What goes through your mind...underwater for 5min 41s.
Updated: Feb 19, 2022
In breath-hold diving, your mind is your most powerful ally ...or your most terrible foe.
My event specifically - time on breath hold, aka Static Apnea - is a mental trip. You can practice as many times as you want, but no two journeys are the same.
"Your thoughts during a dive are like a photograph. If you take the same picture out over and over again, it becomes worn around the edges and it loses its value."
- said the very wise Belgian that I recruited as my interim coach.
The World Champion freedivers will tell you that you need to find a zen state...make your mind go completely blank. You shouldn't have thoughts using up precious oxygen, as the brain is the organ that uses up the most of this valuable fuel. Oxygen conservation is the key to going farthest.
Unfortunately for me, 2021 was a dive season where my brain just could not be turned off, and I distinctly remember all my 'dreams'.
But what was going through your head during the World Championship dive?
I wish I could paint a picture like "I was born for this!" and "I'm ready to give 'em hell" but that's not what it was like at all. This was my first international competition and the opportunity was granted so I ran with it. But after all was said and done, I didn't have the confidence of saying I could not be more prepared. I knew I was just jumping into this and was terrified, as anyone would be, to not make a fool of myself.
The season is supposed to get ramped up slowly over 6-9 months, but I just started 3 months ago because my pool had been closed for Covid! The feeling was like knowing you have to run a marathon without having trained and ---ugggh this is gonna hurt!
To boot, the last serious training dive I did was still fresh in my mind - the most painful/uncomfortable dive I had ever had. The diaphragm contractions were so intense that my body writhed and bucked as I held on and just barely hit a mark that I had hit easily earlier in the season. My coach was in shock at the outward expression of my struggle and he basically patted me on the shoulder and said 'good luck with that! bon voyage! Just do the best you can if this is how your body is reacting right now.'
All of the competitors around me were also in shock - 'you came without a coach?!?' Yes, please don't remind me that I don't have anyone here to help me.
(Your coach talks you through your dive. Your face is in the water but you can hear their voice and you become accustomed to the person who is regularly talking in your ear.)
For the day of the event, I recruited a friend to be my interim coach - this adds to the nerves knowing that you are going to have a voice that is unfamiliar talking in your ear and that I have never dived with him before - we don't even know each other's styles!! Needless to say, I was not feeling confident.
However, you have to trick your mind into disregarding those negative voices reminding you of everything going against you. If you believe them, then you're really screwed!
The morning of my dive is here.
Ok, let me get there early, let me get in the water, let myself float here, absorb the energy of the championship and channel it into what I have to do. Focus. Be centered. Listen to your breathing. Close your eyes...you know you can do this. ...aaaand PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN starts BLASTING OVER THE INTERCOM. It won't stop.
The ceremony introducing the judges for the day had begun and this was their intro music, which just happened to coincide with my warm-up time. How are you supposed to channel a zen state with this music blaring? I didn't even get one long prep dive in as practice before I was being dragged across the surface to my lane.
"I didn't have a proper warm up!! This pool is freezing! I hope this is not a mistake to ditch my googles...I've never dived without my goggles before. " Negative chatter floods into my head as I know my start time is just minutes away now.
My friend pulled me over the lane line and this is it. The culmination of all this effort to be here...and now I'm actually in my lane. I feel like crap, I'm not ready. But there is no turning back now.
I hear them announce my name and my countdown starts:
"THREE MINUTES!" they shout, and my heart is beating out of my chest. The seconds feel like milliseconds and I am trying to do everything I can to slow my heart rate but it's pounding so hard I swear it's making ripples in the water.
"TWO MINUTES!" suddenly I start shivering uncontrollably, these violent huge shudders that look more like a mini-seizure. I'm cold, the pool is cold, but I know that these uncontrolled movements are my body's last-ditch effort to try to tell me "RUNNNNNNN. RUN THE OTHER WAY!!" The nervous system is in the middle of an electrical storm. Full-on flight mode.
the rest of the countdown I'm just doing my best not to panic and just take slow deep breaths, use my brain to control my heart beat.
I've been through it in other competitions when you get put on the spot and you are asked to perform with everyone looking at you. Albeit, this is quite cranked up because the stakes have never been higher. I'm drifting in and out of calm states.
"TEN, NINE, EIGHT...."
"HOLY (EXPLICATIVE). Here we go. Jesus take the wheel."
I think to myself.
Ok, no more time to think, focus on getting those last deep breaths, I have only 30s to start my dive or I'm disqualified.
Frickin countdown. As if it wasn't stressful enough without that.
I hear my time winding down and my mind screamed "HERE GOES NOTHING!!!!!' as I flipped over.
The cool water hit my face and the little air bubbles were working their way out of my eyelashes.
Immediately, the mind chatter was uncontrollable "I can't do this...you have to do this...screw this, it's too much.....don't be lame" ...back and forth, back and forth. Thoughts flashing like lightning bolts across my eyes, one after another and incessant. The first sign of 'trouble' popped up when I was only at 1:45... "ohhhh nooooo, I am screwed. period. This is way too early to have the first contraction." My body was on highest alert: heart pounding, eyes twitching, muscles contracted...like a bear was behind me and I was getting ready to Usain Bolt it out of there! There was no calm, there was no peace, I was just trying to convince myself not to abort mission, and in the process, I had burned through the oxygen reserves way too quickly.
I was still going back and forth in my mind to just bow out, there was a lot building up to this moment, perhaps too much and too soon, this is NOT the beautiful experience it's supposed to be, it's not my day, it's been a forced season, everyone will understand...
And then suddenly I started to see faces...I saw Mary M.'s face first...then Rob F., Mary C., Marcia R., my aunt, my cousin, my grandma, my uncle, more people from around town, my students, people I went to college with...my mind ran through like a rolodex the people who believed in me and were rooting me on. The list was long. These people were at home and probably sleeping right now, and I was underwater with my eyes closed but could see their faces smiling!
Calm swept over me. "Yooo, you know what you need to do. Do it for the team Kate. You have come TOO FAR to give up now! Just go as far as you can. Just don't open your eyes, even if you can't go as far as other days, you owe it to everyone to max out for today - at whatever time that is."
BOOM. The fire was ignited. That negative chatter was instantaneously exchanged for confident chatter and suddenly I could feel my body untensing.
"Ok Kate, the contractions started really early, but you have got to slow them down and spread them out. You got this. Just like you've done a hundred times before, just settle in... "
At this point I heard my friend/recruited coach's voice from above the water 'ok Katie, you're coming up on 4 min, you're doing good" frickin liar. He knew dang well that I was struggling. I know he can see the contractions. But it was like somebody putting red in front of bull! I suddenly got bullish confidence because the worst was over. 4 min already!? Now I'm on the homestretch! If I'm at 4 already, I made it through the worst!
The people who believed in me accompanied me through the worst part of the dive.
Call it divine intervention, because the images of the faces of all those people was not something that I conjured. It wasn't something that I actively brought up in my brain, it was something that appeared to me like biblical accounts of angels.
It came at the perfect time when I was mentally exhausted from the fight against the negativity and improper preparation, and gave me the fighting power to give it a fighting chance.
I opened my eyes, and I was a little frightened at first because I couldn't see anything...it was all black! Remember I had decided to dive without googles for the first time ever, and the platform was unusually large and all I could make out was the large black bottom plate from the blue wall. Move toward the wall!
You're on the homestretch now, I just have to focus on one safety tap after another.
(At a certain time in the dive, the safety diver will start to tap your shoulder periodically and you have to raise your finger to show you are ok and still alert)
First one, I'm still strong.
Second one 30s later, I feel calm although I am having very strong contractions.
the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th tap on the shoulder... the safety taps are just 15s apart now, and this is the perfect amount of time to keep me distracted as the contractions absolutely rock my system.
Somewhere in here my friend said in my ear "Katie, you're on your way to getting everything you wanted". Boom. More fire in my soul to do this. Don't be conservative. You came here with a purpose.
I MUST FOCUS to prolong the contractions. I'm doing this for my people!
I'm at 5 minutes. Now I've passed the old US record at 5:23, I want 5:30. Now I passed 5:30 and I still have a tiny bit of gas in the tank! Now the contractions are so strong and so close together that I know the time is near.
I lowered my legs to the platform, had my hands on the wall, brought my head up and....drunk on hypoxia, I fell forward into the wall. The wall slamming my chest reminded me to breathe and I managed to get off the protocol by the skin of my teeth.
The judged showed me a yellow card, which means that they will need to review the tape to determine if I effectively 'stuck the landing'. A short time later it was finalized. White card.
The judges said my exit was good and my dive is valid for a New United States Record, 5 min 41s.
"Why would you put yourself through that?!?!?"
To keep it short - this happened to be a very challenging dive but the power of the mind again triumphed over physical hardship. Not so different than ultramarathon runners.
Other dives, the beautiful ones, I will never forget because of the heavenly serenity I felt.
In both cases and all the in between, it's a competition with your mind. Will you give in to those negative voices that are inevitably there? Can you focus and find peace in even the most inhospitable environment?
I am BEYOND PROUD that I won this battle. The dark side was strong in this competition, but the Force prevailed.
And I could not have done it without you.
The people behind me literally showed up for me.
The World Championship:
An unforgettable experience.