Paradox or essence

A true freediver by heart, four-time world champion Jesper Stechmann seems like an entirely uncompetitive person when you first meet him. And yet, he is a very successful competitor. Surfer and freediver Lena Kemna met up with Jesper to ask: Isn’t competitive freediving a paradox in itself?

An interview by Lena Kemna
Photographs by Daan Verhoeven
Additional photographs by Amanda Cotton, Anett Szaszi, Thomas Horig and Kimberly Jeffries

Lena Kemna: Jesper, many people and perhaps even yourself would describe you as a ‘freediver by heart’. And yet, after setting numerous national records and winning eight world championship titles, both senior and master, you are an incredibly successful competitive freediver. So my question to you is: Isn’t competitive freediving a paradox in itself?

Jesper Stechmann: People think that it’s a paradox competing in freediving – but it ‘s not. However, I can see why people might think that. When I started freediving, I took my mindset from other sports to competing in freediving. ‘No pain, no gain’ – that sort of mentality. And I failed terribly. My heart was beating, it was far from joyful, and overall, I just did not want to be there. I spent all my money and all my training on something that in the end, in the moment of competition, I did not enjoy. It made no sense. So I stopped. Instead, I gave myself a new task: To enjoy freediving. And I took that task seriously, I was fully accepting it. And so I let go. And it was exactly then, when I stopped competing in that sense, that I started winning.

LK: But you are still actively competing, right? Could you talk me through the last time you competed. How did you prepare, how did the day of competition look like?

JS: When I go to competitions, that’s my time off. That’s my holiday. And I literally mean that. When I come home from a competition, I feel fully rested and restored. But I am getting ahead of myself – so how was it last time competing? I remember I was relaxed. It simply feels nice to be on that line. Then it was being announced that I had two minutes to go. I am about to do one of my deepest dives ever and I don’t know how it’s going to be. Because I’ve never been there. You never fully know before you go, there is uncertainty awaiting you down there. And I like that.

It will be hard, probably very hard. But I have disconnected the feeling of stress from being something negative. So I can be at depths where I feel a lot of pressure, and I can feel a strong urge to breath while it ́s still a long way back to the surface. I still feel the physical sensations, and maybe even a little mental stress, but it means that this is important to me. Which makes it a happy moment. I am stressed, in a way, because it ́s important, and therefore, I am happy. And that – I try to take that to the rest of my life, too.

So I have two minutes to relax, to breath. And then my whole world is tuned in and at the same time, zoomed out. There are my safety divers, there is the line. And then I take my one breath and the whole world disappears. It ́s hard to fully describe this sensation, it ́s the absence of almost anything, and yet, it is everything. I think every freediver knows this feeling.

LK: Why do you think competing feels like such like a holiday to you?

JS: For one, because of this feeling I described – in freediving competitions, I see that all around, the passion for the sport and the dedication. The excitement. And despite seeing some changes in recent years, more seriousness, more media – to me, competitions are still a celebration of the very thing freediving is all about. And of course, I also get to meet all my friends from all those years of freediving and competing, and from all over the world! We all gather and it’s just great fun.

But more than anything, perhaps it ́s also because this time is about me, about my own diving. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching freediving, and everything else that comes with InnerDive [the freediving school Jesper founded in 2008]. It brings me great joy to share my connection with the ocean with more people, and to do that on the daily. But, of course, sometimes it leaves me little room for myself.

So, when I am travelling to a freediving competition, I escape from everything for a while and only focus on my own diving. And still, almost every year, I surprise myself. Last year for example, I did my best I’ve ever done in ‘no fins’. And it felt a lot better than when I did it when it was a Danish record many years ago.

LK: Let’s take a look back, how old were you when you started freediving competitively, and what has changed since?

JS: I started competing quite late, I was 30 years old then when I set the Danish national record for the first time. Last year, I was 53 and I beat my own personal best. With little training because it was a busy year and still, it felt much better, much easier than the one all those years ago.

LK: When is your next competition?

JS: I would have loved to go to the World Championships in Honduras this summer. I’m qualified, I’ve been qualifying ever since I started. But unfortunately, I can’t take time off and that honestly really bugs me. I may go to the Danish championships later on in the year, which is a super nice competition, a great event but it’s not a competition where you can go to your fullest. For one, they have a maximum depth of 100 metres and I still think I can go deeper than that and beat my own personal best at some point. So while it would be fun, it does not make for a full holiday for me, for a full escape. So I hope I can be there at the World Championships again next year.

LK: Thank you, Jesper, for all the insights. I have one last question for you – what was the best dive of your life, if you can say so?

JS: I do remember one in particular, and that was not during a competition. It wasn’t even very deep probably. It was after teaching a class and packing everything up again, I went for one last dive. I remember diving down, and sitting on the ocean floor, looking at my friends at the surface. And it felt – good.

So I stayed there. Minute, after minute, after minute. I closed my eyes, and just took it all in. And stayed. At some point I got the feeling, like a little knock from my intuition, that it ́s time to swim back up. So I did. I must have stayed down there for a long time, probably the longest dive I have ever done. And one where I felt most in tune with the water, and with myself.

Find out more about Jesper Stechmann here

Photographs by Daan Verhoeven
Additional photographs by Amanda Cotton, Anett Szaszi, Thomas Horig and Kimberly Jeffries

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