Now training here to go deeper
Dean Chipolina who turns forty this month is a breath holding free diver who has under his belt the title of current UK champion and is still ranked fourth in the world since the pandemic messed up annual competitions. This September however he aims to defend his title again and as he feels he has a good five years still left in competitive diving, he reckons that he could improve his depth again and get into the world top echelons by reaching 100 metres plus. He has an ambition to break the UK record too.
Free divers have to hold their breath for upwards of three minutes in order to descend to depths greater than ninety metres and beyond. The sport calls on the body to submit to great pressures going down a guide line to the target bottom depth and retrieve a tag as proof of the dive, then return to the surface, not in distress, but in a surface window of only fifteen seconds, recover their breathing and declare to an official “I am OK” in order for the dive to be validated.
In preparation for this interview I googled ‘free diving’ and various ‘Ted Talks’ given by champion free divers and soon discovered that you have to be more than a little bit special to take on the ocean depths in just one breath. This is where Dean Chipolina comes in. “For the last three months I have been doing depth work locally in the sea and now I have adapted my training to pool work for the next three months until August. In pool work you do not have to risk lung squeeze. It’s still breath holding but without the extreme pressure of depth. You fill your lungs with air and whilst you hold your breath your body converts oxygen to CO2, you train your body to work carrying large amounts of CO2. In another type of pool training called hypoxic training, we train to hold breath for longer periods. In pool training you have someone just a few metres away in a more controlled environment, as opposed to sea training where the next person could be up to a hundred metres above you or more.”
Not a sport for the faint hearted or the unfit, it’s only for the elite divers who can will their minds to be completely relaxed in a harsh, dark and cold environment with pressures of up to twelve times the surface pressure acting on their bodies trying to squeeze their chest cavity. “Relaxation is the key to a successful dive and I will train to relax totally for up to ten minutes on the surface before I take a deep breath and submerge. In pool training I only need to relax for two or three minutes as it’s repetition and high volume training. When I want to go deep I need to find as much relaxation as possible and will only do one deep dive a day or even two days.”
“We all have to train hard to ‘not worry’ and detach ourselves from the reality of needing to breath. If you are tense your body quickly uses up oxygen. We have to alter our perception of time so that we come back to the surface after three minutes and on a good day you can feel like you’ve only been down there for thirty seconds.” A simple breath hold challenge of thirty seconds in water at the surface is enough to make anyone realize how difficult it is to not breathe underwater. Multiply that exercise by twice the time and a normal person is really struggling and panicking. No time for that in free diving where panicking can cause a blackout and carries with it the potential to drown.
“Some free divers practice Yoga and meditation to improve their relaxation technique as you need to learn to ‘bend time’ because your perception of time changes and that’s a skill that we use constantly. During a long dive you have to be mentally detached so that you don’t panic and use up oxygen with the tension and mental anxiety. A lot of repetition training allows the diver to do it without thinking, like riding a bicycle without thinking of falling off it”.
Dean Chipolina was always keen on spear fishing since the age of nine and scuba diving since the age of fifteen. Octopus hunting and feeling comfortable under water came naturally to him so as a diving enthusiast it was inevitable to take a trip to the Galapagos and snorkel there in what many describe as a huge aquarium teeming with life. “I very soon found myself diving to thirty metres without prior training and realized that I still had it. It was a natural ability for me I found and add to that a great love for the sea which fascinates me to this day. So it became a passion for free diving in spite of a family tragedy which might have stopped any other person in their tracks”.
“Some years ago my cousin Kyle Bagu drowned in a spear fishing accident which made me decide not to go spear fishing again but helped to push me to go to Tenerife on a free diving course and learn all about techniques and safety. That qualification made me more confident and later in free diving circles I met many top competitors including the current Russian world champion Alexey Molchanov (34) and we became friends. This man has reached 130 metres in one breath and holds the current world record.”
Dean’s girlfriend is Nicole Endesbo the current Swedish free diving champion (personal best 85 metres) so in training they support themselves by looking out for each other and improving their skills in order to continue competing at top level. It struck me that as a local sportsman competing abroad Dean is unsupported by any Government sports grant and he tells me that as he is not associated here he doesn’t qualify. I thought that perhaps a gaming company might wish to sign him up to a sponsorship deal which would help him with training expenses and travel costs to competitions etc.
Dean has had professional coaches and continues to use one online but he now designs his own training programme and religiously logs his progress every time he trains. Each time he ticks more of the target boxes and is confident that he knows his strengths and weaknesses too. His main aim is to continue to improve but still enjoying himself and always leaving something in the tank. He doesn’t see the need to beat yourself up if you do your best and then fall short of the glory on competition day.
His philosophy is to be always humble and above all enjoy diving ‘because that is what is going to make you better at it’. He has beaten some of the top names that I checked out on my Google trawl, even though some are not too helpful he insists that the majority of free divers at top level are quite open and happy to pass on tips and encouragement. He did say that the British UK free diving team were happy to have him on board even though he’s not from mainland UK but would prefer to compete as a Gibraltarian carrying his Gibraltar flag. Hopefully under a different organisation (CMAS) Dean will be able to compete as Gibraltar instead.
With his impressive attributes he has been used by scientists for dive studies in Croatia and as he is well known in the Tenerife diving fraternity he will be commuting once a week from here regularly in a couple of months, when he has finished all his pool training to concentrate only on deep sea dives in the ideal conditions that Tenerife presents. A far cry from Atlantic diving, his local diving is more problematic to plan. “Here we have surface and underwater currents, poorer visibility, very large patches of tall algae in the bay (at around 60 metres) and also changing water temperatures during a dive (thermocline), where colder water meets warm water and the shock to the body can ruin concentration and considerably lower the chances of a good dive.
“Sometimes I go 4/5 miles out on the Eastside to avoid all that and the police patrol launch comes out to investigate, which is also a nice reminder I have someone looking after my safety locally. I would like to say thanks to local maritime authorities. It’s a delicate balance as always but safety is always paramount. The Watch Clinic looks after my equipment maintenance and Oxy Ltd supply me with emergency oxygen for my needs.”
“In competition diving there is a team of safety divers beside the guide line to the target depth and safety boats, so that takes care of the pre-dive stress and enables better relaxation build-up for us competitors. After 50 metres of descent you are on your own and freefalling. You have set an audio alarm to alert you a couple of metres before you reach the target depth so you can get ready to retrieve your proof tag and then start your ascent.”
“You can’t afford to burn yourself out while coming back and only your repetition training allows you to remain relaxed until you surface. Your heartbeat has slowed down to 15/20 BPM at the bottom and now shoots up to 180 BPM and you only have fifteen seconds to get it all under control and declare to the dive marshal “I am OK.”
I wind up our chat in the noisy Casemates ‘al fresco’ bar and proudly wish Dean Chipolina all the best of Gibraltarian luck for his next competition in September, when he hopes to attain a new PB depth and retain his ranking in the world’s top breath holding divers. These athletes are the champions of inner space and have superior skills. They actually enjoy the dangers of diving like porpoises and challenging the great pressure of a column of water taller than 100 metres above their heads.
I hope that this time round Dean can obtain a sponsorship deal for his troubles and can continue to compete at top level for the next five years that he hopes for. Watch this space in the October Insight Magazine and we shall let you know the results of his efforts at top level free diving.