Imagine holding your breath....how long could that could be....20 seconds....30 seconds? At what point if you were underwater would you start to panic?
“It’s relaxing once you have dealt with the urge to breathe,” says Rebecca Coales very matter of factly. Ranked 4th in the World and the holder of 5 UK
records, Rebecca loves being in the water as much as she can, missing it when she is not near it.
There are a number of freedive disciplines divided into two main categories, open water and pool based. There are three pool disciplines in freediving
- static apnea: a timed breath-hold underwater with no swimming
- dynamic apnea: the distance a diver covers swimming on one breath
- dynamic apnea no fins: the distance a diver covers swimming without fins on one breath.
Rebecca competes in the pool and in the distance apnea form of discipline; this means it’s not about how long she is underwater but rather how far she
can swim underwater using a form of adapted underwater breast stroke. On top of this, if when you are competing and you come out of the water you do
not remove your goggles, give the ‘ok’ sign and say loudly enough for the judge to hear, all in that specific order, you will be automatically disqualified
even if you have covered the most distance. As Rebecca explains, “you have to show the judge that you are fully conscious and this is the real skill
to push yourself and come up and do all of the above in the right order”. This is so much about the mental and the physical and yet on a different
level to most sports, this is also about overcoming a basic human fear and completely removing the one thing most athletes learn to use so well, oxygen.
So what sort of times and distance are we talking about being underwater for? Rebecca has swum 475ft underwater whilst holding her breath for 3 minutes.
Whilst it’s not her disciple of choice she has also held her breath in the static apnea for 5.27 minutes, a huge achievement and remarkable to think
that the human body is capable of doing that. Rebecca says, “it’s that primeval fear of not being able to breathe and overcoming those thoughts.”
This seems to be the biggest challenge, the mental one. Once this has been overcome, it’s about relaxing into it and enjoying it Rebecca explains. It seems
that for her it’s about slowing everything down, looking inside yourself and your head and almost meditating. She finds peace here and as she talks
it’s fascinating to listen to her complete conviction in what she is doing and the sense you get that down there, holding her breath, she is truly
Rebecca explains that after about 30 seconds people begin to have the urge to breathe, but it’s ‘just’ a signal the body sends to the brain caused by the
chemical changes. “Once you have got your head around that, it’s relaxing and enjoyable,” she says. It’s all about the rising C02 levels in your body,
not because your body doesn’t have oxygen, Rebecca explains, and continues by saying that it’s about training your responses to deal with the higher
levels of C02 and lower levels of oxygen in your body. If you have too much C02 then you start to get headaches as a warning sign. “When you hold your
breath and put your face in water your body is built so that it automatically slows your heart rate and starts to bring the oxygen from your extremities
to the centre to conserve oxygen. We are designed to do this,” Rebecca explains of the technical side of freediving. I find it incredible that the
human body can do this and that it is designed in this way.
All of this focus, understanding of your body and the need to focus on things other than the need for oxygen and how long you have been underwater, have
made for a perfect place to learn about yourself and to deal with the stress of life. But it’s a holistic approach - Rebecca is very clear that freedivers
are incredibly conscious of their diet and fitness. It is the key to being able to do the things they do, so it seems that this is more about a lifestyle
and a way of life rather than a sport that you can somehow detach from. It isn’t the first time that athletes we have spoken to talk about the peace
that water brings, but this is about a connection not to the water as such, but to everything else it brings to her and it all seems good.