Vertical Blue and TWO National Records

By: Talya Danoff, Lance Lee Davis, Krik Krack

Freediving comes in all different styles and disciplines and is done recreationally, professionally, and competitively. In this article, we have two amazing PFI Instructors, Lance Lee Davis and Talya Davidoff, who travelled to the Vertical Blue competition in the Bahamas this past July to compete over ten days. Competitive freediving is not just a test of your physical, physiological, and mental game, but one of realistic expectations and relationships while one challenges their personal limits, which sometimes lead to disappointing results or amazing successes. Enjoy these personal reflections from two of our amazing PFI instructors and familiar members as they recount their experiences.

Talya Davidoff

Vertical Blue was a very last-minute decision, but the best decision I have ever made. I was in Florida competing at the Tampa Bay Apnea Competition a month ahead when I got an email from William Trubridge, asking if I would be able to make it to compete.

What an opportunity!

As we now know, of course I say yes! It then occured to me that hey, I haven’t dived deeper than 20m in 2 years. I am based in Oregon, diving cold water while teaching out of the Oregon Freediving Company and due to COVID-19, I had not been able to travel abroad. As a diver, one of the most important attributes you need to have is honesty — honesty about yourself and your capabilities. Because of the previous pool competition, I had already spent a fair bit of time training in the pool and felt confident in my breath hold and technical abilities. Therefore, leading up, with only 20m of available depth, I spent most of my time working on dry land training and chest flexibility.

On-site Freediving Training

On arrival to the Blue Hole in Bahamas, one cannot help but be slightly overwhelmed by the sheer depth of this sinkhole and the incredible athletes training in it. I felt like a small fish and a very big pool. My goal was to have a smooth and slow acclimatization to depth without having any issues, so I eased into it, starting at 40% of my personal bests. This worked in the beginning, but as I edged closer to my targets, my equalization started failing. I can’t explain how much equalization frustrates me at times.  It has always been the reason my progression has been stunted, and yes, I have spent hours inflating balloons and doing FRC dives.

Photo cred: Daan Verhoeven

It’s okay to be stuck

It’s hard not to get into your own head and start spiraling out in a situation like this. I wasn’t having a good time because I was so focused on trying to progress, and after 5 days of stunted progress, I came to the decision that where I was, was temporary, and to be stuck there was totally fine. After all, I had come here knowing that I hadn’t had the opportunity to do any depth training.  I then decided to change tactics. I decided to address other things that were not helping me.

Being trained in the PFI system, I am used to a platoon of safety divers and the sound of a scooter following down to the plate. This is not an industry standard, so I often feel anxious in the competition environment. I asked my husband, Daniel Semrad, who I met while he was a comp safety, to fly in and keep eyes on me.

Learning from others

The next thing I focused on was learning. There were 42 divers here from all walks of life and I knew there were things they could teach me. One thing my first instructor always said was “you don’t get to choose the clothes of the messenger” and that everyone has something to offer. Turns out Canadian record holder, Sheena Mc’Nally, had the golden nugget I needed. I told her what was going on and she explained equalization in a way that made sense and was repeatable on land. Between Dan and Sheena’s help, I was able to add 16m, comfortably, in ONE DAY!

Completion time

Competition arrived and I found myself, above anything else, feeling really lucky to be there. I decided to really focus on that. After all, it is why we do what we do. Along with that, by this time I had built meaningful relationships with many other divers and was just so happy to watch them succeed in their dives.  As for myself in competition, I find strength and happiness in the people around me. My best friend was platform coordinator, so I had to spend most of my time facing away from her to avoid laughing during my breathups. To be able to see the bright smile of Rebekah Philips, a Fellow PFI instructor and judge, as she flashed me a white card. To be able to flash “shakas” at my friends as they safety me on my ascent to the surface. What an honor and a privilege.

Photo cred: Daan Verhoeven

What really matters

I know I should be debriefing my dives and how they felt and what I mentally did to succeed. But the truth is, the only reason I got 6 white cards and 5 continental records is because I threw away the pressure of trying to get deeper and focused on the fact that I was in the Bahamas with a bunch of my friends, enjoying the opportunity of a lifetime. We all had issues and we all helped each other get through it, and that simple fact is what makes Freediving one of the best sports in the world.

It is because of this that I will be travelling to Turkey this September to compete at the CMAS world championships. I still have so much to learn and so much to do on the journey of mine.  All videos of competition can be found on YouTube and the following link: https://www.youtube.com/user/VBFreediving

Divers: Talya and Sheena Mc’Nally

Divers: Talya and Alenka Artnik

Divers: Talya and Alessia Zecchini.

Lance Lee Davis

Photo by Daan Verhoeven.

You start freediving because you want to see stuff.  Then, when you find yourself sinking into the darkness of a saltwater hole in the Bahamas, you realize your motivation has changed.  It’s not about seeing stuff anymore.

It’s about seeing inside yourself.

This was my second US Men’s National Record and first time competing at Vertical Blue.

My spot at the competition opened up very last-minute, so my training beforehand was not structured.  While I was spearfishing and teaching in the Pacific non-stop throughout 2020, the motivation and opportunities for real depth were never present.  Covid protocols had made pool training almost impossible, and even ocean meet-ups had become difficult for us in California.  I arrived at Vertical Blue tired and going on two years since I’d done any real depth:  I was rusty.

It’s a long competition. Ten days.

I would have to pace myself and pray that I wake everyday hungry for the dive, but not greedy; greedy divers make mistakes and maim themselves or worse. Could a dive both great and beautiful come together in ten days?

Because I was rusty, I was nervous. Very nervous.

Even in the ten days of on-site training I had before the comp started, I would be fighting cold sweats and failing dives that back home in our cold, rough ocean would have been easy for me. The location, Dean’s Blue Hole, is magical — actually a bucket list destination for me ever since I’d heard about it — and it was incredible to see dive friends from around the world again, but my own competition dives this year might be footnotes.  I’d changed some technical aspects and so far, the pieces hadn’t been coming together.  I’d have to temper my expectations and just count my blessings.  I’m not a particularly gracious person, but freediving does bring out the best in me.  It’s impossible not to feel gratitude when surfacing.  Oxygen is a privilege, to say nothing of the fundamental health it takes to enjoy the ocean, the resources to travel, and the professionalism of the safeties, medics, and organizers.

Relaxing on the platform with PFI instructor and competition judge, Rebecca Philips.  Photo by Jessea Lu.

Ambition vs Surrender

Don’t get me wrong–ambition can be a powerful motivator, but at a certain point, when we sink eyes-closed into dark water, it doesn’t serve us.  Better to surrender.  Better to let the majesty of the ocean wreck our egos so we become empty vessels, pliable and undamaged by pressure. Nerves and jitters give way eventually to rhythm. And fear — fear of the unknown, fear of pain, and fear of failure — it becomes wonderment.  That’s when the magic happens.

On the second to last day of the competition, I got to the Hole, did my warm-up swim at the surface around the platform, and then a few dives on the warm-up line.  I felt neither good nor bad, just happy to be in the water.  Besides three days of solid plane travel, I’d been in the water either for work or training every single day for the last 8 weeks.  I was smiling as I moved onto the competition line.  I honestly love what I do, but the psychology of freediving is such that we can’t perform at our best if we have negative thoughts, so I love it even when I don’t.  The little zone around the competition line is called ‘the pit,’ and only judges, safeties, and diver are allowed in the pit.  It feels like being in a fishbowl though since everyone is watching and Diveye broadcasts every moment via satellite, so I nod hello to the safeties and judges who are now my family, then I mostly look down into the water and smile into the Hole.

I announced a 74-meter dive without fins.  It’d be a few meters deeper than the current US National Record.  Two years ago, I made the dive in training for the world championships, then when I’d tried in competition, I’d lost consciousness upon surfacing.  That dive two years ago had, however, been in every way a beautiful dive.

Today’s dive would also be a beautiful dive.

I rolled onto my back and slowed my breathing, prepping for the dive.  Sometimes I count seconds between breaths — it’s a framework on which to drape my anxiety.  But today as the final countdown started I felt calm and still….

A moment after breaking the surface, having just set a new US men’s national record for Constant No Fins with a dive to 74 meters.  Photo by Johnny Vicari.

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