As founder and instructor at the Freediving World Apnea Center in Sharm El Sheikh and an excellent athlete, Andrea Zuccari is one of the leading experts in the field of deep freediving, especially on equalization method. To improve the image of competitions and perhaps aspire to become an Olympic sport in the future, he considers it essential to "eliminate the many blackouts we witness today." How have training methods changed in recent years?
by Stefano Tovaglieri
Describing who Andrea Zuccari is and what he represents in the world of freediving is not an easy task. I will try to provide a brief overview of his credentials as follows:
Andrea is a manager, member, and instructor at the Freediving World Apnea Center in Sharm El Sheikh. For years, this center has been providing specific services to freedivers from all over the world, offering courses at every level, training for deep divers, workshops on equalization, and organizing competitions and various record attemepts. It is the only diving center in the Sinai with a 25-meter pool and specialized staff to manage the assistance required for training, record attempts, and outdoor competitions.
Born in 1974, with dual Italian-Swiss nationality, Zuccari arrived in Egypt in 2005 to become a scuba diving guide in Sharm El Sheikh—a choice driven by his great passion for the sea and the underwater world. Fascinated by freediving, he began his apnea journey the following year. In 2007, he participated in the AIDA World Championships. In 2008, he trained under Umberto Pelizzari and became an Apnea Academy International Instructor. After just two seasons, in 2009, he achieved four records in one week: 55 meters Constant Weight No Fins (CNF), 75 meters Free Immersion (FIM), 77 meters Constant Weight (CWT), and a No Limits dive to120 meters.
In December 2012, his challenges reached even greater depths as he set a new Variable Weight record at 131 meters, earning him the Swiss National Record. Most importantly, during these pioneering experiences, he developed curiosity and a desire to explore the mechanisms of equalization, leading to the development of methods and preparatory exercises, refining his technique to learn and teach the "key to accessing depth": Equalization.
His competitive career culminated in 2017 when he set a new No Limits record at 185 meters. However, this performance was not recognized, as AIDA no longer accpeted this discipline.
The creation of the Equalization Academy workshops around the world, and his presence in Sharm have made Zuccari one of the leading experts in the field. It is with him that we wanted to take stock of the situation regarding competitive outdoor freediving.
Andrea, what has changed in the freediving world over the last decade?
"I would say quite a lot. Today, there are many more freedivers who live as athletes; in the past, only a few could manage it. The number of outdoor competitions has increased, and every year there are more opportunities to challenge oneself at sea. If we look at the rankings of the most important competitions, such as AIDA, CMAS, and Vertical Blue World Championships, it is not easy to find new world records or new milestones. However, it is evident that average performance levels have increased. In short, the technical and performance level continues to grow each year. Furthermore, beyond competition, freediving is also spreading as a recreational activity, attracting more and more sea enthusiasts and people looking for significant contributions to their well-being."
What are the main technical changes you have observed in recent years in both outdoor and indoor freediving specialties?
"In deep freediving, the biggest change is undoubtedly related to equalization. In the past, only those who unconsciously adopted a technique that worked at any depth could go deep. An emblematic example is Umberto Pelizzari, whom I had the pleasure of meeting here in the Red Sea. Throughout his career, as he himself acknowledged, his techniques of equalization were based on methods he did not deeply understand and were primarily focused on physical relaxation. At the Freediving World Apnea Center, Umberto tried new protocols with me and discovered and learned to equalize consciously. It was then that this collaboration with Apnea Academy began. Today, with the knowledge we have acquired and the new equalization techniques that have been protocolized, many more freedivers can achieve significant depths."
Has the training approach for deep freediving and indoor disciplines changed?
"In outdoor disciplines, it has been realized that simply going out to the sea is not enough. It is necessary to adopt long-term dryland physical preparation programs to enhance the conditioning abilities that must necessarily support the technique and maximum performance. More and more of the dryland training time is also dedicated to equalization exercises, away from the water, while the periods of practice in the sea, in general, have become shorter. More quality and less quantity because the sea, in the end, consumes."
How have the competition rules changed in the AIDA world?
"In recent years, there has been a strange reversal of trends. In the past, in CMAS competitions, if a freediver had a samba or a blackout, they were disqualified. Now, after an incident, if doctors give approval, they can continue with the competition. On the other hand, AIDA has created a "scale" of blackouts, classifying them based on time and depth. With this system, the judges can enforce a one- or two-day forced rest, or disqualify the athlete for the rest of the competition. Thanks to these new rules, there were zero blackouts during the 10-day competition in the Red Sea last year. It's a great achievement for freediving, its image, and the well-being of athletes."
Among the top freedivers you have encountered at the Freediving World Apnea, who impressed you the most and why?
"There are two. Slovenian Alenka Artnik and Russian Alexey Molchanov. What can I say about Alexey? He's simply a machine! In 2011 or 2012, I don't recall exactly, he set the Constant Weight World Record to 125 meters here in Sharm; today, he holds the monofin Constant Weight World Record to 136 meters. After a career start with some blackouts, at a certain point, he managed to perform almost all his dives cleanly and with ease. Alenka trained with me at the Freediving World Apnea for two long periods, and I had the chance to observe her closely. She goes deep all year round. Both times, she started training in the sea with moderate depths, and with perfect programming, she always reached her goal with a smile on her face after each dive. Two or three years ago, she set the monofin Constant Weight World Record to 113 meters. She did it during a competition at the Freediving World Apnea, and her performance was astonishing. As a former athlete, I would say it was "almost annoying" because she made it look so effortless. This year at Vertical Blue, she had a blackout; it happens, of course! If I remember correctly, it was her first one during a competition. I don't know how her competitive career will progress, but from what I've seen, I don't think she will easily push beyond her limits. Of course, she will try to approach them, to push them a bit further, but always with the awareness of doing it safely. On the other hand, there are athletes who experience blackouts every now and then during dives. They might even rank high in the world ranking list, but they will never have my respect. Alenka, as Pelizzari did in the past, wants to prove that you can be at the top without pushing past her own limits."
In your opinion, will the "Olympic dream" remain just a dream, or are there concrete possibilities for it to come true?
"Perhaps one day, we might see freediving competitions at the Olympics, but I believe it can only happen if AIDA and CMAS work together to create new rules to protect the athletes' health and the image of the sport. Currently, we witness "fake" performances characterized by surface protocols skillfully managed to avoid blackouts. It is not a nice spectacle! If I were a father, I would never want my child to watch a freediving competition with the current performances, where too often an athlete needs assistance and resuscitation. Challenging one's limit is right, but without ever losing awareness of one's resources and health. I think there is a lot of work to be done on this."
What advice would you give to those approaching outdoor competitions with the goal of becoming top athletes?
"Focus especially on two fundamental points: breathing and equalization. Regarding equalization, I believe it's essential not to reach your limit due to lack of awareness. By that, I mean that instinctive actions that initially allow for easy equalization should not be exploited. This would require later changing those mechanisms and eq habits that, while favorable until certian depths, would make further progress more challenging. Lastly, especially at the beginning, spend a lot of time in the sea to adapt to the environment. Once you have gained enough experience, you can reduce this time and focus more on dryland and pool physical preparation."
Europe, Americas, Japan, Asia, and Australia: what differences do you notice, if any, in the various teaching approaches?
"I would say that in freediving schools on different continents, except in America, where there are almost exclusively local teaching methods, the situation is similar, albeit with some significant differences. For example, in China, there is significant development, but the average level is very low due to the poor training of instructors, who often come from a scuba background. Korea is one of the countries with the highest number of Freediver certifications. Certainly, the environmental situation has a large influence: Australia and America are both surrounded by oceans, with sea conditions often unfavorable. In Europe, we have the Mediterranean and the Red Sea within a short flight, where optimal conditions can be found. For this reason, the "Old Continent," once again, takes center stage at the highest levels in this sport.
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