These days, I can only be compelled to write if I’m either getting paid for it, or I feel strongly about something. The latter does not happen much lately as I’m doing this thing where I try to avoid conflict like the plague to maintain my mental well-being. So you can just imagine how passionate I must be about something to allow myself to be dragged into a heated discussion that had me churning out thousands of words within a 36-hour period last week. That is no mean feat for this lazy writer, I assure you.
I first encountered the issue when I came across a screenshot of a post written by record-holding freediver Martin Zapanta on the deluge of non-certified freediving coaches in the country. In his post, Martin raised the question of safety in courses offered by these coaches, which is valid enough. The post itself (now deleted) was not particularly incendiary. Unfortunately, other freediving ‘personalities’ started getting on the bandwagon, brandishing their fancy freediving education and certifications. Which really would’ve been quite funny, really, if it weren’t so blatantly elitist.
Now let’s pause for a bit and take a look at the current state of freediving education in the Philippines. Here, you can learn the sport in two ways. First, we have ‘traditional’ schools that offer rigorous instruction. Students work their way up the levels (freediver, advanced, master, instructor) of any one of the handful of international certifying agencies (AIDA, SSI, PADI, Apnea Total, etc.). It is absolutely necessary for any freediver serious about the sport to get this kind of education—emphasis on ‘serious’—especially if the diver has plans of going pro, or just has some really hardcore personal goals. I, for one, really want to get certified at some point. Not because I want to go pro or anything like that, but because I am serious about this sport. It does wonders to my anxiety and I love it, so I want to be the best that I can be in the discipline.
The biggest downside to this formal freediving education, though, is cost. Getting certified is crazy-expensive. To put it bluntly, not everyone—especially in a third world country—can afford to get certified. I have a good job and live quite comfortably, yet I still can’t afford to take a freediver course until later this year. I can only imagine those who are worse off and yet have the genuine desire to freedive.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are basic, introductory courses offered by ‘coaches’ at affordable prices. Most of these are not offered by actual schools, but rather, by groups or individuals who may or may not be certified freedivers, but who are confident and skilled enough to teach basics to beginners.
Now, I know that sounds like a somewhat shady business model. However, gathering from my personal experience when I was still learning the sport, I am actually a believer of these intro classes. Barely a year ago, it was just myself, my boyfriend Ibz, and my best friend Doyle teaching each other how to freedive. None of us knew anything. We just asked around, practiced, and followed what instruction we could find. It was hard, and in hindsight, very dangerous. I wish there were cheap coaches back then. We could’ve learned a lot quicker and more importantly, safer. So I find it delightful that this kind of basic instruction is now accessible. In fact, I am constantly inviting friends who show an interest to check out these group classes.
The way I see it, for the novice beginner who is really just looking to explore and learn freediving and whose only motive is to be able to go down a few meters for a few seconds (and perhaps take a cute Instagram-worthy shot or two), this is more than enough. And if he falls in love with the sport to get really serious about it, then that is the time to invest in quality, formal education. That is my stand on this, and I said so as much in a Facebook comment reacting to a screenshot of Martin’s post, which had him reaching out to me via PM. I was, of course, quite honored that a freediver of such esteem would value my opinion. And to give Martin his due, he did raise some very valid points and was open-minded enough to hear me out, as well. It was, all in all, a good discussion, albeit a very long one.
As I said earlier, the thing that really riled me up was when certain freediving ‘personalities’ started getting on their high horses to claim that their basic classes are so much better than others’ because they have this or that certificate. All that enmity was directed at one specific individual, Jeroen Elout. Jeroen is quite well known in the freediving community as the guy who travels around the country on a bike, teaching people how to freedive. The guy has a real advocacy—his goal is to reduce the country’s non-swimmer rate, especially in remote places. It is important to note that he also sticks to the most barebones instruction—really just enough to get people more comfortable in the water. Again, for novices, this should already suffice.
Now, Jeroen charges a pittance for his instruction. His organization is a non-profit, after all. He also does basic coach training, so essentially, he is leaving an army of non-certified coaches in his wake, who, in turn, have started offering their own cheap and basic freediving instruction. This has the certified ‘elite’ squirming in their wetsuits. After all, this guy is offering basic (I cannot stress this word enough) freediving instruction for a fraction of what they are charging for the exact same thing.
To stress, the ‘elite’ I am referring to at this point are freedivers who hold intermediate to advanced certifications (traditional schools are already out of this discussion). Theoretically, if you really follow the tenet of formal freediving education, they are also not even supposed to be teaching at all at those levels (there’s a separate ‘instructor’ level). So really, when you think about it, they are all on the same playing field as Jeroen. Taking a look at the bigger picture, everyone’s on the same boat, the same team, with the same goal—and that is to provide simplified teaching to beginners outside of traditional schools. But instead of supporting each other and keeping the competition healthy, they resorted to rumor-mongering and mudslinging. There have been talks that Jeroen teaches hyperventilation and solo diving, yet I have been in his classes and have seen nothing of the sort. (Maybe he does it in his own practice, but that’s his personal choice and, therefore, his personal responsibility. I might wax philosophical about personal choices in another post, if I don’t get too lazy, so be warned.)
Whoever and wherever talk like this is coming from, Lord only knows. The rumor mill is a horrible thing. Unfortunately, it has left the Philippine freediving community severely fragmented, which is a real shame because certain individuals that I used to admire now just look like petty, clique-y little mean girls and boys. (You know who you are. Tsk.)
At the end of the day, we all need to get knowledge where we can and how we can, and make do with the knowledge that is accessible within our means. If someone like me could self-learn, then it should also be possible to learn it from someone who has knowledge, confidence, and experience, even without a certificate attached. That’s a real step up from learning it from a friend or loved one who is just as clueless as you are in some random beach outing.
Even the most barebones supervision and instruction are better than none.
And this is where realistic expectations come in—that what you’ve learned so far from your basic course should only be done for recreational purposes, really just a step up from snorkeling. If you want to go further, then you must invest in formalized education. That is a very important line to draw, and it is the responsibility of these coaches—certified or otherwise—to emphasize that distinction.
As per my last conversation with Martin, he and Jeroen are already having their own discussion. And we all know that only good things can happen when great, open minds come together. Yet there are still those who are taking cheap shots on social media, adding fuel to the fire, long after the issue had started to simmer down. I mean, let it go already. The high horse must be a really hard place to get down from, eh?
God bless the ‘Unfollow’ button.