Sunday, April 17, 2011

THE WOMEN OF FREEDIVING

Salt Pond, Long Island, Bahamas 23º21.4N | 75º8.23W

Interviewing Junko.     Photo by Chip
Sweet and gentle Junko, the Japanese freediver at this competition, quit her job as an account manager to give herself time off to pursue her passion of freediving. This is her first competition in a year, and, wait for this: she had brain surgery 6 months ago. When I asked how her first 50-meter dive since brain surgery went, she merely shrugged her shoulders, put her hand on the side of her head, and said, "It feels like it's okay."

Junko was the first female diver I interviewed, and I was surprised, shocked really, to find out she is 42. Then I met the other women in this competition.

Carla demonstrating the only thing that kept her from a national record.
Carla Hanson, the lone U.S. diver at Vertical Blue 2011, is 55. She has her own visual design firm and has been freediving for only two years. In her younger years she hovered on the surface as a competitive swimmer and at one time held the women's butterfly world record. During this competition, Carla doggedly attempted five times to set the national record in freediving with no fins. On her closest attempt, she successfully reached her depth but was unable to rally at the surface to complete the three simple steps to prove lucidity: remove your face gear (goggles, nose clip), say, "I'm okay," and make the okay symbol with your hand. That little hand signal was all that stood between Carla and her national record.

I could go on and on. These are inspiring and colorful women. There is Lena, the 33-year-old former actress from Serbia, Linden, the professional, freediving mermaid, who serves as a judge, and DeeDee, the self-proclaimed "shemale" in gender "transition," a standup comedian and freediving underwater photographer. And then there is the ultimate freediving goddess:

Natalia Molchanova.
The indomitable, intimidating Natalia Molchanova from Russia came to Dean's Blue Hole on a mission: to seize the only women's competitive freediving world record that she doesn't already hold, a record she set last year but then lost later to a judging technicality.

In a sport of mind over, well, everything, where the brain must override utter panic and the body's belief that death is imminent, Natalia is a champion. When she dons her wetsuit and enters the water, her unshakeable focus is so intense, it's as if she has stepped into another dimension. Even though I could see her, it seemed to me she had gone so far into another place that she couldn't see back.

Natalia in her other realm. That's her lying on the surface in a pink wetsuit,
with her head resting on a yellow noodle swimming toy, preparing to enter the abyss.
On the first day of competition she went right for that world record, no messing around, making her depth of a stunning 103 meters -- that's 338(ish) feet, more than a football field down -- then the same distance back up, all on one breath.

On her way to the surface, she suffered a frightening (to me) blackout well below the surface and had to be ferried up by safety divers who then shouted at her, "breathe, breathe, breathe!"

Natalia Molchanova, center, returning to us from the abyss.
Undaunted, Natalia, the aquatic bulldog, kept at it, three days, always making her depth and then blacking out, although after the first day, the blackouts were at the surface and less frightening to us as spectators.

Today, on the seventh day of the competition, she donned her old, thicker wetsuit, dove to 100 meters successfully retrieving the tag, just as she had done on the previous three attempts. (Although this was three meters less than the first day, it was still enough to set the world record.)

We all waited at the surface for an astonishing 3 minutes and 42 seconds as Natalia fought the demons of the underworld.

"10 meters. 8 meters. 5 meters," the announcer called out as she approached the surface, all of us holding our breath, or at least I know I was.

She came blasting out of the water, and with the 15-second clock ticking, removed her face gear, gave the hand signal and said, "I'm okay." The judge flashed a white card giving Natalia every world record in women's competitive freediving -- at 48 years old.

The press box of one, gasped for air, and the crowd went wild.

Lena, the lovely and perpetually happy Serbian actress, who turned back
early on her dive one day, because "there were demons down there."
DeeDee, the spectacular.
Natalia Molchanova after her world record dive and the professional
mermaid judge flashing the white card, symbol of a successful dive.
And then everyone lined up for a photo with the champion of the deep.

p.s. -- There were some men at the competition as well. And my article about freediving was published in the New York Times Sunday edition with a photo by the fabulous DeeDee Flores.


More on Freediving and Dean's Blue Hole:

My photos of Dean's Blue Hole.
Thoughts on Freediving.
My Freediving Board on Pinterest.


who are these people? me | chip | cara mia | our very long timeline

1 comment:

  1. Hello Tammy, This is Greg the hot spring addicted writer/freediver you met in Larkspur at the travel writing conference. I just read your article about freediving in the New York Times, and I loved it! My favorite line is "... world-class freedivers are descending to the edge of credibility."Do not forget my invitation to you and your husband to visit my wife and I in Japan. If you have not checked out my blog, please do so. http://hotspringaddict.blogspot.jp/ When you have more articles published, please let me know. Take care

    ReplyDelete