Three weeks before I went to the pool freediving World Championships I was told by my doctor that I was borderline hypothyroid and anaemic, but it was something to monitor rather than a major concern as I was feeling OK wasn’t I? A bit tired – yes, struggling to recover – yes, but I’m swimming OK in the pool, right?
The answer to that was yes and no. It’s taken a bit of time over the summer to look back and see how my training was unravelling for months and that my pivotal moment of ‘failure’ was just the full stop at the end of the first paragraph.
|Preparing for my dive|
That ‘moment’ was losing consciousness (known as a black out) in my favourite event at the World Champs and then feeling too unwell to compete at my next best event the day after - nine solid months of training ending in complete disappointment. It’s quite common for this to happen to freedivers pushing themselves, but unusual for me as it was my first ever in competition and ten days earlier I’d swum significantly further and ended the dive very cleanly. I felt no more nervous than I do at any other event, so there had to be something else that wasn’t quite right.
It would be too easy to explain away that moment with a doctor’s prescription and not learn anything for it, and the preceding months leading up to it. Being honest with myself I see a role for stress and intense training in developing the most noticeable phase of this condition, even though it was probably triggered by something out of my control and had been worsening over many years.
|186m DYN National Record|
I was at my athletic peak in November 2014, achieving my fifth dynamic National Record in my home town pool (Stockport, UK) and feeling really confident about the coming year. I had a forced break over Christmas with a sore back and a bout of gastroenteritis, but was keen to get back into training in early 2015.
Although I tried out a few new techniques, my training programme hadn’t changed much from the previous year in terms of volume or intensity, and it improved in places where I could train and fuel myself a bit smarter and recover better. But alarmingly my ability to bounce back from training sessions declined, my sleep was suffering and eventually I blacked out swimming a distance which would normally be achievable. It felt like I'd hit an invisible wall in the pool, more a physical hindrance than a mental one, and this time recovery wasn't just slow it was pretty much non-existent and I felt fatigued for many weeks, missing the UK Championships in March.
Once I'd got back into training in April I felt as if I was barely maintaining, and even back-peddling on previous results. I'm proud that I kept plugging on through this, turning up to train even though I'd started to hate it and felt miserable although perhaps I should have stopped there and then to rest. My body began to reject evening training even though we’ve had late night sessions for years, which haven't posed much of a problem.
From then on I was just fire-fighting - switching as much training as I could to daytime and being fastidious in recording recovery statistics to make sure I was only training when I was fit to, adapting over and over again. But the love for diving had gone and I was buckling under pressure and negativity.
|Moments before my WC dive|
In a cruel twist of fate I began to feel more myself at the start of June, my results and recovery improved and I began to hope that I'd be OK for the World Championships after all. 10 days out from the trip to Belgrade I matched a previous PB in DNF, super clean at the end of the swim and recovered fine by the next day. Unfortunately at the event itself I met that invisible wall again in the pool, blacking out at 135m.
I made mistakes on the day, which I've noted and chosen not to use as a bat to beat myself with. I surprised myself by not being utterly devastated - of course I was gutted in a way I can't put into words but I also had a deep and comforting sense that I’m learning the really important stuff. It's at our most vulnerable times, when our soft underbelly feels raw and exposed that we can choose to stay open and feel the burn of disappointment, until it wipes you clean of all the non-essential stuff of who you are.
What I know I love about sport is the way it brings you to look at the really tough stuff inside - the parts of ourselves we either don't know we have or keep hidden. Being competitive brings a host of ego faces along with it and the best divers have found ways to let go of ego-driven thoughts and behaviour. And so that's a new training goal for me, along with trying to find a way to train more sustainably, taking account of the days when I’ll feel under the weather.