20 volunteers. Four months of planning. 14 safety divers. 250+ net hours of safety drills. 11 countries. 50 athletes. 10 event sponsors… The 2019 Australian Pool National Championships had finally arrived!
The Sunshine state was living up to its name, with the March autumn light reflecting off the water of the Gold Coast Aquatic Centre’s Olympic pool. By the time everyone had gathered together for the event briefing, an excited buzz had entered the stadium. There was a lot of nervous energy to go around at what was the largest pool freediving competition ever held in the Southern Hemisphere. Whilst some athletes were at their first competition, others were more seasoned and defended national titles & records. A blend of experience at big events is common in freediving, and why the sport is famous for newcomer upset: with so many unknown quantities at play, and disqualification a constant threat from intricate rules, anything can happen. Winning the overall competition requires successful, solid performances across all three days of the competition.
Nationals opened with static apnea (STA), as is traditional for pool freediving competitions. Mentally, it is arguably the most challenging discipline. If doubts enter the athlete’s head early in their performance, they can overwhelm the diver and cause the dreaded “early bail”. Good surface coaches, who speak to the athlete throughout their dive and also instruct them to give safety signals, can be invaluable for helping people to keep calm and focused.
It was a tough field, with five men recording dives over six minutes: Ben Eckert (AUS), Lewis Jones (NZL), Stephan Kohn (FRA), David Mulheron (AUS) and Pierre Crubillé (FRA). Crubillé took out gold with an impressive 7:23. In the women’s competition, all eyes were on the fierce rivalry between Australian women Amber Bourke and defending static champion Anh Tu. In 2016, ’17 and ’18 the STA title was won by Tu, but only by a margin of a few seconds. This year, it came down to the wire with only one second between them – and in 2019 it was Bourke who took home STA gold with a time of 5:43, ahead of Tu’s 5:42.
Day 2 saw athletes competing in the Dynamic No Fins (DNF) discipline. DNF is often considered the purest freediving discipline, as athletes propel themselves through the water using only their hands and feet. Good technique is crucial to excel, and ex-swimmers frequently dominate this event. The venue staff and organising team kept a nervous eye on the weather, as a thunderstorm was forecast and would have closed the pool until it passed. However, although there were some scattered showers, the storm did not eventuate and everything kept to schedule. This was to everyone’s relief – athletes will eat at specific times before their “official top” start time, to make sure their body is not wasting oxygen on digestion, but still has energy to perform. Schedule changes can thus have the potential to wreak mental and physical havoc on divers. With the competition proceeding to plan and without disruption, Crubillé increased his lead in the men's division with a swim of 175m and wowed the spectators with his unique turns. Trailing Crubillé were Leigh Wooley and Jarrod Briffa with distances of 151m and 140m respectively. DNF national record holder Bourke again led the women with her gold medal swim of 134m, whilst Lucja Nowowejski of Poland came in second with a distance of 121m. Sayaka Itagaki from Japan put in an impressive performance of 117m for third place in her inaugural competition.
By the completion of day 2 there were fewer than 8 points separating 1st from 5th position in the race to be crowned overall men’s Australian Champion, although France’s Crubillé and Kohn comfortably led the overall standings. In the women's division Bourke and Tu were first and second in both the Australian and overall standings.
The final event of the competition was Dynamic with Fins (DYN). This year, athletes could choose to compete in the new discipline of Dynamic Bifins (DYN BIFINS), using a flutter kick in bifins instead of dolphin kick with a monofin (DYN).
All eyes were on Australian DYN record holder Bourke, who announced a DYN BIFINS performance: the expectation was that she would attempt to set another national record. However, the added pressure of a record attempt can increase the chances that an athlete misjudges their limits and pushes too hard, resulting in a disqualification. Ultimately, Bourke kept her head under the pressure and completed a clean 169m DYN BIFINS dive for a new Australian national record and the dynamic gold medal. Further DYN BIFINS national records were set by Jones (NZL) at 150m, and Michael Heitzmann (CHE) at 162m.
The 2019 Australian Champions were awarded at the closing ceremony, with Brisbane Freedivers’ Amber Bourke winning the women's crown, followed by South Australian Freedivers’ Ahn Tu and Catherine Christie in second and third respectively. For the men, Melbourne Freedivers’ Jarrod Briffa pipped Brisbane Freedivers’ Leigh Wooley by 2 points (equivalent to 4m in dynamic, or 10 seconds in static) to become the Australian mens champion and Brisbane Bullsharks’ Ben Eckert took third place. The overall womens champion was also Bourke with Sayaka Itagaki (JAP) in second place and Tu in third. The overall men's placing were Pierre Crubillé (FRA) in first place, Stephan Kohn (FRA) in second and Briffa in third.
Words by Jody Fisher
AFA Technical Officer
Photos by Adam Sellars, https://thepressureproject.com.au/