30 Minutes with...DNF World Record Holder Mateusz Malina
30 Minutes with Dynamic No Fins World Record Holder Mateusz Malina
The newest freediver on the world scene talks about his training and mental preparation for his recent world record and his plans for the future.
To interview most of the stars of the freediving world, it seems, you usually have to travel quite a way, and wait for their convenience, but on the evening of our interview, even though it's after dark, Mateusz Malina, freediving's newest world record holder offers to come to me. Sitting at the kitchen table of our wooden house on the tallest hill on Long Island under a rickety ceiling fan, he projects an air of quiet intensity and delicate but ever-present good humour.
So... Matt Malina! Thanks for being here, thanks for doing this interview.
You're a relative newcomer to the sport of freediving and... (
Interrupts) Am I?!
I think so, yeah!
6 years is a newcomer?!
In competitive or international freediving maybe...Since I first heard about you, it's been 3 years I think. Something like 2011?
Ok... [This, I'm thinking, is already not going well...]
So when was your first freediving competition?
My first competition was in 2009 actually in the pool. It was a small, local competition, in Krakow, Poland. My first ever competition and first ever blackout! (Laughs)
Haha. Yes, I had a very similar experience actually!
So, let's say shall we that, although you've been competing for a while, it's only recently that you've made an impact on the international scene?
My first world championships they were in 2011, that was in...depth actually. I got the silver medal in free immersion. Until then, maybe, noone had ever heard about me. Could be right, yes.
How old are you?
I'm 28 now.
So where have you been all this time?! What's been going on for you since before... 2011 let's say?
Erm... I've been doing sport all my life, actually. I cannot sit and do nothing for more than a week because then I start getting anxious! When I was young, I learned to swim pretty quick but I wasn't a competitive swimmer, I never swam in any club - which I really regret - it would definitely have benefited me now! (Laughs) I recall that, even then, when the lady was teaching us how to swim, we were swimming something under the water. I would swim, like, maybe 2 lengths of a 13m pool and I was really a kid, maybe 6 years old, something like this. Then, I was training Judo at the same time because... I was a really angry boy! (Laughs) And parents, they just wanted me to do something you know so... I was doing it for 4 or 5 years and that's really the best thing that could happen for me. I got a really tough coach and... he really shaped me. I got all my physical fitness from this because you know when someone's young and you start exercising he becomes... good in sport.
So... weight training was that?
No no. We were training in a really old building - you know judo training is done on mattresses? If you would jump on those mattresses there was like 1m of dust coming off! It was really spartan conditions. (Laughs) The trainings were tough. In Judo you know you have to get some certain weight for competition? One guy he had 2 days to lose 3 kilos so in the middle of summer when there was 30 degrees, he was running outside in his winter clothes until he lost his consciousness! So this part of my life was really important and without it I wouldn't be so fit now. Then, when I reached the age of about 13 or 14 I got attracted by volleyball and I played for about 4 or 5 years and in the meantime, as you can see in the movie [on the other side of the mirror - see below] I started going to the pool with friends when I was about 15 or 16. I was attracted to the sport [of freediving]. I didn't know it was a sport until I watched 'Le Grand Bleu' a little later, but I knew it would be something I will come back to. The video explains it very well so I will not go into too much detail now.
Yeah... one thing I didn't get from the video was how many years, then, later was it that you came back to freediving?
It was, like 7 years. I'm a patient person. I'm a really really patient person, and that's something very important in freediving I realise. I planned everything really well: I was in England for a few years and I specifically choose the right place to study where there will be freedivers where there will be places to freedive... it was Krakow. Even now I have chosen the place where I work, the place where I can dive, the place where I stay so that it's all within 5 minutes [journey].
Did you know at that time when you came back to Krakow that you wanted to compete in freediving and break records?
Actually no, no. When I came back to Krakow I was looking at Polish records and... it was like a mystery to me. When I did my first competition, it was a small one in my local town, I signed up because it was a good place to meet people and meet other freedivers. That's how I got to my first competition. My results were really modest when I first started. I remember when I was looking at the Polish DNF record it was 139m. I couldn't imagine how someone could swim that far you know.
I think it's the right approach you know because some people, they come in to freediving because of records. Perhaps in their country freediving is not so well developed so the records are not so hard to get. So then when someone [else] shows up and he breaks that record, they lose interest because they are in freediving just for records. I didn't start this way because I was very bad at the beginning, you know (laughs). I think that's why I'm still around. I remember my DNFs were about 80m, then I progressed to about 115m... Then I got a tip from a Dutch guy, Eric van Riet Paap which I'm really really grateful for. He told me about the no warm-up thing. I started it, and it just clicked right away. I progressed by more than 30m. The competition was approaching and I was already doing some national record. I wanted to break the national record in my first competition and I blacked out! (Laughs).
You're clearly a very strong diver, and you've trained in lots of different events. I've seen results for you from DYN, DNF, FIM CWT and so on, and they're all pretty strong. What was it that attracted you to DNF in the first place? Why did you choose to train for this record?
From the beginning I go always by the feeling. Every year I have the inner feeling which discipline I want to do, and I just do it. In 2009 it was DNF and then I went to Egypt for 3 months and I was just exploring all disciplines But I kind of liked CNF a lot. Then I remember next year I focussed on monofin, because I wanted to play with my monofin. And from year to year I was just asking myself what I want to do. And then more often it started happening that it was this no-fins thing. I was also stuck in my training with monofin, I didn’t really know how to train my legs to progress. But really it was this inner feeling that wanted me to do no-fins. AS you said, you could see my good results in all disciplines because I believe it’s all connected. If you’re good in one it can be easily translated to the others. But at some point I realised that if I wanted to break a world record, I had to focus strictly on one. I asked myself which one I wanted it to be, and it was no-fins. The funny thing is I prefer depth much more than pool, but because I have access to pool not depth I’m kind of better in the pool.
I remember hearing as recently as 2 or 3 years ago that you were doing DNF swims of around 180m. What’s changed over the last couple of years to take you from a good solid DNF to a world record?
Hmmm. A month of training, and doing something other than freediving itself.
Could you tell us a bit more about that? By the knowledge I had back in those days, with just freediving training I could go up to about 180m and that was it. I think now I would know how to train to get better results just by freediving but back in the days it was the knowledge. Always the knowledge is the limiting factor actually. What did I change? Erm… I achieved 200m actually in 2012 in training the first time and what changed? I added strength to it, instead of just doing freediving itself. So… gym work. And then last year in Belgrade when I kind of lost, when I gave up my dynamic, the inspiring words came from Alexey [Molchanov] actually because I saw Natalia [Molchanova] doing amazing things and I approached Alexey and asked him “how is she doing it?! I mean she’s 50+ and doing world records! How is she doing it Alexey?!” (Laughs) and Alexey just told me that she enjoys training and enjoys staying in the water, and she goes to the swimming pool every day. And then something clicked in my head and I realised that this whole overtraining bullshit is just said by couch potatoes who are lazy! (Laughs) And to be honest I just started training a lot. Since Belgrade I’ve had maybe 7 days off. Even now [at the Vertical Blue competition] I’m doing something, even on my off days I do static or something like that.
Can you talk us through some of your training. Specifics, I mean, in a typical week how much training would you do and what kinds of training?
Each week is different. Like, for the world record attempt I was training twice a week in the pool. Generally I’m not a swimmer so I’m not worried so much about the technique, about reducing the [number of stroke] cycles, I’m more concerned with relaxation, getting the maximum out of the dive response, so I was more focussing on apnoea capacity and strength. Basically 2 times per week I was training in the pool, usually some big swims or maximum swims, and 2 or 3 times a week some one hour crossfit training, strength training, and 2 times static. So generally training every day but always doing something different. And don’t do anything more than 2 or 3 times a week.
And do you have an overall training plan for a period of time, over a number of months or is it again just at the start of the week whatever feeling you have?
No, no. Generally it’s like in any sport. Right now it’s kind of the end of the season for me, after Vertical Blue. I have one more competition but I won’t treat it seriously, it’s just for fun. And after that I’ll take some time off, I think the whole of December. I will still do something (laughs) but it won’t be serious training. And then in January I will start preparing for the pool world championships because since I got the world record I will try to get a gold medal there. I would like to challenge Goran Colack because he feels unchallenged so I will give him the challenge. (Smiles) The plan will be a lot of strength training so I may drop apnoea down to just once a week and for 6 days a week I’ll work just on my muscles and then I will start reducing this training and I will add more apnoea. It will be apnoea mixed with technique because all this gym training I started in the last year. My weight didn’t change but my fat distribution changed: I lost a lot of body fat and because of this my buoyancy changed. You can see on the video that I take too many strokes, I don’t normally take that many strokes and my buoyancy is not good.
To get perfect buoyancy takes time and once you get it you can time your laps, count your strokes and all the rest of it. On this video I was not counting strokes at all I was just thinking “ok you will take many strokes just focus on relaxation.”
Well it obviously paid off.
I know many divers they are focussed on minimising their stroke count but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is technique and how much effort you put in each stroke. So it really doesn’t matter – in the pool at least, not in the depth – if you do 3 bigger stronger strokes, or 4 and a half easier strokes. And definitely after a certain point in the dive, once the dive response is established.
Thank you! I read one article about your world record where you described in detail something which is very obvious when you watch the video: you’ve got two celebrations in there. The first one before you’ve been given the white card and the second one once that card is given. I found that really interesting to read about the internal achievement – that it doesn’t really matter to you whether you get the white card or not because you’ve already overcome the obstacles that you had to overcome in getting there. Which of those two celebrations is more important?
Of course the internal achievement is much more important for me, because it really proves to me that my idea about training, that what I was doing was right. When I think about it, of course one day someone will break [the world record], but it’s the feeling that for that moment in time, your methods they were the best in the world. So it gives you the feeling of internal confidence for the future. Psychologically it was a really important mark. It was like conformation for you as a sportsman that your methods are right. Is that so you can break more records in the future or…? No! Freediving is about trusting yourself. So you can finally trust yourself. You can say yes! I know this the best! The happiness was from… because the day before I gave up, and I had a couple of really bad trainings before this event. One month before I was talking to my girlfriend and saying I’m not going to do it. (Laughs). Seriously, overcoming that was something amazing. Even when I started the dive I wasn’t feeling like I would make it.
So what was it that got you through?
Usually the worst part for me is between 100 and 125 something like that, but on these 2 dives the worst part was at the 175m turn, I don’t know why. I think that… because in freediving it’s not good when you try to reach a certain number. A world record dive is different from any other dive: In any other dive you can think “I want to do my maximum, I want to do my best.” In a world record dive it’s really difficult because you still want to do your maximum but you have a certain number that you’re trying to reach. So then when I was at 175 that’s the moment for me when the discomfort is really really big, and then you think about the number. You have to swim 50m and then you start calculating and it’s… hard. So the first day I gave up and then the second day I thought, “ok well I’ll just swim to 200, then I’ll train up and try again in the future.”
That was going through your head as you were swimming?
Yeah. But then I went to 200m, I turned and… The issue was psychological. It was not a physical issue. I knew I could do it in terms of oxygen. And when I look at the dive I can see that it can still be improved, I think at least 15m.
You wore no face equipment for the dive. How did that come about and how did you cope with contractions and things like that?
Ha!(laughs)… It’s horrible actually. I start experimenting with it 1 month before the attempt. I was looking for something new, for something that would give me the edge and I knew that strengthening the dive response would give a direct benefit in performance. I knew for a few years that removing goggles and noseclip would strengthen the dive response but a year back I couldn’t imagine swimming without goggles let alone without noseclip. Then I went to the world championships and everyone was swimming without goggles. So I removed goggles. So then there was the noseclip and I was feeling like… you have a hunch… you know something will work but it’s very very hard. Somehow I contacted with Sebastian Murat and he convinced me to try it, to really try it. A few months before the attempt I had a training session where I forgot noseclip and on this training I actually couldn’t imagine swimming without noseclip and I came up at 100m. When contractions started I just couldn’t hold it and I swim up. But then a month before the attempt I thought “why not try it” because it’s all in our head. Erm… I convinced myself that I have to learn to like it. It will give me benefit so I have to learn to like it. On one training I tried to swim 175m, and I did it. Actually quite easy. The water was coming through my nose and out of my mouth while I was swimming. (laughs). It was hard, but doable. I had hope after this session, and actually I adapted quickly to it. I had 2 dives that I aborted with it because of the discomfort but with discomfort the dive response comes. The more discomfort, the more dive response you have. But on this dive, the world record dive, at 150m I had big big discomfort without the noseclip and I was thinking “Fuck, it was the wrong call” So I had these bad thoughts but somehow I made it. And also something that made me want it to work was that I wanted to be a pioneer in something – to achieve world record in a new way. It might be a kind of future. So I really wanted to make it work, from scientific point and also to achieve the world record.
Who are you idols? Who do you look up to in the freediving world, or in the world at large?
For a long long time it was and it is Dave Mullins. I think he could get us all if he wanted! (laughs) Ever since I started freediving in 2009 I just knew that Dave Mullins is the man!
What is it about him?
The thing is he’s not doing it professionally. My approach would be kind of similar to his. I know he’s working and he’s training after work or whatever and he somehow makes it work and he’s on the highest level. And I’m in a similar spot.
We’ve talked a little bit about the film, On the Other Side of the Mirror, already. What was your experience of making that film?
Ater getting the silver medal in Kalamata I was in the news in Poland and I got some media coverage. I just wanted to do something to promote freediving in Poland. I didn’t get any money out of it or anything. It was just something totally on the side. The director was also doing it in his off time out of his own money so the shooting was spread over 2 years. There were many many hours of video actually. It’s tiring. I really admire people that have the patience to work with media because it’s hard. It’s not something I enjoy, you know, posing for the camera. It brings more stress. It’s really nice to see the effect of the work, but the work itself is not easy. I’m not sure if I would sign up for this thing again because I’m not looking for publicity. I’ve never looked for it. It’s not something that I like to do actually, I just like to train.
It’s a good looking movie.
When it was ready I was surprised because I think it really shows how it is for me in Poland. It’s not some pompous thing, it’s true, it’s honest, I really like it.
There’s a very high profile record attempt happening at this competition, lots of media. Do you think that’s the way that things are going and how would you feel if that’s the world you’re going in to?
I really admire Will [Trubridge] that he’s handling such a big pressure. That’s a thing I would never like to do, to make such a big media thing. It must be enormous pressure. I don’t know if I would be able to do it, you know, if that’s the future. I think if we want to grow as a sport… yes, that’s the future. If we have to, we will adapt.
That’s a good answer, thank you. Ok so finally, another video that I’ve seen you in recently is the blue hole arch video from 2010. It’s got a lot of familiar faces in it, there’s Samo [Jeranko] there, there’s Aurore [Asso]. It seemed to me that that was something you’ve always wanted to do. How did it feel to achieve that?
It was…erm… it was right after triple depth, the day before I was leaving from Egypt. I’d achieved 100m for the first time in both disciplines so I was super happy. Then there was the party, then I was hungover and then there was this attempt! It was easier than expected. I think I’d done it the year before with Rob King without any media. It’s always been my dream because first of all I saw photos of Will Winram doing it and then the video of Will [Trubridge]. I think it’s my only dive that I’ve done at such a depth away from the rope. It’s not a common thing for a diver to do. It’s just an amazing feeling… you are an explorer. There was no fear in me… I’m usually fearless in these sorts of situations, but when I hear about the way that Will [Trubridge] explores the island here…. …
Yes… I’ve heard some stories about that too! So it wasn’t scary having Mark Lenoir chasing you on a scooter? I think I would have found that the most scary part.
No! (Laughs) I didn’t even hear it, ha ha. In fact he was late – he left the surface way too late! So he fucked it up. He was supposed to be my safety!
Mateusz Malina is the new world record holder for DNF, the first Polish freediving world record holder and the fourth deepest man of all time in Free Immersion. He lives and works in Krakow, Poland. He is grateful to his long-term sponsors Grena Medical Devices Ltd for their ongoing support.