Fifteen divers from ten countries travelled to the island of Koh Lanta in southern Thailand to compete for top honours in the Southeast Asia freediving competition. Walter Johnson holds his breath in this first-hand account.
Koh Lanta, Thailand. February 2012. We arrived on the sun-drenched shores of Koh Lanta, Thailand to the welcoming arms of event organizer Mellisa Bunyan of Blue Planet Divers. I had spent three of the last six months in Kuala Lumpur training with the Malaysian contingent comprising Azam Hamid (Malaysian national record holder), Vivian Chan, Alan Su and Teoh Kim Seng. We were all peaking at about the same time, so we had great expectations. We were not disappointed.
The competition featured all six AIDA competition events, including FIM (Free Immersion), CWT (Constant Weight – diving using fins), CNF (Constant Weight No Fins), STA (Static apnea – holding breath), DYN (Swimming submerged with fins), and DNF (Swimming submerged with no fins).
Bright and early the next morning, we hopped aboard the Blue Planet Divers’ boat for the ride to the dive site. In this part of Thailand, there is little in the way of deep water. Because of this, the ocean competition is depth limited to 50 meters at our dive site near the island of Koh Haa. Friendships are made and reaffirmed on those rides, as the trip to the site takes several hours each way. Even though we are competing against each other, it is routine to see competitors cheering their rivals and screaming them through the surface protocol required after surfacing.
First off, Trond Mondal and Azam both announced 40 meters in the FIM event and both successfully completed their dives. Ken Kiriyama attempted a 50 meter dive but turned early at 41 meters, netting a 10 point penalty. Ken Kiriyama owned the second day of the competition, with a 50 meter CWT and CNF. Azam did great in the morning dive, with a CWT of 41 meters; however, Kim Seng topped Azam with a 30 meter CNF that afternoon.
The drama for the women started in earnest on the first day in the ocean. Elisabeth Mattes set the Austrian national record with 35 meters. Her 15 minutes of fame lasted 15 minutes as Karin Gebauer made an even more impressive 38 meter dive. Elisabeth Mattes led the women in the pool, with a solid 33 meter CWT and 23 meter CNF. Elisabeth Hummel was again not far behind with a 30 meter CWT and 20 meter CNF.
In the statics on the third day, Karin set a solid 4:29, followed by Elisabeth Mattes who suffered a friendly touch by her boyfriend after she surfaced, and was disqualified. Maybe she could have made up the difference on the last day, maybe not. We will never know. Winning freediving competitions is all about diving within yourself, white cards, and getting points in every event, especially in a competition with all six disciplines.
My pool performance during the statics was my high point. The first few minutes were pretty uneventful; I was in total relaxation and focus. I could hear nothing but the occasional words of my coach. I sing songs sometimes during breath holds, and did that here too. Four minutes passed with no difficulty at all. After about 5:00 the hold started getting harder but was still manageable. The difficulty continued to escalate until the end. I held on perhaps a bit too long, and surfaced at 6:01.
I could not see. Either my eyes were closed or my vision affected by hypoxia. I performed the surface protocol, my vision returned, and I recovered. My surfacing wasn’t pretty, but I made it. Julian Van Heerden, competition winner, came to me after his 5:45 static and told me that he had tried to beat me, but could not – I'm pretty sure that is the best freediving compliment anyone has ever given me.
Vivian Chan meanwhile is the first female Malaysian freediver to white card in competition. She posted national records in five of her six events with her 4:39 static set an overall male/female Malaysian national record. Vivian is unique, at least among the Malaysians, in that she doesn't do any warm-ups for the pool events. I wish I could do that.
I had a great time in this competition. I achieved five white cards (successful dives) and one yellow card (successful but points deducted) with competition personal bests in every discipline. I successfully tested Ron Smith’s DOL-Fin Orca monofin for the first time in competition. 6:00 has been a personal competition goal for years, so this was particular vindication for me. I remain inspired by the exciting competition, friendly atmosphere, the generous assistance provided by all and the desire to do better.
I can’t wait for next year.
1st – Julian Van Heerden – 274.5
2nd – Ken Kiriyama – 268.1
3rd – Trond Mondal – 263.1
4th – Drutten Nygren – 249.2
5th – Azam Hamid – 244.1
6th – Christian Fötinger – 188.2
7th – Walter Johnson – 184.2
8th– Enzo Brunetto – 169.1
9th – Kim Seng – 164.9
10th – Alan Su – 20.0
1st – Elisabeth Hummel – 208.5
2nd – Karin Gebauer – 190.3
3rd – Michelle Ooi – 179.4
4th – Vivian Chan – 160.3
5th – Elisabeth Mattes – 121.0