Life and Breath

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Freedivers Plunge Past The Need To Breathe

      All is calm, here on the edge of a small, rocky cove just north of the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal. Calm, too, is the young harbour seal that has just surfaced less than 10 metres away, its enormous black eyes scanning the shoreline for anything out of the ordinary. I don't qualify, it seems. Despite the precipitous climb down to these sun-warmed granite slabs, this bay is a popular destination for scuba divers, and the resident seals are accustomed to human activity--even under the water, where they've been known to playfully tug at swimmers' fins.

      Even so, this marine mammal might be surprised by what it would see if it dove a little farther out: humans, tens of metres beneath the water's surface, swimming with apparent ease and freedom without the aid of pressurized tanks.

      From my beachside vantage point, I see them on the surface, eight or 10 of them gathered in a rough circle 100 metres off shore. Wearing black or grey neoprene suits and occasionally kicking their swim fins in the air, they look uncannily like a pod of California sea lions. Some of them aren't wearing flippers, however. Instead, they've donned monofins, fishtail devices into which both feet are strapped. And when they dive, arcing in a sinuous curve from head to toe, they look more like illustrations from a children's book: mermaids and mermen, at play beneath the waves.

      But these are not fanciful creatures. Instead, they're elite athletes, members of Team Canada readying themselves for the fourth AIDA world freediving championships, which will be held at this Horseshoe Bay site and UBC's Olympic-sized outdoor pool from August 4 to 12. (For a complete schedule, visit the championship Web site at And to prepare for this event, they've immersed themselves in more than just the glacial waters of Howe Sound. All of the divers here--whether they're competitors, trainers, or safety aides--have gone through a rigorous training process supervised by their sport's guiding body, the International Association for the Development of Apnea.

      FOR MOST TERRESTRIAL mammals, apnea is something best avoided. Sleep apnea, whose sufferers stop breathing during the night, can produce effects ranging from depression, irritability, and sexual dysfunction to high blood pressure and heart failure. But for freedivers, apnea is a more positive phenomenon. Derived from the Greek term for "not breathing", the word signifies the voluntary cessation of breath, and today its underwater practitioners are taking it to previously unfathomable extremes.

      As a sport, apnea is relatively new. "The story," says Tom Lightfoot, a national freediving record holder and vice-chair of the 2004 world championships, "is that it started off with some Italian fellow who made a bet that he could go down to 30 metres and pick up a little container with a 100-lira note in it. That was basically the first record, and I think that was probably in something like the 1930s."

      Today, the world record for freediving without fins or other technological aids is 61 metres, set by Denmark's Stig Aavall Severinsen in 2003. Austria's Herbert Nitsch, diving with fins but without discardable ballast, hit 95 metres--at which depth the lungs shrink to the size of a closed fist--also in 2003. And French swimmer Loí¯c Leferme, pulled toward the bottom by what freedivers call a No Limits sled, made it to 162 metres and back on a single breath of air in 2002.

      The benchmarks of the sport continue to be recalibrated, and Lightfoot says it's possible that several world records may be broken during the Vancouver championships. If they are, it may be thanks to Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, who leads international women's freediving in two "constant ballast" categories: depth with fins (78 metres) and without (41 metres). A former scuba diver (since age 15) who's set aside her tanks in favour of freediving's more natural approach, the 30-year-old Vancouver resident is the epitome of the obsessive, driven athlete, to the extent that when she's not at work selling dive supplies, she's in the gym working out or in the water practising her craft.

      "Having been a scuba diver for so long, I've done a lot of the dives that I've wanted to do," she points out. "So, right now, the thing that attracts me most to freediving is the competitive side and just being able to see what you're capable of doing. Training takes up a lot of my time, so I don't have much left over for pleasure dives."

      Her no-nonsense approach is indicative of the mental and physical toughness she brings to the sport, whether readying herself for competition or speculating about Team Canada's chances. Success, she says, is primarily a matter of preparation. "There are huge mental aspects to being able to push beyond what normal people will do," she says, "But even if you have the strongest willpower, if your physiology isn't up to par then you're not going to be able to do it. So they kind of play hand in hand--but once you have the physiology down, probably only seven percent of it is going to be psychological."

      Intensive training plays a huge part in furthering the abilities of athletes like Cruickshank, but they would not be able to do what they do without the biological quirk known as the mammalian diving reflex. Presumably developed as an evolutionary hedge against accidental drowning, the reflex mutes the impulse to breathe upon immersion--and according to SFU researcher Andrew Blaber, who is studying the Team Canada swimmers to learn more about how the human body copes with extreme underwater conditions, taming it is a big part of the way freedivers push past the apparent limitations of the human physique.

      "The diving reflex refers to a number of mechanisms," he says in a phone interview, "but essentially there are nerves located under the skin on the face, and when your face enters cold water--you may have even noticed this when you step into a cold shower--you sort of stop breathing. So there's that gasp, that reflex which causes the glottis to close when you're immersed in cold water. And following that, in the breath-hold process itself there's a reflex that kicks in after a certain amount of time. Basically what happens is that the body wants to conserve energy and oxygen, and oxygen preservation is also managed by diverting blood from regions of the body that are nonessential. If you're underwater, you want to provide the two most important organs of the body--the heart and the brain--with oxygen, so what will happen after a couple of minutes is that the heart rate will start to slow. That's because the heart consumes large amounts of oxygen. And then, secondly, the blood vessels in the legs and arms will shrink in diameter and divert blood away from the extremities towards the centre part of the body."

      This is why accident victims can sometimes be revived even after several minutes underwater. But what separates champion freedivers from people who fall off a boat or pass out in the bath is their purposeful adaptation of the cardiovascular system to enhance the diving reflex. "Through training, they're able to redistribute more blood back to the core," Blaber says. "And the elite divers may be able to drop their heart rate considerably; at the bottom of a deep dive, their heart rate may be down to five beats per minute--but that also takes training."

      A FEW DAYS before the Lions Bay expedition, some of that training is taking place at the UBC Aquatic Centre's outdoor pool, where the Team Canada divers are working on what they call static apnea. As sporting events go, it's singularly lacking in visual flash--the divers simply lie facedown in the pool for as long as possible. And its essentially passive nature is why freediving may never catch on as a spectator sport or win a place in the Olympics.

      "What gets into the Olympics has to do with what makes good TV," Lightfoot says resignedly. "The Olympic committee looks at how much money that they can make off of having something as an Olympic sport, and so underwater hockey, which is a very active game, will probably be accepted long before freediving ever will. That's my cynical view, anyway."

      Yet there's a certain fascination to watching the athletes rehearse--and a certain tension, too. Wearing wetsuits, masks, and nose clips, two women are floating at the edge of the pool while their trainers crouch nearby, murmuring words of encouragement. One places his hand on his charge's upper back in what looks like a tender gesture, although he's probably more concerned with monitoring her heart rate. "Two minutes," he says. The seconds click by on the pool's giant clock as a young swimmer edges closer, spyhopping to see what's going on. "Thirty seconds to go," the trainer announces. At three minutes and 40 seconds, the woman surfaces, taking quick, shuddering breaths. It's not a record time, not by a long shot. But it's a start.

      The world record for static apnea is an incredible eight minutes and six seconds, held by Czech diver Martin Stepanek. But, as with the various depth and distance categories, there is every likelihood that his mark will be broken soon.

      "There must be a limit to how long or how deep we can go," Lightfoot says. "The body is only capable of storing so much oxygen and other fuels to burn. But the records that are being set right now are unimaginable to me, and I go to depths that were world records in the early '90s. Based on the rate at which records are being set, we aren't close to that limit yet."

      "I don't think we've reached the end," Blaber agrees. "At one time, people said, 'Oh you can't go below 50 metres,' but that's been proven wrong. In terms of breath-hold time, the extensions of the breath-hold time are getting smaller, but there's room there for improvement."

      BACK AT THE POOL, Team Canada diver Mario Gomes is watching the two women train while he's waiting for his wife and fellow freediver, Ananda Escudero, to finish her stretching exercises. "This is a really cool sport because it's so psychological," he says, in a soft Brazilian accent. "It's really about controlling your life. While you're doing this, you can go from a place that you're really enjoying to a place you really hate. But it's all about being patient."

      Escudero knows about being patient, too: she's waiting for her application for Canadian citizenship to be processed, which will determine whether or not she can compete this year as a Team Canada member. But her rise to being a world-championship contender has been anything but long, or even predictable. Five months ago, she attended her first freediving class as a concession to Gomes, a former spearfisherman and scuba diver. Now she's a static-apnea star, with a personal best of five minutes and 32 seconds.

      "I can't really tell you how I achieve that, but I think mainly it's the way I feel," Escudero says. "For me, the hardest point in the static is between three minutes and four minutes, when the [diaphragm] contractions are starting. But after four minutes, I just start getting excited that I'm really close to my target. I just get this feeling of accomplishment: I've got this far and I know I can do it. So I just keep going and going, and then when I reach five I just forget about everything and everyone around me. I just start counting the seconds, and then when I get to the point I want, I come up. It's just a really good feeling."

      For Cruickshank, however, the good feelings will come after next month's meet--especially if she and her fellow divers can walk away with gold. "There are some personal bests that I want to do out here, but my number one goal is that I want Team Canada's women to be untouchable," she says. "I want to win this competition and just leave people in the dust, and so far we're looking really strong. It looks like we have a great team."

      Fierce competitiveness and gentle patience, strenuous effort and supple relaxation--freediving is not without its contradictions. In the end, though, it's about wonder. Or at least it is for Gomes, who reports that at the Howe Sound practice session the same seal that had scoped me out came to visit him--a dozen metres beneath the surface of the sea.

      "She circled around me, and she touched me, and then she looked again and then she went down to the bottom," he says. "It's a feeling I can't describe, but I feel like she just accepted me. It was a very special moment.

      "You know, once you leave the surface, you really get the feeling that you're leaving this world behind," Gomes continues. "And even if you try to think about anything else, you can't, because you have to be focused and at the same time you have to be in this meditative state. So you just forget about everything. Then you go back, and when you break the surface, when you start to breathe again, it's like you're coming back to your own world."