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Freediving Bucket List: 2021 Vertical Blue and Dean's Blue Hole

Photo by Daan Verhoeven.

You start freediving because you want to see stuff. Then, when you find yourself sinking into the darkness of a saltwater hole in the Bahamas, you realize your motivation has changed. It's not about seeing stuff anymore.

It's about seeing inside yourself.

This was my second US Men's National Record and first time competing at Vertical Blue.

My spot at the competition opened up very last minute, so my training beforehand was not structured. While I was spearfishing and teaching in the Pacific non-stop throughout 2020, the motivation and opportunities for real depth were never present. Covid protocols had made pool training almost impossible and even ocean meet-ups had become difficult for us in California. I arrived at Vertical Blue tired and going on two years since I'd done any real depth: I was rusty.

It's a long competition. Ten days. I would have to pace myself and pray that I wake everyday hungry for the dive but not greedy; greedy divers make mistakes and maim themselves or worse. Could a dive both great and beautiful come together in ten days?

Because I was rusty I was nervous. Very nervous. Even in the ten days of on-site training I had before the comp started I would be fighting cold sweats and failing dives that back home in our cold rough ocean would have been easy for me. The location, Dean's Blue Hole, is magical--actually a bucket list destination for me ever since I'd heard about it--and it was incredible to see dive friends from around the world again, but my own competition dives this year might be footnotes. I'd changed some technical aspects and so far the pieces hadn't been coming together. I'd have to temper my expectations and just count my blessings. I'm not a particularly gracious person but freediving does bring out the best in me. It's impossible not to feel gratitude when surfacing. Oxygen is a privilege, to say nothing of the fundamental health it takes to enjoy the ocean, the resources to travel, and the professionalism of the safeties, medics, and organizers.

Relaxing on the platform with PFI instructor and competition judge, Rebecca Philips. Photo by Jessea Lu.

Don't get me wrong--ambition can be a powerful motivator, but at a certain point, when we sink eyes closed into dark water it doesn't serve us. Better to surrender. Better to let the majesty of the ocean wreck our egos so we become empty vessels, pliable and undamaged by pressure. Nerves and jitters give way eventually to rhythm. And fear--fear of the unknown, fear of pain, and fear of failure--it becomes wonderment. That's when the magic happens.

On the second to last day of the competition, I got to the Hole, did my warm-up swim at the surface around the platform and then a few dives on the warm-up line. I felt neither good nor bad, just happy to be in the water. Besides three days of solid plane travel I'd been in the water either for work or training every single day for the last 8 weeks. I was smiling as I moved onto the competition line. I honestly love what I do but the psychology of freediving is such that we can't perform at our best if we have negative thoughts, so I love it even when I don't. The little zone around the competition line is called 'the pit,' and only judges, safeties, and diver are allowed in the pit. It feels like being in a fishbowl though since everyone is watching and Diveye broadcasts every moment via satellite, so I nod hello to the safeties and judges who are now my family, then I mostly look down into the water and smile into the Hole.

I'd announced a 74 meter dive, without fins. It'd be a few meters deeper than the current US National Record. Two years ago, I'd made the dive in training for the world championships, then when I'd tried in competition, I'd lost consciousness upon surfacing. That dive two years ago had, however, been in every way a beautiful dive.

Today's dive would also be a beautiful dive. I rolled onto my back and slowed my breathing, prepping for the dive. Sometimes I count seconds between breaths--it's a framework on which to drape my anxiety. But today as the final countdown started I felt calm and still....

A moment after breaking the surface, having just set a new US men's national record for Constant No Fins with a dive to 74 meters. Photo by Johnny Vicari.


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