Freediving and success

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?

Podium Places

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.

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.

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.

The internal symphony of the static.

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.

What next?

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.

Success is a happy diver- incidentally, one of these two broke his own Irish National Record, and the other won Best Male Newcomer, all on the back of enjoyment and relaxation.


What does a freediver look like?

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.

Me and the offending suit in happier times


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.


One of my dearest dive buddies, exploring caves while rocking a bikini and bi fins


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.

Isn’t it?

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.


Freedivers of all shapes and sizes


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?


Showing off my boobs and belly rolls surrounded by some fine male specimens- while knocking out similar numbers on the sled


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.

Yep, there are days I feel like a balloon whale


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.


But I can still kick it with the best of them


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.

Suit up