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Romanian Freediving: first test

Romania’s affiliation to the international freediving organization AIDA, a milestone in our country’s freediving history, prompted us to talk to Sergiu Şerban, founding member of the Romanian organization and president of Freediving Romania, about the long road covered so far, about how the community is preparing for the first ever formal Romanian participation in an international freediving competition, but also about how difficult it is to train at the Black Sea, to finance the Nice attendance and why there’s a lack of women in Romanian freediving;).

Tell us about ARDA – The Romanian Association for Apnea Development – and Freediving Romania…

Everything is done voluntarily; it’s a small association, but a cheerful one. We manage to do all that we do in our spare time, but I want to take more care of the online promotion, especially as we intend to take part in our first international team championship, in the autumn, in Nice, and many things still need to be taken care of. It’s an organizational effort and an individual one, and we will be able to sustain it only if we apply ourselves; perhaps we will succeed in obtaining some endorsements. We already have some help. In fact, we received an answer from the largest, probably the best professional freediving and triathlon suit manufacturer – Orca it’s called, they are from New Zealand, but they make some exceptional suits and they are tentatively interested to become our endorsers. We are negotiating still.

Being the first time when Romania will officially attend such a competition, do you feel a bit of pressure, are there expectations?

You feel it and you don’t feel it. Being a team championship makes it somehow an advantage: the effort is less focused on an individual and more on the team. What does this mean? Maybe it’s good to clarify, discipline-wise, in the world team championships you have masculine and feminine teams, each of the two teams must include three athletes, each of the three must go through all three competition disciplines – depth (CWT), distance (DYN) and static (STA). This entails an advantage for the multidisciplinary athletes and less for those very specialized. In general, who is very good is good at about everything, but there are athletes excelling in only one discipline. There is, however, a big difference between the pool disciplines and the depth ones, where additional factors intervene – equalization, pressure, fear, anxiety and so on. It’s not a given that the ones excelling in the swimming pool will do the same in depth disciplines. For us, this is more an effort to take part and less which the final results will be. First of all, our results are a far cry from the international bests and we don’t have any ambitions; it’s paramount to go, to attend and to create a precedent.

And to gather experience in international competitions…

Yes. Some of us, me for instance, I’ve participated in a few international competitions. I was living in Hungary where, in 2004, I started freediving and I was a member of AIDA Hungary for the few years while I was living there, because there wasn’t an AIDA Romania, there wasn’t a similar Romanian organization. And I was “adopted”, sort to say – as they speak about the Romanian and Hungarian people’s “friendship”, I had absolutely no problem, I was “adopted” and I took part and even organized a couple competitions in Hungary, but again, same as here, it was all voluntary, for pleasure, on my own expense… It was relatively easy to participate in those competitions – they were all in the area. I attended those in Hungary and Serbia, while in Slovenia I attended an international pool competition.

The freediving community in Romania is a small one, but lately it has taken a few important steps in formally crystallizing on a local and an international level. Tell us a bit about the community and about the people outside of Romania who also support you.

We started looking for each other around 2006 on some international freediving websites and we got a hold of two-three people. At around that time I got to know Alex [Alexandru Russu] online, Vali – another freediver from Ploieşti, and we kept in touch. We kept saying we’ll see each other, we’ll meet, we’ll do this and that, but a critical mass was never reached, I guess. It was very difficult in the beginning.

I moved back to Romania in 2008 and in 2009 we started to gather round. We got to know one another, I announced the first courses and this was one of the main reasons we got to form a group. We had the first courses two or three years ago and, even though we are people with different professions, with a really different training, it’s surprising how close, how similar we are. The community is not large, but almost constantly new people turn up. Those interested were very well welcomed and they stayed in the group.

So, you do receive requests to conduct courses? There is an interest in freediving…

There is. I must admit that the members in the association have an important role – last year [2011] we also founded the association, we kept on pushing “Come on, let’s do it!”; it’s different when you are an association, you can defend your interests, you can represent yourself, there are enough reasons to do this.

On the other hand we, Romanians, don’t really have a gregarious spirit, we’re not inclined towards associating each other with others, we don’t have a civic spirit and you can see that – people want you to tell them “Come on, you call us, tell us to do this, that…”. That’s why I agreed to conduct courses, later I insisted in founding the association – we did it, I’m the president of the association, which is not a big thing, a big title, but rather it offers me the opportunity to act as a catalyst, to motivate people. And we go on trips, we come to the swimming pool, we go on expeditions, as we call them, both for training and for pleasure. We went every year, at least twice per year, in Egypt or in Greece; this year we went again to Dahab, in June.

All these are part of the training scheduled for the international team championship in September, in Nice, in which Romania will have, for the first time ever, a team.

Yes. We’re trying. We hope it will come true. The issue with such an effort is that it takes time, it takes practice, constantly. And quite a lot of funding; I mean it’s not exactly cheap, especially for us, because even if we have a beautiful sea, it’s not suited for freediving. Even if it sounds funny, it doesn’t have depth, except if you have a boat. And even with a boat, to find a depth of 20-30 meters, not to mention 50 or 60, you usually must exit our territorial waters. And fine, you exit our waters, the problem is you have currents, the continental shelf in our sea is very flat, the currents are very strong more often than not, the visibility is always changing, sometimes is good, and we’ve tried…  We’ve even done it, last year we had courses and we went out to 30 meters – 30 meters in the Black Sea is an accomplishment because sometimes you hang like a flag on the rope, it takes you away with the boat and all, with the rope, the weights…

So how do you handle the courses then?

The courses comprise a theoretical part, which you can practically do anywhere. Each course level has a well established curriculum. So the theory is covered… Then there’s the practical part, the pool, also fairly easy to solve, you can do it at any time. The difficulty comes with the depth theory and exam because even for the two stars introductory course you need anywhere from 14 to 18 meters, 10-12, 14-16. To leave the shore swimming, there’s no really good place in Romania. You have to swim for a kilometer, two, and it doesn’t really work, it’s risky. We go to Bulgaria, to Tyulenovo, where is not great either, you have 10 meters by the shore, but you can reach 10-12, and there you can go about half a kilometer off-shore and you can find a reasonable depth for exams. It’s doable and we’ll do it this year as well. There are already a few people who will be doing it, we have three new members in the association.

How many members does the association have right now?

Now it has 16 paying members, the majority of them boys. We also have a couple nice, curious girls, they’ve come now and then due to their relationships – the boyfriend is very motivated, she tries a bit… Plus Adriana [Adriana Bantu], who is now in Cyprus. There are two-three girls with Romanian origins – Jessica, a Romanian in the United States, but we haven’t managed to contact her. There’s another Romanian in France, in Lyon, who has participated in some competitions, but again, she changed her work and we haven’t succeeded in contacting her. There’s someone else in Denmark – we’ll try and see.

So there’s hope we’ll have a feminine team in the championship…

Yes, but it’s hard enough because, I repeat, if I ought to leave my job I would have time to organize everything, to get endorsements, to train, it would be different. In a way it’s good, in a way it’s not. As I said, it’s a team work and you must forge a team. The good teams in other countries where there are more clubs and some competitions and there’s also more motivation and more members, they train regularly, they have facilities, they have funds, and things are different then, they’re semi-professionals; some are professionals, they live off it – few do it. In our case, unfortunately, it’s just a hobby and that’s why I hope, I kept on saying it since two-three years ago, that we’ll participate in competitions and we’ll do this and that, that this year it will really happen, because we are enough and people are motivated. If it will really happen, we will see because there are certain costs which people will have to accept to pay.

It’s an extraordinary event, I’ve taken part in an international championship in 2006 and it was exceptional. It’s a lot of experience, you meet the best in the world and it’s a community in which, as a rule, those who freedive professionally have a certain profile. I don’t think you’ll see obese or overweighed people, people who drink too much, who use drugs or I don’t know what. They usually have a healthy lifestyle and a very positive mentality.

It’s a very friendly community in which members support each other no matter if they take part in a competition…

Exactly. There were many situations, including now, at the latest world championship there was a situation with a world record when it was this close to not being approved due to a questionable mistake, and in the end exactly the people who would have benefitted directly from the disqualification of the person with the world record said they will not accept first, second or third place if the athlete is disqualified. It was a technical error, one of the safety members touched him – it’s a very strict protocol, but the strictness has its logic in such circumstances, but sometimes it corrupts an absolutely correct result, like in this case. The moment when you reach the surface and you are doing your surface protocol, saying “OK. I am OK.”, 30 seconds absolutely nobody is allowed to touch you because if you have an episode, you lose consciousness, you can be disqualified. In this case what happened was that a “safety” touched him by mistake, even though he was as lucid as possible, OK, it’s debatable if he really touched him, they watched the video afterwards and initially they disqualified him on grounds of being touched, it doesn’t have anything to do with the performance in per se…

Can you give us further details regarding the training for the participation in the 2012 world championship…

Yes; we started writing on Facebook what performances we have, to do an initial ranking. What we are trying to do is, until the summer, to give the opportunity to those interested to have access to a trial competition, practically you need to have some verifiable results. Otherwise someone can come up and say: “I did 7 minutes static in the bathtub.” “Good for you!”, but no one will verify this for you. I wouldn’t take this person seriously unless I knew the man and I would be sure it’s no joke. So if someone says: “Listen, I go to 50 meters or 80 meters depth like this, whistling!” it’s not believable, so we try, either through competitions, because the competition in itself is stressful, it’s much harder to accomplish a good result in your gear than when you’re doing it during a week, relaxed, one day is good, another day is not. In the competition is different, someone is there yelling in your ear: “You have 10 seconds left, you have 5 seconds left, go!”, it’s different, it’s stressful, plus the protocol – it takes more, especially in the static discipline it takes away from the time you pull off, you relax harder, this is a way too. It’s possible that not everyone or the ones who want to participate can afford Thailand, Egypt, Greece or I don’t know what else. Then we’ll try to do something in the summer and even if it’s not official, an unofficial competition, because an official one involves having judges and so on, but as long as it’s us, it’s among ourselves and we know each other, we can go even to the Black Sea where the conditions permit and we find a suitable depth of 50 meters and we can see what everyone can pull off. Because the pool is easy, now we already have an arrangement, we go to different swimming pools in Bucharest, we arranged to go weekly to Izvorani at the Romanian Olympic Center, where there’s a 50 meters Olympic pool, there are better conditions and practically we can train just as in competitions, you have 50 and 25 on the side, it’s something else.

The teams will be made of 3 plus at least one spare. But the costs to go there are quite high, from the start you have 700€ per participant – I don’t know how many will want to pay 700€, plus transportation just to get there. Now we’ll see if we can manage with some endorsements. Alright, in the end 10 days on the French Riviera, at the end of summer, probably if you would go on your own it would cost thousands of Euros. Practically this amount covers absolutely everything from the airport transfer to the transfer at the end of the competition, meals, lodging, training, competition, ceremony, team opening and so on. The price is exceptional, but we could really use some help. It’s 700 the participation, plus two more outings and training you add 1000 more, you add the transportation and it might end up costing you two-three thousand Euros, at least. It’s a price that not everyone can afford. At the moment, from the association’s funds we’ll not be able to cover it, we are just a few anyway, not many members, it’s difficult to pay, but we’ll try, we get some more money from the 2%-3%…

To sum up, we must constantly train. I go at least once per week at the Lia Manoliu swimming pool, once per week at Izvorani and IDM, and that’s about it, I try to go around 4 times per week. The others do the same, but everyone has other hobbies as well. This is one of them, for some it’s the most important, for others not – either they do scuba, or climbing. I don’t think any of us is sedentary.

Tell us a bit about the birth of AIDA Romania and its affiliation as an observer member to AIDA International…

AIDA in itself, the entire organization, has gone through a change process at a management level, a change of curriculum, they’re much more aggressive, they have a better website and a better defined education system. For me it’s easier to certify students, to log them in a very interesting online system, it works perfectly, and it’s absolutely sensational compared to what was before, an Excel document. Things have evolved a great deal, but there are still difficulties in regard to the General Assembly formed by the national members, different interests related to who represents a country on a national level have come up, you can have disagreements even in smaller countries, not to mention in countries such as Canada or US or Germany or France, there are many clubs and disagreements have surfaced: “We are AIDA Canada, no, we are AIDA Canada”. And from here big issues of who is in fact the representative at a national level have appeared. And now their politics is, if I understood right, to give you an observer member statute to demonstrate… Practically, in order to become an observer member, we had to anyway send a list with our members, to prove we are or are not an association, how many of us are instructors, how many are AIDA certified, if we have other certifications, who is a scuba instructor and so on, to show them you have credibility. For us is relatively simple because there’s no other association in Romania at the moment, this doesn’t mean it can’t be in the future. Personally I don’t have knowledge of formal groups who practice freediving. I know there are small centers of interested people in Timişoara, there were two-three interested people in Cluj, same in Piteşti, Ploieşti, there are some at the seaside in Constanţa, Costineşti, people who spear fish, traditional, not pirates, but otherwise no. There aren’t any and then it’s relatively simple to say: “Look, this is it.”, but even so we must let things evolve and see.

The observer member status doesn’t affect us in any way, we don’t have to formally affiliate in order to take part in the world championship, we pay the same attendance fee, it’s not a major drawback.  It would have been if we wanted to organize I don’t know what, a world championship in Romania. I would be very happy if next year, this year I don’t think so, we would organize a first competition.  We were thinking about it even for this year, not really an official competition because this would entail an effort and because we want to participate in the championship the whole summer will be busy with other activities, but if your timing is good – summer season, on the seaside, organizing something not necessary competition-related, to do it more mass-oriented like that, more for promotion, you can do apnea games or to link them to other activities, like the lifeguards do, the scuba divers. We have ideas, have even children courses, we will see, I mean snorkeling, not take them underwater…


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