And so it was that having swam the Channel, I felt in need of something more recreational . I was inspired having read certain accounts of free-diving and after watching Luc Bessons film 'The Big Blue' . I knew I had to go deep.
Howard Jones was just setting up a training course in England, at a time when less than a dozen free-divers were in the UK. I went to Fort Bovisand in Plymouth to attend an introductory course and followed that to visit Aharron & MT Solomons in Greece. I loved it. The blend of an 'extreme' infant sport combined with an almost spiritual practice, a meditation and oneness with the ocean. I had used energy and commitment in swimming the Channel, now it was time to fall in love and caress the ocean.
I quickly figured that most free-divers were not athletes, they were just free-diving. They were not training, but simply free-diving. I deciding that in order to enjoy free-diving it was better to train and I knew something about training.
Shortly after attending my first courses, the monofin (a single large fin) was introduced into the free-diving world as a choice over normal fins. The technique substantially different but one which I readily absorbed having swam competitively and was comfortable with the concept. I could recognise how the water flowed and how different techniques would either be beneficial or otherwise. Three months later I fancied it was time to compete as I had no idea how far I could go, in one breath underwater in a swimming pool. Having never tested myself to a maximum effort.
I flew out to Switzerland for an International competition. In preparing to dive, I commenced my standard breath holding warm up schedule. Forty five minutes of ever increasing breath holds from one minute to three minutes, with ever shorter breathing breaks in between. It is surprising that after such an exercise, it is easier to hold a breath for the three minute hold at the end, than it was for the one minute hold at the beginning.
This exercise was different though, I was becoming aware that I was unable to slow my heart rate, which was being pounding by adrenaline and nervousness. Soon enough, it was my time to compete. The pool was 25 meters long and I commenced. The first length was so peaceful, I felt I need never breathe again, the second started to make me think otherwise and as I continued , I was interested how incidiously the urge to breathe crept up on me. I knew I could swim three lengths having done so in training, and as I made the turn at seventy five meters, I could hear the judges rattling metal onto the steps of the pool to cheer me on. I wondered how far I should go (and having seen other competitors come up around 75 meters) I felt the end must be close. I carried on until I had swam four lengths, the urge to breathe was impossible to ignore, but again I heard rattling metal on the steps and took heart. I was still very aware. I made the turn and carried on. Then there came a point which I had never experienced, the competitive effort of carrying on in the face of really needing to breathe and the knowledge I must stop. I chose to stop having swam 131 meters on my first maximum attempt. Gathering my breath at the end, and in climbing out of the pool, I was shocked to notice how weak my legs felt as I walked wobbly to my clothes.
The competition was an inspiration, as I watched my distance beaten by one swimmer by a few meters and then another, who swam 7 lengths, 175 meters and a world record distance.
On the plane home I wondered what the UK record was, and on returning I was surprised to find that there wasn't one. I submitted my result to the British Free-diving Association only to be told that the competition was not sanctioned by the governing body and my swim would not count. Indeed, the 175m swim by ....... would also not count and the existing world record of 168 meters held by Herbert Nitsch would still stand. This was quite a disappointment that protocols could rob two athletes of their records. I had swam a distance that could have made an inaugural UK record and I had also witnessed a swimmer beat the world record, yet the governing body had rules that robbed these efforts of their records. I didn't argue, but resolved simply to repeat the swim at the next competition which was to be held by the governing body.
A few weeks later I was in the French town of Amiens to compete again. This time the pool was 50 meters long. I repeated my usual breath hold warm up, but this time I chose to allow more time afterwards to take a warm shower, in an effort to relax in the few minutes before the swim. There were no shower doors and I stood relaxed under the flowing water, wearing my Speedos, breathing slow and deep and calm, eyes closed, remaining in the place my mind had placed itself in total calmness and peace. The adrenaline was far more controlled this time . On opening my eyes, I was aware of the shower opposite being used and the person soaping all over was naked and female. It amused me to realise I had looked long enough to decide she was rather pretty. It also amused me to think that the French were rather risque with communal showers. It hadn't occurred to me that I was actually in the ladies showers. I turned my back smiling to myself for a moment before my mind found it's proper place.
Swim time came around quickly enough and I slid into the starting position. I realised I was nervous, but my time to start was in the final two minute countdown and I tried not to think of the nerves but to get my mind back into place. Then it was time to go. The first length was all wrong, there was no wall at 25 meters and by the time I was at the first turn, I was already needing to breath. It felt tough, but I decided I had to at least get to 100 meters, one length away. The urge to breathe was more urgent and as I reached the 100 meter turn, I recognised the same signals as before, I tried to relax, knowing I should be able to get half way back down the next length. I carried on. feeling my body react to the need to breathe, it got desperate , I tried to refuse the orders my body was telling me, to breathe. These were interesting feelings, a strange pain, that got worse moment by moment but not sufficiently so to make you stop. I always felt I had a couple more kicks left, a few more seconds. I had not experienced these feelings to such an extreme and had no idea how long I could endure them. Without thinking, I swam up to breathe. I had made 139 meters. The rest of the competitors made their attempts and the excitement grew as one by one, none of them got as far.
In my second attempt at a maximum effort, in an international competition comprising of 69 athletes from 7 countries, I had first place and a UK record that would stand for 4 years. I was also the first British competitor to ever win a National Free-diving Competition. It wasn't until the journey home that I next thought of the naked girl , all soaped up in the shower, it made me smile to myself to think I had dismissed her so perfectly and entirely from my thoughts when it mattered, and so I dismissed her again, because it always matters.
Dynamic Apnea provides a discipline far more testing than the other Free-diving disciplines. It allows the diver to keep swimming with one breath, a few feet underwater doing lengths in a swimming pool. The diver can, at will, decide when to end the dive. And this is the problem. Whilst a constant weight depth diver would never push his breathold to the absolute limit in a depth dive and be uncertain whether sufficient oxygen remains for the return trip, in dynamic apnea the diver simply decides a few seconds before the air runs out, to raise his head above the surface and breathe. This event therefore provides the diver with a choice , to keep on swimming ignoring the signals to breathe or to end the swim early and breathe. Knowing ones limits is important, but how do you know your limit until you reach it. So you swim, holding your breath, one length, then two, then three and you are desperate to breathe, you decide to stay swimming for five more seconds and then you raise your head and every time, you wonder how much further you might have gone, had you stayed swimming. Maybe 5 seconds, maybe 20 seconds more. Then, one day, you have the fortitude to stay swimming. Knowing for certain beforehand that this dive is the one where you determine to do your absolute competitive best. A dive where you will try to judge within maybe two seconds before unconsciousness, when the moment will be to raise your head and breathe.
And so it was, I held the UK record and was selected to represent the United Kingdom for what was billed as the World Championships in Hawaii six months later. I continued training and had almost developed a different stroke, but untested at maximum effort was shy to try it out. My 'old' style consisted of a fairly strong undulation and regular kick, aiming for speed with shorter breath hold. The new style was slower, using the usual undulation and kick, but followed by a short flutter lick with the fin, before the next undulation. I felt it gave a short free glide and a moments rest in between every other kick. The principle being that I could gain ten meters underwater if only I could stay underwater a few seconds longer. I also attempted to increase my static breath hold, which had been four minutes eighteen seconds. A few days prior to my swim, I managed a maximum static breath hold of five minutes, but as I came to breathe I was on the verge of unconsciousness, and in a competition this would have resulted in disqualification. Nevertheless, I was aware I had gained a substantial breath hold improvement (probably safely around thirty seconds static), which should allow ten seconds in swim ming. I felt that could be worth fifteen meters, I further felt having achieved 139 meters in my first four months training, I should expect a few meters more for the later six months training.
I had also altered my warm up strategy, using a similar breath holding exercise, instead of holding my breath with a full lungful of air and increase the durations of each hold over a 45 minute warm up. I chose to hold my breath with no air. I would therefore breathe out and with empty lungs, commence to hold my breath. The first hold would be ten seconds, and these would increase by ten seconds each hold. In this way I managed to increase my warm up breath hold for two minutes with empty lungs.
I decided to declare a distance of 150 meters and would therefore be one of the last competitors to swim. Although I later changed my mind and declared much less in order to get the swim over with early in the competition, in a hope that it might control my nervousness . I also wanted to watch the competition in peace after my swim.
So it was, in due course, I attended to my warm up and was stood in the competition pool, for the two minute breathe up before the off. I knew I had had a great warm up, the nerves had gone, and after nearly 45 minutes of very little oxygen in my lungs, it felt great breathing in slow deep rich oxygen. I commenced my swim, it felt great from the start,, I imagined a peaceful dance with the ocean flowing and I reached the first turn at 50 meters without any thoughts of ever needing to breath (unlike the French swim), The second length I considered I was swimming alongside Aharron to show him how his training concepts were beginning to work, a challenge to him to keep up. Gradually I became aware of the need to breathe around 75 meters and upon reaching the 100 meters turn, the urge was strengthening. I compared this to France and felt I was in a far more comfortable state. I said 'goodbye' to Aharon, now it was my turn to make this swim by myself. I determined to go out and beat my UK record. Swimming the third length was far more controlled than in previous swims, although I had the urge to breathe, I also recognised I had felt these feelings before and could still swim on. On I swam, I didn't recognise when I passed the 139 meters, but the wall at 150 meters rapidly approached. I was shocked that I had got there, seemingly untroubled. Most of the time my mind had found its peaceful place and there was no adrenaline, just the motion I felt despite the need to breathe, that in fact I need never breathe again.
I made the 150 meter turn and pushed off the wall, feeling that I had a few kicks left. In training had felt this way and had maybe ten kicks left, maybe fifteen more meters. I kicked away from the wall and wondered how close to Herbert's World Record I might get, I kicked again and again, and felt calm and peaceful. World Record came into my thoughts, I kicked again, I had no thoughts of stopping just then. Yet, in an instant I knew I had to stop, I had no choice, my mind went fuzzy, I was nearly six feet deep and had to breathe. On the surface I took my breath, and again, and again, my face fell towards the water as I blacked out, supported only by the safety diver. It took a few moments for the oxygen to complete its journey from lungs to blood to brain, for the brain to flick the switch back on. I wobbled my head up straight to complete my surface protocols, but I knew I would be disqualified. I was being held above the water by my safety diver. I had seen that happen many times before.
156 meters. I climbed out of the pool. The rest of the competitors completed their swims. I watched many of the great ones come up short. With only four swimmers to go, I watched Herbert Nitsch the current World Record Holder come up at 144 meters. Another stopped at the wall 150 meters. Another disqualified.
I had just completed my third maximum effort (in front of the World's best free-divers) and had thoughts to get close, even beat the World Record (and it didn't seem a silly notion at the time) and had I have settled to come up maybe straight after the push off the wall, I would have been World Champion and have extended my UK record to 151 meters.
A year or so later I acted as a safety diver to my friend Dave King, who safely reached 156 meters and broke my UK record. Even now, ten years later, only a few dozen people worldwide have made that 150 meter turn. I was one of the first ever to do so.
The statistics of my dynamic apnea swim caused a mystery. I have a safe static breathold of 4 minutes 18 seconds, yet many free-divers can get way over six minutes and Herbert over eight minutes. How is it possible that I can therefore swim (albeit disqualified) 156 meters in one breath? While those with almost double my breathold cannot come close?
The mystery was soon to be solved. It seemed it was my static that was unusual. I simply cannot hold my breath. I had noticed more and more the anxiety I had in preparing to do a breathold swim, I found it very difficult to calm my heart rate, at slow revs, it always had a strange beat, but at swimming speed maybe 90 bpm, it was efficient. I suppose it couldn't run on slow. The difficulties became more and more apparent over the coming months, in as much as the electrical pathways were confused and my heart rate started to go haywire 24/7.
Feeling unwell one morning, I went to visit my doctor who made an emergency hospital appointment, my resting heart rate was over 200 bpm. Atrial Fibrillation. It took nearly eighteen months and two operations to fix the problem. Unfortunately the last operation damaged my Phrenic Nerve which controlled my the right section of my diaphragm. This resulted in half my diaphragm being paralysed. The surgeon said it could take a year to repair itself. I couldn't breathe hard for quite a while and had to stop holding my breath and diving. I was aloud to swim, as long as I could breathe, but even that was too difficult for a few months. .
Today, my UK record has been smashed. The emerging sport of free-diving has continued to grow. Records have increased to fantastic times with the static breathold of over eleven minutes.
It intrigues me today to consider that my heart has behaved itself for over ten years. I am fitter then ever despite being older. I wonder what I could achieve with a healthy heart beat. So it comes around again. I loved free-diving and hope to get involved again as I try to dive my age at the end of 2013. That entails a depth swim (without fins) breast stroke to 55 meters.
If you wish to sponsor that swim, I will do it for your cause.