Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Magical Summer

It has been a magical summer.  You know how everyone talks about a summer escape.  Well I had a doozy. 
Underwater Leap of Faith Houdini vs Alexanderia the Great
 When last I wrote in May, I was talking about how I do things differently.  You don't start out performing at age 47.  You certainly don't go into magic, where only a handful of women have been a main act. And you definitely don't go into escapes since it has almost exclusively been a man's game for over 100 years.  Whoops, I guess I missed all those rules.       

So there I was having done decades worth of work in escapes, on my own but refusing to tell or show anyone for fear that they would think I was "weird" or "different".  My hubby wanted me to do this since we were kids (high school) but I had plans (college) to be a teacher.  Then we married and we began to have kids. "A mom can't be an escape artist", I thought. Then I opened up a home daycare business and I couldn't very well tell parents who called that I was "tied up" for the moment when I was really "tied up".  After that it was a myriad of reasons why I couldn't but it came down to me not being able to get out of my own box.  The box I put myself in or let others put me in. Bottom line was I just didn't have the confidence to be different and so pardon the pun, I resisted "jumping in".  But two years of unemployment forced me to reinvent myself career wise, so with my husband's support and urging, I decided to make the leap into escapes. 
Early picture of Alex secretly working on escapes
So after years of working on whatever we saw on TV (Cooperfield, The Pendragons, Angel & Blaine)  I (Bill really helped get me the courage) decided to give it a go. So October of 2009 was my very first escape at the Worldwide Escape Artist Relay.  Of course, doing it all wrong,  as you usually start out slow in your first performance.  Not me!  I chose to do an underwater escape (one of magic's most dangerous escapes).  To be fair, I had been working for years on escapes and most underwater, so I was different.  Funny to hear me say that now. 

Well with all this practice, it never included anything formal.  I never read magic books or attended a magic convention.  It just never occurred to me I needed to learn from others.  I just tried to figure it out myself.  Ok now why would I bring that up huh?

Well flash forward less than 3 years later and I decided to attend my very first magic convention but in a very cool and unusual way.  Yeah I know different. I have been an International Brotherhood of Magicians's (IBM) member for the last 3 years.  I joined up prior to my first escape as they provide excellent insurance coverage and I joined a magic ring to get contacts Ring 122 in at the famous Ray Goulet's Magic Arts Studio in Watertown, MA

This year's 84th IBM convention was in Norfolk, VA.  Two weeks before the convention I was contacted by the convention committee who saw my Today Show story and my Facebook postings (see Facebook does work).
So they asked me if I would be willing to come down and do an escape.  Would I?  Of course!  What an honor to be invited to perform in front of the largest magical arts order in the world and the oldest running magical convention.  How could I say no.  So after a little bit of prodding with the hotel who's  lawyers heard underwater escape and freaked  but came to their senses and gave approval and so we were off to Norfolk to perform in front of over 700 magicians.  GULP!
IBM Conference Talent Chair and Master Magician Shawn Farquhar 
Nothing is scarier than performing in front of your peers.  Remember I have only been performing for less than 3 years and I am standing in front of the best in the world of magic.  No pressure.  Kinda hard to catch your breath.  Hint hint remember that line.  So as Bill and I thought of what to do to make this escape memorable, it hit us.  This escape needed to be breath taking.  And so we set out to do just that.

Now to anyone else the picture above may look like you average summer pool party shot.  Except for the fact the girl (that's me) about to jump in has more restraints on than an other female has ever had in an underwater escape.  Handcuffs, leg cuffs, a 15 lbs lead weigh belt, a 5 foot chain from my hands to my feet (so I can't swim to the surface) another 25 feet of chains wrapped around my arms and body 3 times and padlocked each time.  Then the remaining chain is brought down my body up through my legs, over my back and shoulders twice and padlocked tightly with two more locks one around my neck and the other down my back.  

The Underwater Leap of Faith at the 84th International Brotherhood of Magicians Convention

So over 50 lbs of restraints, 30 feet of chains secured by 7 padlocks and chained in such a way that it nearly chokes me if I go down wrong.  We thought it should be recognized as the most a women had ever done in an underwater escape so we contacted Ripley;s Believe It or Not.  But both Bill and I wanted something more.  We didn't want to do just more than any other women and more than Houdini which this would be but something no escape artist had ever done.  But what?  How could we do something in front of the best magicians in the world that would take their breath away.  And then it hit us.  Breath away.  Let's take their breath away by me giving mine away.

I have trained with free divers having completed the pool portion of Performance Free Diving's Intermediate course.  I also am friends with some amazing women who are champion free divers and 
who have been so helpful with my training.  I train to be safer in my escapes but to also to be able to do more.  And in that vein I reached out to Natalia Avseenko who is a word champion free diver and runs the Moscow Free Diving school.  We contacted Nat and asked her to help us in training in a new and controversial free diving method called (FRC) Functional Residual Capacity or an exhale dive.  
Natalia Avseenko Wold Record Holding Free Diver and trainer
 In free diving you dive without the aid of SCUBA.  A line is set in the water and depending on the disciple (no weigh, variable weight, no limits or with fins or without) you go down as far as you can grab a tag that tells your depth and return to the surface all with just the air in your lungs.  Now most free divers do special training to learn to fill their lungs as much as they can like tanks of air to give them more reserve so they can stay down longer.  Makes sense.  Pack as much air are you can for your trip for you know if you run out you could drown.  The sport has a bad reputation sadly because some have pushed it too far with improper training.  Done correctly with proper training, the sport is   safe and those who are properly trained do an amazing job of teaching sound principles and keeping their students safer.  One of the problem that free divers have to deal with is getting down undrwater.  Sounds funny but when you take in a lot of air in your lungs, they act like balloons making it tougher to get down because of the extra air.  So a free diver decided to try and go down on under inflated lungs thus making it easier to get down but tougher to get up.  Think about when you tried to get to the bottom of the pool.  If you blew out your air, you sink.  Of course, you get down faster but it is much harder physically and especially psychologically to deal with the lack of air.
So this method which is much more risky as blackouts can come much more easily.  Why?  Simply you are working on a lot less air and your margin of error is smaller. When you push yourself too beyond you limits blackouts can be deadly.  So what does this have to do with my escape?  Well in the way I am chained across my body and with the chains being pulled tightly and padlocks each time my chest and lungs are restricted in fully inflating.  So I knew in doing this escape it is really hard to do the normal expansion that most free diver so in there breathe up routines.  I also have to train for the worst as in all escape things can happen and often do.  I have to be ready for a failure in picking or a cuff jamming or missing my landing and falling hard or in a difficult position.  So I have practiced what are called negatives where I blow out my air and just sit there and try and hold on underwater.  It comes down to dealing with contractions as that is what your body does when it wants air and you don't breathe.  It is the early warning system of survival.  As a trained free diver you know when to listen and when those signals are false.  But when it comes to being all those restraints and needing to get out  it wasn't going to be a pleasant little breath hold.  It becomes a game of mind over matter.  So when you do a negative and are out you simply pick your head up.  But when you chose to do FRC or an exhale dive with more restraint than Houdini had on I decided to ask for help.

Nat did a few Skype sessions with me to work on my breathing and think about visualizations and tables that would help me prepare for such an extreme attempt.  She is so cool and was excited for me as she is not stranger to danger.  She has done some really extreme dives in very freezing cold water and is about to embark on one of the most extreme tests in free diving, cave free diving.  Where if you make a mistake there is not going back.  She will literally be trying to squeeze into very tight spaces underwater in very cold and dark water and a misjudgement could be fatal. 

So after careful planning and training with Nat,  I was ready to try and make history. I stood on the deck which was so hot that the chains that Bill laid out for inspection had to be dunked in the pool before he could put them on me.  A volunteer did a great job securing the chains tightly ( magicians don't mess around).  And so after a short breathe up not like before where you do full inhalations, I more simplified my breathing.  Trying to go slowly and smoothly in and out.  Not full but slow and natural trying to get to a certain place.  A place where I could slow down my heart rate and block everyone out and just relax.  Finally I breathed in a final time normally and as I began make my leap you could hear me exhale loudly.  I hit the bottom of the pool and heard nothing.  Just the swish of the water as the bubbles exploded to the surface.  When ever I jump in with all those restraints I still freak out a bit honestly.  But I have begun to enjoy my leaps much more lately.  And this one though it was potentially stressful for I was performing in front of the best of the magical world, I felt different.  Yes the excitement made this tough as adrenaline is not what you coarsing through your veins when you are trying to relax and slow things down but felt different.  And maybe for the first time in my life different felt really cool.

Here is the short video of my Underwater Leap of Faith at the 84th IBM convention.  Ripley's Believe It of Not will be recognizing the escape in an upcoming Believe IT or Not feature and in their book.