somehow very human. So, we have to practice to be open about our mistakes and to avoid lying to ourselves. Freediving is a sport based around friends and it is our job as a community to help people deal with their accidents and failures, whatever it may take. I was really lucky to be around to force one of my buddies to face his problem when he suffered a severe case of DCS together with an equally severe case of denial, convincing himself that he'd be fine with a bit of rest.  Had he boarded a flight untreated, it would have killed him or put him in a wheelchair.

So - I had an accident, fortunately only a very small one. I learned to be even more careful and allow much less margin for error in the future - not even the split second. It feels frustrating and like weakness right now, but that's ok. It's what I do with it that counts.

Meanwhile, it looks like I'll be stuck with pool disciplines for a couple of months - oh no!! I wonder if tequila is helpful for statics?

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Go coach!!!

Just when I was getting bored and restless with the endless routine of wake up, look out the window to check sea conditions, have tea, check sea conditions, strech, check sea conditions, have coffee, check sea conditions, do dry skills, check sea conditions - still rough - curse sea conditions, do some pool stuff, curse sea conditions, oh wait, sea conditions are ok! Go train! - my favorite and (mostly) always patient evil coach has gone and provided us with a much needed bit of action.

He's been training alongside us, meaning he fits in a deep dive after he's been looking after Will and me for a couple of hours, which serves beautifully to highlight our continuing failure to get things right. Nothing like someone hopping on the sled and whizzing down to 160m when you have just hit the brake at 105 to show you what room for improvement truly means.

On Friday it was time for him to be serious and break his own Italian no limits record, with a dive that would make him the second deepest man in the world. I went to meet him for a coffee in the morning, to enjoy the fact that evil coach was churning with nerves - he's just as bad as I am with that - then we all went to look at (and curse) sea conditions for a while. The dive center was buzzing with equipment and crew, all designed to make evil coach even more nervous, especially when it came to handling his babies - there were 12 cameras involved in filming this dive with some stunning footage taken! Watch this space for the video to come.

After sorting out some emergency protocols and making sure we had a back up plan for everything it was time to leave coach to his nerves and get in the water. William and I were the freediving safety team for this event, official "safety diver" lycra and all!  This kind of dive requires a well organized and especially well focused team as you cannot afford any type of mess. I put the second line down to 110m to help technical safety diver Jim with his deco later - he was waiting in 150m and filmed some spectacular images, bar the moment where he tilts the camera to look at his rebreather gauges because his 200m depth rated torch imploded! Something going "BANG" is not what you want to hear when you are down there, I tell you.

With the judges in the water and cameras rolling, coach was ready and we gave Jim the five minute signal to start his descent. Everything switches to "go" and things go quiet except for Sergio counting down. Everyone is focused on the moment when the sled is released and drops under the surface. From then on, we are counting the seconds till touch down - he landed after 75seconds and we knew he had made it. Still, this is not the time to celebrate but to get ready - after all, getting down is only half the dive. William went first to meet coach with the scooter, with me following closely behind - waiting for him near the line it took a moment for the bubbles to clear before I could see him. As usual, he was fresh as a daisy and completely unfazed. Surface protocol in six seconds. He did that dive with a mask which is simply spectacular!

Last person out of the water that day was deep technical safety diver Jim, who finished his deco after a total dive time of 02:58hours. Deco is boring as hell, but I have to say, I still miss that kind of diving! It was great to take a brake from the training routine to be safety crew for the day. Looking after others is an essential part of what we do. Without it, you are missing half of what it means to be a freediver. Keep your skills up to date and take care of your buddies!

In the meantime: way to go, coach! Now it's back to training. Had better go and check the sea conditions...

Friday, 4 July 2014

Freediving friends around!

An essential part of successful freediving are our freediving friends. Especially depth training often involves lengthy stays in places far from home, where you share apartments/hotel rooms/tents with your mates. Freediving does not just happen in the water, but largely outside, too - you need your buddies around to moan about training miseries, wonder how to fix persisting problems, brainstorm target ideas and training plans, or develop a game plan for a competition, amongst many other things such as sharing silicone grease for your beloved monofin.

Our surroundings and the energy before and after diving is crucial to being happy and relaxed in the water, especially when you are challenging yourself and when things are not easy. Nothing quite takes the pressure out of things like having some freediving buddies around who laugh with you, drink the occasional beer, share the porridge in the morning and don't think you're a freak when you are holding your breath lying on the hotel bed. They know your highs and lows, what you are like when you are nervous as hell, what you look like when it all went wrong, what you look like when you dance around drunk at the closing party, and they are in it with all they have, just as much as you are. There is an open spirit between those of us who train and compete together that I love as much as the diving itself.

So here we go - 10 signs that you have great freediving buddies around:

1: They tie a smiley balloon to your locker when you have the training blues.

2: They let you have their favorite red sweatshirt when it suddenly gets freezing in the desert.

3: They practice looking stupid with balloons with you every day and do not think you are a freak. 

4: When world championship nerves drive you out of your bed at dawn to go and stare at the sea, they are already there, just as nervous as you are.

5: They know that the thing to do when you have broken yourself ten days before a world championship is to get you a coffee.

6: They help you get a medal, and then they help you celebrate getting it. Liv (pictured) has one too, actually, but she lent it to safety diver Stewart for a while. 

7: They make happy-kids-on-family-outing type faces at you when you turn around in the car. Because you all decided it was a good idea to get up at 04:30am to drive to Ras Mohammed national park at sunrise and swim with fishes. Sun decided to rise invisible behind clouds, but they are happy anyway.

8: They come with you to dive in a 14°C lake when it is raining outside. They don't even think it's stupid to sleep in a tent in the rain after getting frozen in the water first. In fact, they think it's the best thing ever. They are just as mad as you are.

9: They go: "wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee….!" with you on a sled

10: They know when it's time to quit being serious and just get down and partyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!!!

Friday, 23 May 2014


Having dashed home at the end of April in time to enjoy the annual first of May riots in Berlin (it's the European anarchists favorite throw-a-bottle adventure holiday destination), greet my spring bookshop customers, visit London to ramble Wimbledon Common with friends and dog and pick up 12kg of stuff for evil coach, I made it back to Sharm without catching any bugs and - how wonderful - am in the water again!

This is sort of significant as I pulled an Anna reverse diving special and finished the weeks of spring training with a general freediving melt down, getting worse by the day until I ended up 100 steps back from where I started after the winter break, with evil coach finally forbidding me to train. As always, I need to get that far to I realize that I'm getting properly sick and not just having a (few) bad day(s) and that it's time to just stop. Stopping involved rushing around Germany and London, but also drinking beer and wine, which I am convinced is an excellent cure for the training blues!

Back in Sharm, I've still been feeling like sleeping and sleeping all day, every day, but the fog is lifting and today I went to play with the sled, with one sole target: have fun! Never mind skills, plans, precision... just fool around! Sometimes, you have to just give in, step away from everything and have faith that you will feel like yourself again at some point. I have decided on a strict regimen of days off and although it is admittedly starting to make me restless, I have abstained from filling them with burpees and squats so far. Seems to be working at the moment.

Only sad thing: Luda has disappeared! We hope she's just having babies somewhere. Diving is just not the same without a pet barracuda around.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Maximum heart rate

Sunny weather is here and people are out in force, which can only mean one thing: it’s time to quit and go freediving! In the (brief) breaks between various attacks of colds, flus and sinus infections, I have been making attempts at getting myself in shape for this over last couple of months. Since I am following advice from my favorite evil doctor, who is definitely up there with evil coach, this has been a predictably painful experience.

Before I made his acquaintance, I used to really enjoy lovely long runs or cycles. This has ALL been cancelled. Of course, a self respecting evil sports doctor would not be worth his money if he did not replace something (nice, preferably) he cancels with something else, which had best be something the athlete is not going to enjoy, meaning that I am allowed ZERO aerobic training. Instead, I have been given the very un-lovely target of doing anaerobic training ONLY henceforth. This means: intervals. And then some intervals, and after that, some sprints. Continue as desired. Add to this a heavy dose of strength work and you have effectively removed all nice things from exercise. Except the results, that is! This has been highly effective for me last year, leaving me stronger and fitter than ever in the water during the world championships.

This year, I have added a thing called crossfit to shake things up. After my first workout lasted six minutes and left me unable to walk for five days, I knew I had hit on something evil doctor was going to approve of! Apart from being fun (in a weird, painful kind of way) it’s is an incredibly varied way to train a high level of anaerobic strength, making it perfect for a freediver who wants to push maximum heart rate as much as possible.

Feeling brave in a flu-free moment (of madness), I announced to evil doctor that I was ready for the horrible fitness test where they put a nasty mask on your face and make you cycle uphill until you’re ready to have a heart attack, while they look calmly on and leave you to wonder whether you might just be the unfittest excuse for an athlete they ever had through the door. Of course, as soon as I made the appointment I succumbed to the next killer virus, an excuse evil doctor did not consider impressive in the slightest. At my offer to think of something more creative, he just raised his eyebrow – clearly, none of it was going to do me any good.
As I was slogging away on the impressively uncomfortable bike (honestly, the seat is so big, you keep banging your thighs into it when you try to pedal hard and if my bottom ever fits onto that thing properly I will go into hiding until I have lost 35kg!), he started making his favorite …“very good”… “excellent”… noises, that I still view with maximum suspicion. After all, he can hardly say: “you’re a bit rubbish today, aren’t you” or: “that’s it???”. One day I will make him do a static and tell him how well he is doing at 34sec. And then I will give him some CO2 tables as homework, and then we will be even!
In any case, sad excuse for an athlete or not, the result turns out to be just what we wanted: a marked improvement in muscle that is working perfectly in anaerobic mode, thus not stealing my oxygen but making me stronger during the dive.
Crossfit, here we go! I am having visions of wall balls and burpees in my future…oh no…

Friday, 7 March 2014

Behind the scenes: Judges

Having offered my thoughts on the importance of the safety diver in the last blog entry, I'd now like to give thanks to another essential (easily spotted by their yellow colouring) creature of the freediving circus: the judge.

In the small community of competitive freediving, we tend to know each other and meet again and again over the years. This, to me, is also the magic of our sport at this point: it is small enough to feel intensely sociable and close knit, but large enough to have world championships with a good number of athletes competing hard for the top spots. The fact is: none of this would happen if it weren't for the time donated freely by freedivers who are willing to take on the role as judge. They do not get paid, they have to take precious vacation and fly half way across the globe to then sit in the blazing sun measuring ropes, creating spreadsheets, watching people go down and come up again, spend hours reviewing bottom camera footage to ensure all performances are valid and then file endless amounts of paperwork. To round things off, they get the joyful honour of watching athletes pee in a jar for the doping test.

judge Paola!
Through all this, they carry the responsibilty for often hard decisions, having to give a red card for a perfomance that has been trained for for months. If the athletes celebrate a white card, the judges are often forgotten and rarely thanked. If the decision was a tough one and the outcome not positive, they get complained at. It's a bit of a thankless job, and most of them do it for sheer love of the sport and because they are excited about the incredible things that keep happening before their eyes.

So - as much as the safety divers, the judges share my performance as an athlete. I have yet to encounter a judge who was not positive, excited and welcoming and did not want me to succeed with all their heart. When the crew around me goes quiet and the countdown starts, I can feel their energy and their crossed fingers radiating my way from the platform. They have as much a share in creating an environment that frees me to explore my abilities to the maximum as anyone else around me at this point. When I surface, there is nothing so great as to see a white card from a judge. They often are our close friends, and it breaks their heart to judge a performance not valid. They share every single competition dive with me, the successes as much as the failures. I have had great moments with judges over the years, and if it wasn't for the fact that I have to clear the rope for the next diver, I'd leap out of the water to hug them every time.

hugging judge Marco Nones after the 110m no limits German record 
So - a huge thank you for the time, energy and crossed fingers donated to me and my fellow freedivers over the years. Here are some who have judged record performances for me - Grant Graves, Bill Stromberg, Pim Vermeulen, Lotta Ericson, Linda Paganelli, Panagiota Balanou, Marco Nones, Stavros Kastrinakis, Ute Gessmann, Kimmo Lahtinen, Martin Müller, Paola, Christoph Leschinski...and all the  others - 

thank you!

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Behind the scenes: Safety Divers

Freediving is a funny sport. I think most of us agree that it is a huge mind game. Physical strength and skill is one thing, and certainly important, but if your head is not ready, it cannot work. Thoughts, feelings, subconscious mind - all of it has to play along.

Much of this is under my control when I dive. It is up to me how I have prepared myself physically, and if I am mentally up to the challenge. But then there is an element to freediving that is often taken for granted or overlooked: the importance of the safety diver. Essentially, freediving is a safe sport - but we depend on the safety divers to be there and take care of us when things have become too difficult.  People underestimate how important a good safety diver - and over all safety team and system set-up - is for a successful deep dive.

It's simple, really: if there is any doubt in the back of your head about the safety diver or system, you will not be able to freely perform a maximum dive. To be able to reach your potential, especially on very deep dives, you need to be completely without worry about being taken care of. A good safety diver will radiate a sense of security to you without words, just by calmly being there in the water. The safety crew comunicates around you and while you are getting ready to do your best, they are also preparing themselves to look after you. All of this filters through into my awareness during preparation - if it is right, it enhances the focus and sense of readiness for the dive. If it is wrong, it is subtly but crucially disturbing.

Coming up from a deep dive, it is always a fantastic moment to see the safety diver. Mostly I stay within myself, focusing on the last but most difficult meters, but I am intensely aware that they are there and all is well. It is a feeling of: nothing can happen to me now. Through my six years of freediving, I have had outstanding safety divers - sometimes my training buddies, sometimes full crews during competitions or world championships. All of them have shared my successes by allowing me to be mentally free of worry. If you look at videos of record or competition freedives, you will see that the first thing many of us do is hug the safety diver - without them, it would not have happend.

Then there is the moment where you actually need your safety diver, because you got yourself into trouble. Most deep freedivers have been there, and it is a curious feeling to wake up in the arms of someone else and not quite know how you got there. A good safety diver will make you feel alright even at this moment, they give you calm and trust that things are ok, and there is no reason to worry about anything. At big competitions, the safety team will spend hours and hours in the water, diving and diving again to wait at depths of up to 30m for a diver to return. Over the years there are stories of superb rescues perfomed, such as at the 2013 world championship by Steven Keenan who swam down to 40m to pick up a diver in trouble.

I would like to post a thank you here to all the guys who are working hard at big competitions to look after us, and all of those who have been there for me over the years, training buddies, friends and others. Thank you, without you none of it would have been possible.

2013 World Championship safety team:

Andrea Zuccari
Stephan Keenan
Marick le Herisse
Manuel Maille
Sergio Soria
Stefanos Imelos
Stefanos Tsagaroulias
Stefanos Haniotis
Giannis Igglesis
Kostas Kalamaras
Lambros Siadimas
Alexander Jankeliowitch
Dimitris Kolokotronis

Friends and training buddies:

Andrea Zuccari
Marco Nones
Stavros Kastrinakis
Daan Verhoeven
Sara Campbell
Liv Philip
Georgina Miller
Martin Müller
Elisabeth Müller
Peder Pedersen
Linda Paganelli
Lotta Erikson
Jesper Stechman
Jakob Hansen
Sergio Soria
William Winram
Deron Verbeck
Johan Dahlström

And many, many others!