Near the completion of the scuba course she asked Rick in a jokingly manner if she could take another written test instead of participating in her open water check out dives. Her first open water dives were in Key Largo diving at the famous John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. It is the first undersea park in the United States that encompasses approximately 70 nautical square miles.
On their first dive Charlie and the boys performed their giant stride entries from the dive boat and descended slowly down to the beautiful reef. Connie did her giant stride entry and immediately began to hyperventilate. At the surface, Rick immediately held her hand and slowly coaxed her calming her nerves. Before she knew it, she was swimming on top of the reef and the hook was set.
After that experience Charlie decided that scuba diving was not for him, but for Connie and Travis an entire Pandora’s Box had been opened. They began taking many open water specialty courses learning more and gaining experience and, most important, confidence.
Travis got into spearfishing. With their family boat with Charlie as Captain, together they did many scuba dives in the Gulf of Mexico west of Hudson, Florida. Connie was not really interested in spearfishing and was content observing her son shoot fish. Later into that summer season of 1985, Travis handed her his spear gun and motions for her to shoot a fish. She did and another “hook” was set with her launch into her scuba diving career. She loved spearfishing and the hunt!
Travis had become trained and certified as a cave diver by Paul Heinerth. Connie followed suit but chose to stay at the “Intro to Cave” level for more than a year. Each time when Travis and Connie would go cave diving, he dived at her level mentoring her and being good buddy. That is what “good sons” do.
One day cave diving in North Florida, after a dive, they stopped at a dive store to get her single tank refilled. While her scuba tank was being filled, the person who was filling the tank and was a cave diving Instructor made a snide remark after looking at her Intro to Cave level card, “Nobody just stays at Intro level”! She later informed Travis of the comment. Travis replied that the guy was a jerk and that she should do what she felt comfortable with.
That incident influenced Connie so much that when she was managing at Ginnie Springs she made it a point to tell the young staff members who got cave diving trained and certified, to “never ever” make an open water diver feel less of themselves with anyone who was a cave diver.
Connie decided it was time to get “Full Cave” trained and certified, which she did during early 1991 with Paul Heinerth as her Cave Instructor. She and Travis started to really cave dive often together with him mentoring. Travis would tell his Mom, “the day you think you did not learn anything on a cave dive…that is the day you should stop cave diving…every cave dive is a learning experience”. She could hear his voice in her head saying to her on many cave dives she done when he not around to dive with her.
Connie started taking many more advanced specialty courses such as DPV cave, the Recovery Specialist that the famous Henry Nicholson offered, Survey/Exploration, Deep Air and Wreck Diving. She was like a sponge soaking in as much knowledge and experience that she could muster.
While working at Ginnie Springs, Connie maintained a travel trailer home parked near the dive and country store. This was her headquarters when not home in Hudson, Florida. She invested into two Aqua-Zepp DPV’s and she and Travis would execute many dives into the renowned Devil’s Eye Cave System at Ginnie Springs. It was convenient and the costs were free since she worked there. She really knew that cave system very well.
Travis was a big influence with her cave diving skills telling her over and over to always REFERENCE your underground surroundings. It could save your life someday. She put it to practice as on many cave dives she would imagine the guide line not being there and see if she had “referenced” well enough to exit the cave without the line.
As an example, one cave dive during the mid-1990’s in Mexico, she and Travis put in a spool for the dive from the permanent mainline to an offshoot line in the cave. During the exit from the cave, Connie was in the lead position. When they reached the jump area back to the main line, there was no spool in place. She froze in horror and disbelief. Travis took over the lead and they exited the cave! That was proof to her that his words to always “reference” would always echo in her head. They never knew who removed their spool.
Though I have shared several diving and social experiences with Connie and her family there was one event that took place that really impressed me. On Tuesday, February 6, 2001, a friend and a guest at Villas Derosa was reported missing in a cave located two km south of Tulum. He was cave diving with his wife during a weeklong visit.
The night before I shared a social hour with both of them on the rooftop of the hotel. I had noticed that he looked tired and haggard. He was a division manager for the major corporation IBM in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I strongly encouraged him to hire a personal physical trainer and get himself back into good personal shape. Little did I understand that the real problem was mental fatigue.
Connie was at Villas DeRosa for her annual two weeks of cave diving groups. It was typical that she would fly in a week early to relax and prepare for her guests. At about 1:38 P.M. Tuesday afternoon, a phone call was received from my good friend Gunnar Wagner who owned and operated the Aktun Dive Center in Tulum. The victim’s wife had arrived in their rental vehicle to his shop asking for help. Gunnar asked me to drive down and meet him at the cenote to search for the missing cave diver.
As I prepared the vehicle loading cave diving equipment, I asked Connie if she would help with the search. Without hesitation, she loaded her equipment too. As we drove south on Highway 307, I coached her on what to expect. This could be fairly quick or it could turn into a several dives searching for someone in a vast, complex area that I knew very well. I was hoping for the quick and easy.
When we arrived at the cenote, there was Gunnar, Robbie Schmittner and the wife of the missing person. She was distraught, but otherwise fairly composed. Connie later told me, “I remember the wife being present and in despair during out briefing….and I asked a medical doctor who was staying at Gunnar’s if he would take her back to Villas DeRosa. She said, “Connie, you don’t want me here?” and I replied, I think you would be more comfortable there. My thought was I knew this would be a recovery and not a rescue, and it would be better for her to be at Villas DeRosa with friends, than here in the jungle to witness us bringing out her husband after a long time. I just truly was concerned for her.”
This would be the first experience for Gunnar, Robbie and Connie being involved in this type of ordeal. For me, with the many recoveries I have performed in my past, it was another sickening incident that I had to mentally deal with. The trick in your mind was to treat the missing person as an object and not a real human being. Cruel as that sounds, that is the only way to deal with it. The most important thing with this circumstance was how we handled this very emotional and sensitive state of affairs with the missing person’s wife.
We all gathered around my truck and I devised a simple plan. Since we knew the missing person had swam upstream of the cave passage known as tunnel “A”, we would swim upstream and go with the flow. Meaning we would make decisions “on the fly”. After all the preparations and rituals of doing a safe cave dive, the four of us descended from the surface of the cenote and immediately saw the primary guideline of the missing person tied off at the cave entrance.
We swam upstream approximately 1000 feet the main line, Robbie immediately started to flash his primary light. He spotted the missing person on the right side of the huge cave passage about 75 feet from the main guideline. I tied off a guideline from a reel on the permanent line and we all swam over to, now, the victim.
He was neutrally buoyant, but for whatever reason, his safety reel was wrapped around the beginning of an offshoot guideline, his double tanks completely empty. I unwrapped the reel from the permanent guideline and signaled for both Connie and Robbie to take him back to the cenote entrance. Connie handled everything like a professional. I was very proud of her composure and competence. Gunner and I followed the offshoot guideline as I knew it looped back to the main line 200 feet further upstream. No continuous guidelines were in place from either end. To this day, I have no idea “why” the victim strayed off the main guideline without using a jump reel and line and put himself in harm’s way. I will say this for the first time ever, the human mind can be very clever. There have been many accidents where people have disguise their intentions into making it appear an accident. Because of what I witnessed the night before, this case is a perfect example. We shall never know.
“Connie is truly an icon. I first met Connie when I came down to DeRosa’s alone to get cave certified in 1999. I was staying in one of the hotel rooms. When Connie realized I was there she invited me to eat with her group, which started a 17 year friendship. I have done over a dozen trips with Connie. There would have been more if schedules would have aligned. When you are diving with Connie you know you will be taken care of and safety and fun are the top priorities. The other thing that stands out for me is her respect for the land owners. She made friends with each owner and she knows all of the children at each site and made it a point to bring a little something for them when we came.” Greg Matz.
During late March of 2010 Connie was diagnosed with cancer involving chemo-brain, and lymphedema. At the beginning, it was a struggle and a challenge. Finally, after much care and stress, the cancer went into remission, the chemo-brain cleared, but the lymphedema is a lifelong event. This forced the realization that she would never be able to dive as she is tethered to a machine for daily one hour long treatments. Her cave diving was physically finished.
This did not stop or discourage Connie at all. She was content to stay on the surface, coordinating every aspect of each day of cave diving for her friends. Hiring local cave diving Instructors as the in-water guides, she could visualize the dives in her mind was all OK with her. Constantly taking surface photos recording the events that evolved from breakfast, loading the vehicles, traveling to the dive sites, greeting the land owners, and sharing lunches in the jungle. It was all normal routine for her as she made sure every detail was in place to insure that everyone was safe and enjoying their cave diving and their stay in Mexico.
She once said to Hal Watts, who is a well-known diving icon, that cave diving is a “young person’s sport”. She recognized that everything in life has their limitations. Remembering Travis’s words of wisdom, one has to be physically and mentally 100% fit for the sport or don’t do it. Connie has accepted every challenge graciously and has made it work successfully to this day.
Connie estimates that she has performed close to 4,000 dives with at least 1000 cave dives in Florida and over 2,000 cave dives in Mexico. She worked part-time during the mid-1990s at Ginnie Springs and beginning in 1998 full time. It was customary to dive several times each week before and/or after work. She worked there for twelve more years. She has met or personally knows every diving legend or personality that has walked into the doorways of the Ginnie Springs lodge.
What she is most proud of is her group trips to Mexico. To this day, she has successfully organized and conducted over 100 cave groups with over 1000 people participating. One week in 2009 she had 21 divers from Russia, which she says, “Was my ultimate challenge”! During late January through Mid-March of 2010 she conducted four different groups of cave divers. What is truly remarkable of Connie’s group trips is the “repeat” business that she generated. Several people have participated in between 20 – 28 trips with Connie’s groups. An incredible feat indeed that proves her unbelieving scope with detail really pays off.