I’m two weeks into the new training regime. My daily exercise has, quite literally, doubled overnight, and I am feeling every new step, stroke, and pose. I’ve never been more mindful of my body, and that includes the aches in muscles I couldn’t even put a name to last week. I’ve gone so far as to take up running, my most hated activity, which leaves me with cracking knees and panic attacks and deep aches that won’t shift without pharmaceutical assistance.
Last night I was in the pool for a solo session focussing on cardio and working with a build-up of lactic acid. It was hard. It was meant to be hard, but after two weeks it was almost unbearably so.
Every body part felt like it was screaming at me to stop, stop, and my mind just wanted to quit, to give up on my ridiculous dreams and go home to sit on the sofa eating icecream and drinking wine and cry. I was one away from crying into my goggles. I had epic period cramps. The fatigue was deep within my bones. I couldn’t see how i would ever managed to keep up this training schedule in the long-term, and all it seemed to do was to make me worse.
I stopped when i reached the shallow end to contemplate how i could rescue this session. It struck me I haven’t had any fun in the water in some time, so I gave myself a break and treated myself to just… playing. Just being in the water, swimming up and down, somersaulting and corkscrewing. I pulled myself forward and… there it was. It was a no-fins kick.
And it was phenomenal. It was strong and controlled and it came out of nowhere. I glided along the bottom, a little further and longer than usual. I came up, breathed. Ducked under, and there it was again- another kick. Suddenly, i understood which muscles i needed to use, and i could feel them activating, rotating and angling just so, stamping outwards and describing that arc through the water before coming to rest, pointed and relaxed all at once.
I couldn’t quite repeat it again that session, but that stroke gave me hope. It made me see that the weeks of training, of pushing and working, are worthwhile. I felt strong, controlled, in both mind and body, and I was marvelling at something that felt fundamentally different in my glutes and thighs as they finally activated of their own accord, and with more power than I’ve felt before.
I felt that tiny difference. And that’s what got me out of bed this morning to hit another muddy, hilly, aching 5k run.
My competitive freedive journey went from about 0-100 in 60secs. One day my coach was telling me over lunch how I could take my diving to the next level, if I wanted to. The next I was doing yoga three times a week. Then I’d signed up to my first major competition, and then I placed third, and then I was being encouraged to apply for the UK team and then I somehow got nominated for the team going to the world pool championships in Finland. It was so exciting, almost hysterically so, and by the time I’d stopped to think it I’d gotten myself in a bit over my head.
It was going too fast. It was out of control and I was not prepared for this.
My coach spotted it first. In the way that the best coaches do, he called me up and we talked about all the events that had happened that week, got me into conversation about what I was actually hoping to get out of the experience and why I wanted to go. I gave some rather vague touchy-feely answers, before I had to come out to him and admit to realising I didn’t really know what I wanted from it. I wanted to go because I’d been given the chance, and that was really all I could think about. I had applied and, somehow, they had said yes.
He put his finger on the hesitations I was feeling, but was too scared to voice, and struggling to find the words for- that I wasn’t ready yet, it was too soon into my journey, that I am woefully unprepared! I could hear what they were saying even if I didn’t want to acknowlege it, and my fear of what I could see as my only chance of ever making the team.
I was made up in my mind to go, even if that meant posting embarassing performances on the world stage. I couldn’t see an alternative.
My coach could. I didn’t like it. I canvassed the opinion of my favourite buddy, and my best agitante/team captain. As it turns out, freediving is a team sport, and it takes that team to build the athlete. Together they had a vision for me mapped out that I couldn’t see for fear of throwing away immediate opportunities. And when I couldn’t do it myself, they helped me see alternatives and spent the time talking to me and winning my trust.
It felt like a big leap of faith to listen to their advice to wait a year until I’m more prepared, it felt like a real head or heart decision, but that was precisely the problem. My role model within the club, a regular diver on the UK team, would have:
1. Listened first time.
2. Would have had enough confidence in herself to be sure she could do it again.
3. Would have enough personal integrity to make that promise to herself to train hard, and keep her word.
I’m not her. I’m me, and I’m at the beginning of my journey where she has such a wealth of experience. The benefits of that experience are more than just the ability to dive long and clean, and this is what I need to learn: how to be an athlete, how to be a competitor. I can see now these are things I don’t know and, as my coach rightly said, these are things I won’t be able to learn between now and the world championships or even while I’m there. I’ll get a taste- and that taste might just put me off competition before I even get started properly.
I can see now that it is a big ask to step from club level to international competition in only a few short weeks. I hadn’t really considered that. I prided myself on turning up at the UK Championships with our club ethos of relaxation and enjoyment, and demonstrating it to the best of my ability even in competition. But this is another level entirely.
This is a competition full of serious athletes who have spent considerable time and money to be there, who have their sights on records and places, who will be ultra focussed and, frankly, do not need to babysit or nurture me. This is one of the biggest competitions in freediving and I am playing an entirely different game. From talking to my coaches, I’m really not sure it’s the kind of competition you enter “for fun”; though I’m sure it can be made fun, I think you do need to be serious about it. And i’m just not there yet.
But i’m beginning to be. The first step is being able to see your own ability very objectively, without ego. I like to think I’m under no delusions. The second step is having the confidence in your ability and your commitment to set your sights on a goal and then make it happen, and it’s this is I’m beginning to learn. The third, then, is knowing, really understanding, the kind of world you’re entering, how fierce the psychological and emotional side of competition can be, and it’s this aspect I never even considered before. It’s this step that will take time to build up experience at less high profile comps, get to know other divers on the circuit, build up those connections, and prove my worth as a serious competitor- to myself more than anyone. From what I can tell, a true competitor is resilient. It’s that trait I admire most in my freediving role models.
I came across a phrase- “to have question marks in your eyes”. I still have those, and those doubts and those questions are a weakness that may trip me up as I attempt to run before I can walk. I don’t know myself yet as an athlete, and I certainly don’t have that inner confidence that would allow me to be unshakeable as I pursue my goals. My coaches and support team asked me to trust them, and I took that leap and pulled out of the UK team, ready to try again next year.
I like to think it’s a gesture that can only strengthen our relationship, as it really shows their belief in me, and my commitment to them- and too myself. I’m not going to spend time worrying if it was the right decision, if I’ll be selected next year: I’m just going to work with my team twice as hard to make it happen- and justify our decision.
Well, the Great Northern BFA UK Pool Championships have been and gone, and they’ve left trailing behind the enormous question of- what does success mean in freediving?
Officially, my competition was an enormous success- two clean dives, two white cards, and the UK Women’s Bronze podium place. I have 60+ likes and counting on Facebook attesting to the achievement. Taken at face value, as my non-dive friends and family are, what an incredible success! Third in the UK in pool freediving! I’m thrilled, and shocked.
I won UK Women’s Bronze…
…and this pretty sweet mask.
Numbers: Times, Depths and Distances
On the one hand, I want to shout and jump up and down and giggle and tell the world. On the other, I’m scared of appearing foolish for making a huge fuss over a very mediocre performance that won bronze mostly by chance rather than pushing out some big numbers. It’s these two contradictory ideas of success, of rankings and performance, which got me wondering about all the different ways of describing it.
See, to base achievement on the numbers themselves is where the notion of success starts to go awry. Numbers will either increase pressure on yourself, reducing relaxation and therefore efficiency, or they will never be enough to make you happy. You’ll either fight to achieve them- raising potential safety issues if you ignore your body- beat yourself up if you don’t make it, or run the risk of forgetting to appreciate what you have achieved.
I really do wonder if numbers to be far too definite, objective and reductive for such a subtle and intricate concept as success. I placed third- that number is a very definite measure of success. But why do I not feel successful? I’m hung up on my numbers compared to those of others who were, in my mind, more deserving, and the circumstances that led there.
There’s a persistent , quiet voice at the back of my mind trying its best to detract from my win. The odds were in my favour- there was only a handful of UK women entered. It’s lucky none of the girls from my club came along who have phenomenal breath holds. My idol, who would normally breeze her way into a podium spot, got caught out by a red card losing half her points. The only reason I placed third is due to a few unfortunate disqualifications by a number of far better athletes. Isn’t it?
I’ve been turning these thoughts over and over in my head since the moment they announced my name- I don’t deserve this little trophy! They’re going to ask for it back! Someone’s going to say I’m a fraud, that I got lucky! I wanted to shout no, you’ve made a mistake, as I walked up to collect it.
“They”, that mysterious imaginary entity, would be entirely correct in saying I did get lucky- in a way. Lucky the others had a bad day, and that I had a good one, and that there weren’t so many tough opponents.
Skill and Strategy
But then again, there’s that fantastic saying about how you create your own luck: I planned my dives, and dived my plans, stayed within my relaxation limits, and was rewarded with two clean dives. Other athletes made mistakes that resulted in red cards, for a whole variety of reasons to which I am not privy.
There’s so much more to freediving than the hold or the swim or the dive- it’s how you deal with any nerves, how you manage your expectations, how you mentally and physically prepare in the hours before. There’s an element of strategy in planning how far, deep, or long you’ll announce your performance before the event, and trying to predict how you might feel on the day and manage that. Even the smallest detail can throw you off and totally affect the outcome of your dive.
…and a very long kit list.
My two dives were well-planned, taking into account my current ability, factoring in my competition nerves, and reducing pressure on myself with low announced performances. My preparation was designed to focus on some physical niggles in my hips and lower back, and to deal with any lack of confidence. The whole sequence went relatively smoothly and we hit no major issues, and my agitante was an absolute dream. I checked in with myself throughout the day, and went into my dives mindfully.
The result was two white cards- two safe dives, well within my personal limits, and scoring the maximum points they could given the times and distances.
Looking at the dives on paper, they were good quality, textbook dives: two solid performances I can be proud of. They were a technical success, where others had unfortunate mistakes and were disqualified, and ultimately that was enough for me to claim third place.
Feelings and Mindfulness
Successful physical and mental preparation leads to enjoyment of the dive itself, or at least the sense of satisfaction afterward. If you come up from a dive and you are pleased with yourself or it felt good- that’s another success.
After the prize giving, everyone was milling around and offering congratulations. But personally, the two stand-out moments for me were not from congratulations on third place, but for the quality and feeling of my dive. The judge who watched my Static told me mine was one of the most graceful dives he’d seen, while the safety diver made a point of coming over to tell me how I was her favourite diver of the day for smiling and clearly enjoying it.
I think a big key to feeling good about your diving is really being present in the moment, taking in everything about the dive and giving it your full awareness- there’s so much going on, to tune into your body during a dive is like listening to a symphony with all its layers and complexities. I find that fascinating.
I measure success on how relaxed and enjoyable the dive was, and I was delighted to find it showed to those around me, even divers who don’t know me and my style. Enjoyment and fun seem to be rare in competition, but to me they seem a significant indicator of quality- there’s a reason my own club’s competitions award podium places to the most relaxed or happiest dives, rather than based on numbers. It’s so much more skilful to see an athlete mindfully work through their contractions and settle back down than to see someone fight for each second of their hold.
Consistency over time
With all that said, you can’t judge success only on one dive, or one competition, or one anything. Two quotes have been coming up a lot lately in my reading, watching, and conversations: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”, and “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Now, while they refer to greater matters of civil rights and scientific discovery, I feel the concept is the same- the present moment is only one of many on a continuum. Always progressing forward, today stands on the shoulders of yesterday, and lays the foundations for tomorrow.
With that in mind, then, a competition or a dive is simply a snapshot of time. I do feel like there were other, (consistently) better athletes competing yesterday who should have placed- but the results really do just come down to what happened on the day. My times and distances are, to be honest, mediocre in comparison to the majority of athletes present on Sunday. I think the fact I recognise there are other athletes who probably deserved to win more if only things had gone to plan speaks volumes about the nature of success- it’s based less on one performance and more on consistency, reliability, building up that reputation dive after dive.
It’s about taking today’s dive and using it to improve tomorrow’s, whether it was good or bad there is always something that can be taken away and learned from. Of course, the athletes I admire most have the ability to take a (perceived) failure and forge it into a shiny new gem of experience that they can treasure for a long time afterward.
It’s with that thought I look to the future. It’s been an amazing learning opportunity to take part in the competition alongside some truly world class athletes, and to watch how they prepare, compete, and even deal with difficulty and disappointment. There are so many different styles to competitive freediving, and I think I’m a step closer to finding my own. The best part of the weekend was discovering what I need to go away and train and work on, in order to improve my own confidence and ability (clue- it involves mindfulness).
Success is complicated. You can feel good and bad about a performance at the same time, and it’s all equally valid. It’s what makes us celebrate where we are, while still working to improve. And I can’t wait to see what the next challenge is.
A week before the BFA UK Pool Championships, aka the Great Northern, I was starting to get my kit together in preparation. For the sake of due diligence, I tried on my favourite pool wetsuit, which had served me so well last season- only to find that, Yamamoto neoprene or not, there was no way I was getting that zip done up.
Twenty sweaty frantic minutes later, I gave up, and started looking for a new suit online that could be delivered in the next few days. Perfect- I found just the right one. It looks even better than my old suit. Oh wait. Wiggle doesn’t stock it in my size, a Women’s Large. Or Amazon. Or Sigma, or Ebay…
…and at that moment, I nearly pulled out of the competition altogether, £55 non-refundable entry fee be damned. Because at that moment, I realised that I don’t look like the typical competitive freediver, a honed athlete at the peak of fitness. Despite all my recent training efforts, I felt my body didn’t reflect that effort. And I was embarrassed to claim I was an athlete.
Type “freediver” into Google Images. Go ahead; I’ll wait. What did you find?
The long, lithe and lean. Ripped men and toned women in effortless smoothskin suits and stealthy camo numbers, bikini-clad beauties dancing with pelagics. I think it’s fair to say that freediving has a reputation for a certain “type” of person.
It’s for the daredevils, the yogis, the hardcore athletes. It’s about The Big Blue, Jacques Mayol, Tanya Streeter, the Molchanov/as, pushing the limits to ever deeper depths and having a high-performance vehicle of a body to do that.
I’m thinking this as I look down the pool lanes at my local freedive club night. Freedivers of all abilities are lined up, waiting to start the warm up. We are grouped by grades, with the higher ranks further down the pool. The nearest lane holds our newest recruits and, tonight, a couple of folk trying out the sport for the first time. The far lane, our World Championship hopefuls and a sprinkling of National Record holders across various disciplines and nationalities. We’re a mixed bunch.
But as I’m watching, that variety seems to go deeper than simply grading and ability. Training alongside me is every body type and fitness level imaginable, and in every lane. I love that. It’s inspirational. And, it would seem, somewhat unusual in the world of freediving.
At a size 14, I’m officially an “average” size- neither model thin, athletic, or even plus-sized. But there are times I certainly feel like it in this sport, when all my idols and role models are posing in bikinis and competing in borderline-sexy smoothskin wetsuits. I dream about going to the World Championships and making Team GB, maybe getting sponsorship or writing about my experiences, but I worry if that means I’ll have to drop a few sizes or show a bit more skin.
What about the eye-catching girls in my own club whose photos always make the front page of our website? Yes, they move well in the water, but they also happen to look great in a two piece and fins.
Can I be a successful freediver without looking like Tanya or Annelie or Rebecca or Georgina or Liv? That is to say, “easy on the eye”, as my male training partner put it. They are, each of them, athletic and attractive, as well as being exceptional divers. But can I be just as good, with my body?
I have great monofin technique and above average flexibility, but with a proportionally oversized chest, and any muscle hiding under a not-insubstantial layer of insulation. It serves me well, my body, and know that together we will improve and work around any weaknesses.
There are still days when I wish I could find a performance swimsuit range that doesn’t stop before my size, pick up a wetsuit off the rack, or just have the confidence to play in the sea in a bikini. And, yes, there are days I want to cry when I can’t zip my suit up, or it feels… snugger than last time I wore it.
On those days I cling on to knowing what I’m capable of, in that particular moment, and striving to improve. I try my best not to dictate what my body does or doesn’t look like, with any changes resulting only from diet or training routine planned to improve my strength, efficiency and technique. As my best friend said, “You’d look ridiculous as a size 6”, and she’s right, but that doesn’t impact how good a diver I am, or aren’t.
I’m not sure there is a freediving equivalent of the triangular swimmer’s body, the lean runner’s body, or the prominent thighs of the cyclist’s body. A group of divers from our club, all of whom I hold in high regard, recently went to meet with a personal trainer. That was a fascinating experience, in that it pronounced the differences between all our bodies and made us stop to consider our own, rather than those around us. Even among those who specialise in the same discipline, whether monofinning, no fins, or free immersion, found marked differences in body type, shape, height, strength, flexibility, all with areas that were naturally strong and areas that needed work. And yet, we are still all good freedivers.
I think fitness, and ability, come in many shapes and sizes. Do we need to be super fit yoga types with superior muscle definition to be good freedivers? No. We just need to be us.
For the record, I stopped by Decathlon on the way to my pool session tonight, and picked up a brand new, cheap, and fitting pool suit. Whether I look the part or not, my name is Kate and I am a competitive freediver. I’ll see you at the Great Northern.