Getting beneath the surface of the art of Freediving, with Julie Gautier.
Tasted the pleasures of scuba diving, but keen to learn more about the ‘next level’ – from letting go of breathing apparatus to submerging in icy climes? We’re investigating the extremes, for thrill-seekers and adventurers alike, to give you a sense of what’s out (or rather, down) there... join us as we get the down-low on free-diving, from aquatic athlete Julie Gautier.
Breathe Deep: What Is Freediving?
The O.G. diving method, Freediving (aka breath-hold or skin diving) means going sub-aqua without the use of breathing apparatus such as scuba gear or oxygen. That’s right – you just take a big breath and hold it. But actually, it’s not quite that simple. Besides the limits of oxygen supply, exposure to high ambient pressure also has physiological effects that limit the depths and duration possible for gill-less humans; but that doesn’t stop us trying!
As far back as the ancient world, there are records of divers facing the same problems as we do today, from decompression sickness to blackouts. In fact, in Ancient Greece, divers used heavy weights to plunge them deep into the Aegean (about 30 metres, to be precise), to collect sponges, coral, and even pearls from the Ocean floor.
Nature Or Nurture?
When asked what drew her to the sport, Julie Gautier shares that while growing up on the island of La Reunion, her father was an underwater spear fisherman; she spent her childhood going to the beach and fishing with her dad.
“That’s when I developed a love for water. In my teenage years, I discovered there was such a thing as free-diving competitions and that’s how I got into it! I was at that age where you need to prove your worth and since I had been diving since the age of 11, I progressed very quickly.”
But if you weren’t fortunate enough to be ‘born into’ the art of breath control, there are plenty of skills to be learned later in life. Training for a free dive can begin with simply spending as much time in the water as possible, building physical strength and endurance – all the way to specific exercises to stretch out the rib cage and loosen the diaphragm, to increase lung capacity. Even Yoga, with its focus on breathwork and concentration can be a beneficial addition to your training routine!
‘Mens Sana In Corpore Sano’
And it’s not only physical endurance that’s required to complete a successful dive – mental endurance must be sharpened, too. In fact, the art of free-diving can have a profound effect on overall well-being; says Gautier, “during all those years of free-diving, I’ve learned how to surpass myself, to know my limits, to take care of my body and mind… stepping out of your comfort zone through sport really helps you become more confident. As a consequence, you make a habit of doing the same in your day to day life. You also learn to accept your failures and use them to grow and evolve. And water is an element that forces you to slow down, so in life you do the same, and that’s a very good thing.”
Picture The Scene...
So what’s it like, being alone beneath the waves without oxygen or clear vision? Contrary to what one might think, there’s not a lot going on in the mind of this particular champion! And that’s no bad thing, according to Julie Gautier:
“I think of nothing when I’m in the water, it’s a moment of utter calmness where I’m just living in the moment, a moment of weightlessness where even the weight of my thoughts is lifted”
And if the prospect of achieving zen-like detachment while fighting for breath has you doubting whether free-diving is for you… think again. Calming the natural instinct to resist discomfort – while remaining safe – is certainly a balancing act. Knowing when to give in to the body’s demands and when to fight is learned through personal experience; as in any other sport,
“you learn to know yourself better as you progress, step by step. You go down to a depth you are comfortable with and you add on metres day after day. You learn breathing techniques to make better use of your lungs and you learn to let go and accept the spasmes that your body uses as warning signs, but they start to come later and later.”