RedCcup CWT: Breaking Through Barriers
Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
It was 6:15 am when my alarm went off on August 25th, 2016, the first day of the 5th annual RedCcup competition. The day before, I had announced a 55 meter (180 ft) constant weight dive, which was scheduled for precisely 11:20. I would spend the morning preparing, physically and mentally, for the dive.
I had no worries in regards to the depth, it was far from my personal best in the constant weight discipline (constant weight is when you fin down the line and back up again, without adjusting your weights and without touching the line, except once to turn at the bottom). My biggest challenge though would be keeping my nerves and anxiety at bay. Growing-up in “a gotta work hard and gotta work more” culture and family mentality, I’m at heart an over-worker and over-exerciser. And after seven years of working and studying design, of all things, in New York City, of all places, I became, well, a bit of a perfectionist and borderline stress addict, if life got too relaxed or too peaceful, I’d go seeking my next hit of adrenaline, a course here, a side job there, another project, a workout, etc. It was almost as if being stressed made me feel more valuable, more useful and important.
Freediving has had me become more aware of my over-active mind, a mind which doesn’t seem to ever switch off, and through specific mental and physical relaxation training, as well as special coaching and advising from Sara Campbell, Pim Vermeulen, William Winram among others, I’ve discovered ways to break free from the anxiety conditioning, developing a somewhat more relaxed way of being in the world.
But I still worry a lot by nature, about all kinds of things; health, money, work, relationships, etc. Sometimes I’m not even sure what I’m worried about but can tell that I’m worried anyway. I realize that some concerns are real but most are unnecessary, but even though I know that, knowing is one thing and changing is another. For example think about how many people in the world know how to lose weight (by eating healthy and regular exercise) and still, even though people know how to lose weight that doesn’t make it easier for them to do so. It goes to show that it’s one thing to know but another to change, taking action is the hardest part.
The way you do anything is the way you do everything -Tom Waits
However, being aware that I worry a lot helps in some ways though, as it creates a curiosity, I looked into the topic of stress and anxiety and how it works, which is quite interesting actually. Stress increases the levels of cortisol, a steroid hormone, in the body. It’s produced in the two adrenal glands located on the top of each kidney. Normally cortisol is released in response to events and circumstances, for example waking up in the morning, exercising and certain situations. There are many negative effects of having too much cortisol and/or having increased levels for too long, just a few of which include; an increased heart rate, severe muscle tension, decreased focus and decreased performance. This is something you definitely do not want, especially during a freediving competition.
Freediving competitions require that a freediver dive at a precise time, to a pre-announced depth within a 30 second window. The key to freediving successfully is maintaining a very low heart rate before and during the dive, that way your body uses less oxygen. Very simply, the more relaxed you are, the lower the heart rate, the longer you can hold your breath for. So if a diver is stressed or anxious during or around the time of a dive, their heart rate will increase and, most likely there will be a negative effect on the diver’s focus, increasing the probability of making a mistake.
It’s a bit similar to when someone is monitored or evaluated while working or doing an activity. For example, my father is a truck driver supervisor and told me about how he evaluates drivers. He accompanies the drivers on their usual routes, sitting in the passenger seat, informing each driver in the beginning of the run as to what they will be evaluated on. But no matter how experienced or inexperienced the driver is, he’ll often make a lot of mistakes during the first few evaluations, simple and easy to prevent mistakes like driving too fast, following too closely, making wrong turns, etc. which probably would not have occurred had my father not been evaluating. As my chemist friend, Tom, would say, it’s Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in full effect (when something is being observed, the act of observation alone has an effect of the particles being observed, therefore affecting the data so any information gathered will be less accurate due to by the act of observation)
What happens is the increased cortisol in the body, reduces the focus of the driver, creating a more narrowed perception so he’s able to focus his attention more closely on a few things but much less on many others, basically too mentally zoomed-in, so he’s unable to see everything around as clearly leading to making more mistakes than usual. However, after about 2-3 evaluations, the driver gets more comfortable and more relaxed with the situation and eventually makes less mistakes.
I hadn’t participated in a freediving competition in over eight months and couldn’t help but be a bit nervous. Unfortunately it’s difficult to control nervousness and worrying as it’s a very natural stress response, it kicks in automatically when encountering a perceived threat, for example, being evaluated, or in my case, the competition. The main culprit is the hypothalamus, which is a tiny region at the base of the brain, this sets off an alarm system in the body, and through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this is what prompts adrenal glands to release, not just cortisol, but also adrenaline along with a surge of other hormones.
If this were to happen on land in a somewhat normal context and environment, of course I’d manage, everyone deals with stressful situations nearly everyday. However, to happen around the time of my dive, or worse during my dive, would have a huge impact on my performance and whether or not I succeed, my heart rate would go through the roof, I wouldn’t be able to hold my breath for very long, all of which would lead to a possible black-out or early turn or just plain panic, aka disaster.
I knew that my hardwired stress and worry weren’t going anywhere, at least not anytime soon, but I needed to find a way to make them manageable, to try to control it, if I wanted to succeed. I decided to plan a program of routine. A day or so earlier, I made a schedule, planning out the details and the things I would do during the morning of my dive. The aim was to have the morning be as routine as possible, to keep the day feeling as “normal” and as “usual” as I could. I wanted to create the feeling in my mind of Just another day going to train at the Blue Hole. This simple ‘mind game’ would hopefully keep my mind in a space of comfort and familiarity, and relaxed, hopefully preventing the hypothalamus from setting off any alarms.
To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself. -Soren Kierkegaard
And so with plan in place, I crawled out of bed in my Assalah beach home and went right into my routine. I began my day with my stretching regime same as any other day, starting with empty lung stretches while drinking a cup of warm water with honey. Then, again as usual, I showered, relaxingly and dressed and made breakfast, followed by 15 minutes of meditation and 30 minutes of dive visualization. At 8:50, I was ready, and everything had gone according to plan.
My usual taxi driver arrived at 9:00, the usual time, with my sweetheart coach, Nick and off to the Blue Hole we went. Everything was just as usual, in the taxi I felt content and relaxed, nerves were in check and I was ready and excited for diving. With my program going smoothly, in my mind a sense of victory was slowly building…
When we arrived at Aqua Marina, the restaurant was hustling and bustling with freedivers, doctors, safety divers, dive gear scattered all over, as I expected. I greeted friends and divers while graciously making my way upstairs which was quiet, less crowded and more peaceful. I wanted to rest my mind and be in a space alone to, well, just be.
I took a seat and clamped headphones over my ears, listening to the relaxation music mix I played before every dive. It was 55 minutes before my warm-up dives, I did my mouth-fill exercises and light stretching. At 10:00 I laid flat on my back and for the remaining ten minutes I focused on my breathing, which calmed my mind and lead to a calmness in my body.
Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor. -Thich Nhat Hanh
At 10:15 Nick appeared to notify me it was time to suit up, I was ready to do so and was glad to be ready ahead of schedule. I lathered up my Oceaner wetsuit and carefully slid it on, part by part, a wetsuit so fitted and fragile that it required twenty minutes of gentile tugging and caressing to put it on. Then after donning the rest of my gear, and with monofin in hand, I stood at the edge of the water looking at the sea and at smiling Nick floating and bopping around in the water, and waited.
A few minutes later, at 10:35, I entered the water and Nick sweetly escorted me to the warm-up lines. I was more than halfway through my plan now and so far success at every step. My three warm-ups continued the pattern, going exactly as planned and visualized, I felt balanced, relaxed and wasn’t really thinking about anything, just following my program.
When the time came for my dive, Nick toted me to a bouy near the official line. I floated face down in the water breathing through a snorkel, and imagined I was diving alone with Nick, a typical day, friends training nearby. Just another day training, going perfectly as planned, feeling relaxed. The self talk and mental techniques overpowered my body’s hard-wiring to stress and worry. My heart beat remained calm, my body relaxed, I felt fully present and in control, of my thoughts and my body. So far the day had been nothing but small successes, one after another, I felt at ease, that positive forces were set in motion.
The official dive computer was put on my left wrist and I was unphased, remaining in my own reality, fully aware and at peace with what was going on around me and inside me, I can do this! I was gently brought to the competition buoy and gripped the line, as I did before every dive, Nick lightly held my weight belt to prevent me from drifting over the crossline and counter ballast system.
I calmly waited for the countdown, while focusing on my breathing and relaxation, trying to connect the two, it seemed the more I connected with them, the more I connected with myself and the sea all around. The countdown began, I started my final breaths, then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, I took my last breath and duckdived down into a radiant blue sea, being sure to remove my hand from the buoy before removing the snorkel from my mouth, which would disqualify me.
Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. -Brene Brown
Down I went, my mouthfill alarm sounded before I knew it, I swept my arms through to my side, as usual, carefully feeling around for the line, making sure not to close my fingers around it which would also be a disqualifier. It took a few precious seconds but I finally located it and began my mouthfill. But now I was deeper than usual for the mouthfill, so when I filled my mouth with air from my lungs it wasn’t full enough. I tried to top it up with more air but it was too late, I was too deep to get more air, at least that’s what I thought…
I remained calm, positive and present, it’s okay you can do this, just go as deep as you can! I continued on, falling deeper and deeper, obtaining perfect calmness in my mind and body, unbothered by the various thoughts that came and went, gradually becoming weightless.
Then out of nowhere, at about -40 meters I accidentally swallowed the little air left in my mouth. Normally, I’d turn and ascend but I was already committed to this dive, with my entire body and mind, I was in it completely, and felt the world was on my side. I quickly grouper-called some air into my mouth, which worked, and was able to equalize, another success. I continued descending in inner silence, subconsciously concentrating on managing the small amount of air in my mouth, about 20 seconds later, my alarm sounded and my hand hit the ball immediately after, it happened quickly, but I remained present and focused, slowing my experience of time.
Forget mistakes, forget failures, forget everything, except what you’re going to do now and do it. Today is your lucky day. -Will Durant
I opened my eyes, grabbed the tag and extended my arms overhead, beginning my ascent. I felt invigorated but unrushed, undulating my way from the depths back up towards the surface, focusing on my technique and positive thoughts, in touch with the sea around. Flex the ankles, relax, you can do it. My eyes were closed, opening only occasionally to check my position with the line.
Then I heard a grouper call from one of the safety divers. I opened my eyes and saw my friend and safety diver Carmen, then Gritti came into view. I could feel their positive vibes, like they were cheering me on. Almost there! I thought to myself.
My thigh muscles began burning from the increase of carbon dioxide, so I let up on the finning, and relaxed some while visualizing my surface protocol as I ascended towards the buoy. Upon surfacing I did my recovery breathing and surface protocol, which was exactly as I visualized, giving the “I’m ok”. But I was better than ok, I felt exhilarated and relieved. I breathed and happily, and patiently waited for the judges.
A moment later, white card! Success, in more ways than one. The dive itself seemed as though it was just another routine in the program which started that morning, and had been nothing but a series of small victories. Even with the mouthfill hiccup, succeeding at the end was bound to happen no matter what came my way.
In order to succeed, we must first believe that we can. -Nikos Kazantzakis
I felt deeply satisfied, my plan had worked and had allowed me to break through the barriers of fear and worry, not allowing anything to get in the way of accomplishing my goal. Much was learned in the process, most importantly that I can trust myself and my ability to handle anything and everything that life throws at me. It’s just a matter of confidence, being confident enough to throw my whole mind, body and soul into something I love to do, and it’s this which yielded a power that I just needed to tap into. I think that is the secret of the success today.
And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. -Roald Dahl
|Depth (Descent)||Time||Increment||Depth (Ascent)||Time||Increment|
|0 Meters||0:00||0 Meters||1:43||8 sec.|
|10 Meters||0:07||7 sec.||10 Meters||1:35||9 sec.|
|20 Meters||0:15||11 sec.||20 Meters||1:26||9 sec.|
|30 Meters||0:25||10 sec.||30 Meters||1:17||8 sec.|
|40 Meters||0:37||12 sec.||40 Meters||1:09||9 sec.|
|50 Meters||0:49||12 sec.||50 Meters||1:00||6 sec.|
|54.7 Meters||0:54||5 sec.||54.7 Meters||0:54|
Date: August 25, 2016
Loc: Blue Hole, Dahab
Target: 55M to ball – achieved
Suit: 3MM Oceaner
Weights: 1kg neckweight, 1kg belt
Breakfast: apple & chia seed shake
AM Feeling: excellent
#1: 24.1M FIM no mask, 1’22”
#2: 23.8M FRC, 1’23”
#3: 23.4M FRC, 1’18”
DIVE: 54.7M (comp in hood)
Dive Time: 1’43”
Descent Time: 55″
Ascent Time: 46″
Descent Speed: .9945
Ascent Speed: 1.189