When I arrived in Bonaire to start a freediving course, I had no idea what would come of this move.
Every time I move somewhere new, I know that at the end of that chapter I will be left with amazing memories from some truly incredible experiences.
I thought the incredible experience in Bonaire would simply be learning how to freedive from Carlos Coste, one of the world’s best freedivers. But as the weeks went by, I became part of something that felt too surreal for words.
Training with an 11 time world record holding freediver became part of my weekly routine.
Over my last couple of months on the island, I watched and helped my instructor prepare for a world record attempt and his inaugural freediving competition held in Bonaire.
And in my last couple of weeks, I competed in that competition.
It felt slightly premature to be competing in this sport. I mean, I had only completed my first course a couple of months before.
I had no idea how a competition worked and if I could handle the pressure. I was still learning to handle the pressure of my deeper dives and I wasn’t sure adding the pressure of judges and spectators would be a good move.
I can safely say now, being part of this competition was one of the most exciting things I have ever done.
I felt a connection to freediving after just months that was similar to the connection I felt to yoga after years. I literally dove head first into the world of freediving and I feel I’m a better person for it.
And I absolutely dove head first into the competitive side of this sport. I literally learned how the competition worked day by day.
I’ve shared a lot of pictures and videos from the competition, but I’ve been wanting to share the in’s and out’s. So here it is, a freediving competition explained…
Freediving starts with a breath hold. If you have ever swum underwater while holding your breath, you have freedived. However, there is so much more to freediving than apnea. There is a point where the mind becomes as free as the open water, and that’s the point where the freediving really begins.
Understanding how to control something that’s so essential for my own life makes me feel more connected to myself. It makes me feel like my mind and I have a secret. It makes me feel powerful. It makes me feel free! It makes me feel like there’s nothing I can’t do.
Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée (AIDA), was established in France in 1992. This international organization seeks to further the development of freediving, sets the standards for freediving education and manages the recognition of records and competitions.
During the competition, I met the current president of AIDA, Kimmo Lahtinen. Witnessing someone that is so connected to the world of freediving is truly incredible. The knowledge, guidance and positivity that he shared during this experience were invaluable.
He was truly one of the calmest individuals I have ever met. He proved that people have the power to be whatever they want. We have the power to use our energy for good. We have the power to connect to the world around us. And his connection to the underwater world is contagious. I really think he may be part fish.
Photo by Dan Burton
The Freediving Disciplines:
There are several different disciplines in freediving where athletes can test the limits of their breath hold, usually measured in terms of time, distance and depth. Not all disciplines are used at a competitive level and not all disciplines are recognized by AIDA.
We competed in 4 disciplines, and only 3 were recognized by AIDA.
Constant Weight Training (CWT) and Constant Weight No Fins (CNF) are 2 disciplines in which a freediver will test the limits of their breath hold through depth. The freediver will dive along a vertical line to an announced depth and retrieve a tag from the bottom plate on the line. The freediver wears either a weight belt or a neck weight and the weight is not changed during the dive. CWT can be performed wearing fins or a monofin and the diver will be attached to the line with a wrist lanyard. CNF is performed with bare feet and the diver will be attached to the line with a waist lanyard. In both disciplines, the diver will swim to the announced depth and back to the surface using only their arms and legs, rather than pulling on the line for assistance.
Photo by Dan Burton
This discipline is performed in a pool and each freediver will submerge their airways in water, while holding their breath for time. Freedivers are allowed to have a coach, who will inform them of the time and ask for signals during the performance.
We performed this discipline in the sea, however AIDA only recognizes this discipline when performed in a pool. In either setting, the freediver will swim as far as possible on a single breath hold. This discipline can be performed with fins or without.
I competed in all four disciplines, as well as coached several athletes in static apnea.
As I was coaching static apnea during the competition, I watched each athlete breathe themselves into a state of relaxation. I stood by their side and slowed my own breathing. And as each athlete voluntarily placed their face in the water and began to hold their breath, I realized we are all a little bit crazy!
The Freediving Competition:
Announcements: Each evening before an event, the competing athletes will write down their attempted depth, time or distance for the following day’s competition. The athletes will also include their previous personal best as well as an estimated time for depth disciplines. This information is used as a safety precaution and allows the safety divers to better estimate their timing.
Official Top: Once all announcements are made, the official judges will post a list of the starting times, or official tops, for each athlete. The list is either organized from lowest to highest or highest to lowest attempt.
Event Check In: On the day of each event, the athletes must check in no later than one hour before their official top. Once on location, athletes are not allowed to enter the water for warm ups any earlier than 45 minutes before their official top.
The Countdown: Athletes will be notified 2 minutes before their official top and will usually already be set on the line or in the pool. For constant weight, the athlete should be on the line with an official dive watch on and lanyard attached. For static and dynamic, the athlete should be in the pool, or in our case, in the sea at the starting buoy. The 10 seconds leading up to the official stop will be announced by one of the official judges. After the athletes official top, they have 30 seconds for constant weight and 15 seconds for static and dynamic to initiate their breath hold and enter the water.
Surface Protocol: Upon exiting the water and ending their breath hold, athletes must perform 3 tasks in the correct order within 15 seconds. First, all equipment must be removed from the athlete’s face. This includes masks, goggles and nose clips. Second, the athlete must make an “okay” sign with their hand towards the judges. Third, the athlete must say “I’m okay” to the judges. For constant weight, the judges will then ask if a tag was retrieved from the bottom plate and the athlete must show this tag, if they have one. The athlete must also remain above the water line until the judges have given a card.
The Cards: White card means good dive and full points awarded. Yellow card means good dive with some points deducted. Points may be deducted for starting early or turning early on depth disciplines. Red card means disqualified. Disqualifications occur if the surface protocol is incorrect, the diver uses the line on constant weight dives or if a blackout occurs, just to name a few.
I actually received a white card for every attempt I made, totaling 6 white cards! And I placed first in every discipline for females, although I was the only female. Either way, not bad for my first competition!
So there it is, a freediving competition explained, but the one thing that’s hard to explain is how a freediving competition isn’t really a competition at all. The competition and the sport are about knowing your limits. Yes there were new personal records and new national records made during this competition, but the real records were the ones made in each of our minds. The lessons we learned from every detail of the process, the goals we reached that at one point seemed impossible and the peace we found from each additional ounce of relaxation.
It was an incredible 3 months fully immersed in the world of freediving. I don’t think I could have had a better introduction to this sport. And now I crave the connection to the sea, the relaxation in my mind and the peace that I find while underwater on a breath hold.
Freediving is an amazing sport, but there are risks involved. In training we learn to never freedive alone and in the competition (after witnessing a couple of blackouts) I learned why this is so important. This is the most important thing I learned and I cannot emphasize it enough… Never, ever freedive alone!