In July before the World Free Diving Championships which were held in Limassol (Cyprus) in mid September, high ranked local free diver Dean Chipolina was asked by his UK teammates if he would step up and take on extra diving disciplines as one of the UK’s four man diving team had pulled out. With time against him and at the risk of messing up his own training regime he agreed. The UK free diving team is currently ranked number one in the world due in no small way to Dean’s extra performances against all odds. The weather played havoc with the championship, which requires ideal surface conditions and little or no underwater currents to make for safe deep diving. Dean Chipolina is currently ranked number six in the world and that is a remarkable achievement.
During the competition on September 23rd, Dean messaged me to say that despite horrible conditions (all diving was cancelled shortly after his successful 85 metre attempt), “Despite the weather I managed a beautiful dive to my announced depth.” I immediately went on line and watched his graceful dive on Youtube and I recommend anyone who is interested in water sports to do so too. It is beautifully filmed and a testament to the meticulous preparation and execution by this gifted local athlete who we have featured on ‘Insight Magazine’ before.
Fresh back from the championships (having lost eight kilos of body weight through exertion) but looking relaxed and quietly proud, Dean sits across from me sipping coffee. He has just shown me a glowing letter from the Chief Minister and messages from the City Hall. Everyone wants to toast him and yet if everything had gone his way he would now be World No 4 because he still feels he has more to give. In a sport notorious for divers suffering surface blackouts due to exertion, Dean knows his safe capabilities and has never blacked out. He always leaves something in the tank and although now forty he is still at the top of his game.
“In Limassol during competition the weather was always a big factor, one day you had terrible surface conditions and good underwater conditions and the next day it would be perfect on the surface but with strong underwater currents which is worse. A dive is a carefully planned sequence of events and all your training is geared to making those events perfect in timing and in technique. You have to be in the right place at the right time for the dive to work. It’s like clockwork and a few seconds lost here and there is always leading you to a blackout if you are pushing to your limits. I don’t push to those limits. I leave a safe margin and train to always have something left in the tank. I take a step back and the ego is something that I keep in check. I am not reckless I want to enjoy the sport for a long time so I don’t want to do things which make the sport look bad or unsafe.”
To put things into perspective here – a breath holding dive to 70 metres and beyond in any discipline, raises the free diver into an elite class of athletes who are constantly challenging the boundaries of inner space, the domain of fish and not one for faint hearted humans. The deep blue is the most unforgiving world and the only mammals which thrive in it are whales and dolphins – supreme breath holding divers.
“To compete in four disciplines like I just did you have to train for a year. You need to get your body used to each discipline one day on and one day off. You cycle that so that you don’t get tired and you can adapt and switch from one style to another. At the high level that I dive now each discipline is a whole different world. Your freefall speeds, your ascent speeds, the muscles you engage and the lactic build up in them are all different. Only the most experienced divers can cross over each discipline with any degree of success. That was one mistake I made this year, when my UK team mate diver pulled out there was a bit of pressure on me so I took on extra work which tired me out more.”
“I used two earlier competitions in the Triton cup held in Kalamata, Greece to asses myself in the extra disciplines. I announced a dive to 61mteres with no fins and as it was only 10 metres above my personal best it was easy so I went up in the rankings. In the European cup which followed I did another 66 metre dive with no fins and the ranking came up again. Any dive near the 70 metre mark and you are up there with the top divers in the world for that discipline.”
At around competition time Dean received a new pair of bi-fins in the post so during training he undertook a couple of successful practice dives with them which ultimately led to the beautiful 85 metre dive that he did on September 23rd. The stress factor in the world championship is very high with over a hundred and thirty divers competing and twenty safety divers and TV crews it gets very crowded. Add to that bad weather or underwater currents which cause divers to overstretch and have surface blackouts, the pre-dive relaxation routines are very difficult to focus on. It has to be said that surface blackouts are not fatal and even underwater blackouts are managed safely. In spite of the hostile environment free diving is considered quite a safe sport. Statistically there are no deaths and it’s safer than cycling!
“When I arrived in Limassol, Cyprus for the Worlds, I was already quite tired from the two previous competitions in Greece. I had competed in the Triton Cup and the European Cup in Greece so I took four days off to recharge my body. In competition at the Worlds there was one dive which got me a yellow card (penalty) for returning to surface earlier than announced. That discipline was the free immersion which is where you pull yourself down the line and then up again. There are no fins to help you and there is a lot of exertion involved. There was an underwater current on my dive and as I was using up extra energy this slowed me down changing the sequence of my dive. I decided to abort early rather than risk a blackout. I am glad that I opted for that as free immersion is not my strongest discipline. I could have protested that dive as after I came up they suspended competition because of the poor conditions.”
You win some and you lose some as they say because there are too many factors involved in free diving and if you are a well trained disciplined athlete like Dean Chipolina you can take it on the chin and hope that next time conditions will be better. I am convinced that this man will still be making his presence felt in the free diving world for some time to come. This year he learned that his body needs more time to recover between dives and that he should not have taken on the extra disciplines for his team. He now has a new mono-fin and new bi-fins which he’s very happy with and has just retained his coach to help him achieve his full potential for next year.