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A different identity: life in apnea

Completely motivated by his choices, Alexandru Russu knows precisely who he is, what he wants and what he is doing, what he values and what animates him. Alex answers every question with a laser cut precision, he presents himself with utmost clarity – a fully crystallized being – opening your eyes, leaving you contemplating each answer and wanting to know more. You wouldn’t suspect his age of 30-something, not even for a second; you would bet instead on the wisdom of someone who explored life extensively and has the comfort of comprehensive experience when articulating. He sees freediving as a hobby, parallel to his professional life, but his personal philosophy has the mark of one of the greatest masters of freediving, Umberto Pelizzari – his first instructor. After trying scuba diving for the first time at the Black Sea, Alex shares with mydive.ro how he came to live his life through freediving, in Cyprus.

You started diving with SCUBA. What determined you to take up scuba? When and where did you do your first dive? How was it?

As a child, I was fascinated by the aquatic environment – it felt like a fairytale and at that age I needed the magic of fairytales. I didn’t know how to swim yet, but I was quite comfortable under water and, when my parents told me about the SCUBA equipment and that I could stay longer under water, I knew this was what I wanted.

Quite a few years passed between that moment and my first dive with SCUBA, but the motivation was still there. I started my Open Water course in Bucharest and for the first dive in the sea we went to Agigea. I still remember that moment well: there were fairly high waves crashing on the rocks, but since we came all the way from Bucharest we decided to go on and do the dive anyway. This moment was hard to forget because when the first one of us entered the water he panicked and the instructor was trying hard to get close and pull him out of the surf zone; but the incident was far from discouraging me; on the contrary – I think I saw it as a tempting challenge.

How would you describe your scuba diving career?

In scuba diving I followed the courses up to the Divemaster level. I was often going diving at the Black Sea and I also went to the Adriatic, Aegean, Red Sea and Atlantic. For me, scuba falls under the idea of exploration and I like discovering wild places. The most notable expedition I had was probably the exploration of the Isverna cave (in the Mehedinţi Mountains [Romania]) together with Cristian Lascu and the GESS (Group for Underwater and Speleological Exploration) team who was mapping the cave at that time. Even though I had exceptional companions, the atypical conditions of an unexplored cave required special preparation and safety measures. In a nutshell, Isverna was the most challenging diving expedition I had and the peak of my scuba diving activity.

When did you start freediving? What made you change the “teams”?

The scuba gear was often an issue: heavy, bulky and far from being compact, it was hard to move around; and even in the water it limits considerably the freedom of movement. This made me think that it would be much better if I didn’t have to depend on it for diving… I switched from scuba to freediving in 2005, when I moved to Cyprus. The Mediterranean Sea in my area has a good water temperature and visibility, but it doesn’t offer much to see – so I didn’t really need the extended dive time given by the SCUBA equipment. Moreover, I felt the need of a challenge that scuba wasn’t offering anymore.

Tell us a bit about your freediving career…

I’ve never seen it as a career actually. For the first few years when I started, I was only going for training outside of any certification program and only by chance, at the suggestion of Umberto Pelizzari, I changed course in 2008. This is when I became Apnea Academy Instructor and then, being a Safety Freediver in the AIDA world championships for three years, I entered the AIDA system as well. I became an AIDA Judge in 2009 and AIDA Instructor in 2010.

Which are the advantages/disadvantages (if any) in practicing the two underwater sports? How they enrich your everyday life? Are you still practicing scuba diving?

Scuba has the advantage of the popularity: easy access to quality information, materials and scuba buddies in almost all corners of the world. In the same time the educational system is mature, follows a conventional teaching model and guarantees to beginners results close to those of experienced divers. On the opposite side we have the freediving that still inhabits the dark waters. The teaching system is still fragile, contains unconventional elements and doesn’t guarantee results. The advantage of freediving is only revealed under the light of “mobility”: physical mobility (freedom of movement) and a complex motivational mobility capable of fueling an entire lifestyle.

For me scuba remains more of a socializing activity and I mainly do it just to be with my friends.

What do you feel when you’re alone with yourself underwater?

During freediving the usual perception of time, space, personal identity and emotions is altered. Shapes melt into a single substance and the identity with its emotions disappears. There’s a feeling of fusion.

How do you manage a difficult moment underwater (cramps, lack of air, panic etc.)?

Due to the psycho-physiological changes triggered, the freediving brings a fundamentally different perspective that strongly diminishes the influence of such “difficult moments” during the entire dive. That’s probably a natural self-preservation mechanism that minimizes the panic or the perception of pain in order to avoid elevated heart rate and oxygen consumption.

For experienced freedivers, even in situations of extreme danger, the perception of fear as we know it from day-to-day life is totally absent. We have here the obvious example of the black-out, where loss of consciousness is not preceded by any level of panic; and I would also like to mention the recent incident with Michal Rišian [Czech Republic] from the world championship [AIDA Individual Depth World Championship 2011, Kalamata, Greece]. He was just telling us about this experience of getting lost in the deep without fins and there was no trace of dangerous thoughts in his mind!

How do you concentrate before a dive? Do you have a ritual/special method?

The rhythm of breathing is the door to control the metabolism and I focus on lowering the heart beat and reaching a general relaxation. For more difficult dives the mental rehearsal can be very useful: I pre-visualize the dive based on images and sensations. This organizes all elements and prepares me better for the dive.

What training do you follow to keep in shape as a freediver?

Freediving requires a generally healthy life and regular training. As a general rule there are three main phases of training per year: a period of basic muscular training and aerobic cardio, an intermediate period based on raising muscles’ tolerance to lactic acid and a period of specific training including breathing exercises, apnea, stretching and dive technique. 

You are an AIDA Judge level E. Considering that you may interfere with attempts of pushing the personal limits, what does judging imply in freediving? What happens if you step in too quickly or too late? Is it difficult to take a decision as a judge?

Freediving competitions (especially the depth ones) are mainly targeting the ability of the athletes to self-evaluate. The depth must be announced before the competition and any personal overvaluation is severely punished in the ranking. 

In fact, the competitive activity shifts the freediving from the risky area of the unknown into a totally opposite direction, characterized by self-knowledge and self-control. The push of the personal limits is not meant to happen during the competition, but in the self-discipline and training that precedes the competition.

The judge’s decision to step in during the performance is not a real issue; if it comes late, the safety freedivers will do their job and if it comes too early the athlete can protest. In case of protest the judges will check the video records and if there are doubts, the decision goes in favor of the athlete.

You’ve participated in different competitions as a safety freediver. Is this a difficult position?

Participating in such a position requires a good level of freediving, experience in rescue techniques and knowledge of competition regulations.  If you enjoy it, nothing is really difficult, and as a Safety Freediver, especially in the world championships, you get access to a privileged place: it’s the ticket to the best seat for this show – you are directly connected to all the action!

You are also an AIDA Instructor. Do you like teaching, competing or judging?

I’ll refrain from setting a hierarchy and I will rather suggest a comprehensive point of view where these 3 functions work in synergy:
- being a participant and a judge in competitions gives me something to say as an instructor; 
- having experience as instructor and judge, this pushes me in a privileged position when I take part in competitions;
-  and the teaching experience, together with the competitive experience, combine to give weight to the decisions I take as a judge.

This year you are present at the AIDA competition in Greece as coach for a Cypriot freediver. Tell us a bit about this role of being a coach (what it involves etc.)…

Unfortunately something came-up at the last moment and Argyris [Argyrou] will not participate in this competition, but the next one [AIDA Cyprus Depth Games 2011, Limasol, Cyprus] is just a few weeks away – on October 16th. This coaching initiative started just a few weeks ago as an emergency measure to optimize his results for the competition and during the short time we had I focused primarily on identifying the factors limiting the depth of his dives.

What would you recommend to those thinking to start freediving?

I would recommend them to start by giving themselves an answer to the question “Why freediving?” – otherwise it would be like trying to drive a car without a steering wheel! Freediving is primarily a mental performance and the clarity of the motivation is essential for the evolution of this initiative.

And for those who have already chosen this path, do you have any suggestions about how to improve their performances (if this is what they wish for)?

The ability to find, search and continuously retrieve pleasure in freediving is probably the most powerful performance factor, but until then, a proper freediving course can save many efforts.

How do freediving and your professional life fit together? Do you need to sacrifice one for the other?

Freediving is a hobby for my free time and it doesn’t interfere with my professional life.

Even though you are living in Cyprus, you’re also active in the freediving community from Romania. Can you tell us something about it? Will we have, in the near future, Romanian freedivers competing in the international arena?

We already have Romanian freedivers in the international competitions; it’s just that we don’t really know about each other… We aim now to get together, at least in a virtual organization, to centralize information and make it available for anyone interested. 

A few motivated people from Bucharest already made the first formal freediving association and we have a local instructor [Sergiu Şerban] who is actively involved in the expansion of the community. It is important for the Romanian freediving that all those with experience now collaborate to bring their contribution in educating the newcomers to the sport.

Which was your most memorable apnea dive? What about the location?

It was probably the only dive when I felt reaching the threshold of physical exhaustion while still far from the surface. This triggered a level of relaxation and efficiency unknown to me until that moment – I was impressed by this hidden potential.

Regarding the most memorable location it’s difficult to answer because I’m connected to freediving through sensations, not images. Pelizarri [Umberto Pelizzari] formulated this idea saying that we dive with scuba to look around, but when we freedive we do it to look inside (ourselves) – so the “location” in freediving is always the same and its complexity doesn’t know boundaries.

Where do you wish to dive in the future?

All I want is warm, calm and deep water. The rest is not so important in freediving because I close my eyes during the dives.

What other passions do you have? Do you practice spear fishing?

I play tennis every time I get the chance and occasionally I’ve done sailing and kite surfing.

I don’t go for spear fishing. At least until now I wasn’t tempted to do it, as the purpose of this activity is far away from freediving; the pleasant moments of relaxation and the challenge of self exploration get lost in spear fishing – the interest shifts totally outside the self and values that stand as a purpose in themselves in freediving become simple tools during spear fishing.

Do you have a role model in freediving, someone who inspires you?

I started freediving under the guidance of Umberto Pelizzari and it was the ground of his freediving philosophy that nourished my motivation for this sport and way of life.

What plans do you have for the future?

As a short term objective, I intend to facilitate the participation of a Romanian team in the world championship next year [2012 Team Freediving World Championships] and in the long term I wish to further explore life in the horizon of freediving.

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One Response to “A different identity: life in apnea”

  1. Felicitari si mult succes in continuare!!!

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