— You know what diving is — when you take a breath, extend your arms above your head, jump, and enter the water headfirst. When you do this, you're usually underwater a few seconds, and you probably reach a depth of eight or nine feet. Then you come up for air.
But imagine that instead of lasting a few seconds, your dive lasted 3 minutes and 36 seconds. And instead of going a few feet deep, you went 314 feet below the surface. That's more than the length of a football field and is about the same as the height of Big Ben. On one breath.
Crazy? Perhaps. Impossible? No. Sara Campbell, a 37-year-old former yoga instructor from South London, achieved the feat on April 2, breaking the world record for “constant weight” freediving by a woman. She reached a depth of 96 meters, which is 314 feet.
This means that Campbell, wearing a weight around her neck, a weighted belt and a monofin (which is worn over the legs and looks like a mermaid's tail), propelled herself 314 below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean (this was in the Bahamas), turned around and swam back up, using only one breath of air.
She took up the sport in 2006 and stunned the freediving community in 2007, when she broke three world records despite having less than a year of experience. She says she didn't have much of a competitive swimming or diving background, but loved being in the water. Here, Campbell shares how she became immersed in freediving and what has driven her to success.
Q: How did you get interested in freediving?
A: It happened after I moved to Egypt four years ago. I moved there as a yoga teacher, and we do a lot of breath control in yoga. One of my students had done a freediving course and told me that I'd be good at it because I could hold my breath for so long.
I just thought, no, it sounds like a really stupid thing. She pestered me for a year, and when I tried it, I loved it.
In hindsight, I've been freediving all my life. Being underwater has always been a fascination for me, I just didn't realize it was a sport or that I had natural talent. And as it turns out, Dahab, Egypt, near the Red Sea, is one of the best places for freediving.
Q: A lot of people look at this and think it’s awfully dangerous. Why do you do it?
A: Firstly, it's not dangerous. We never dive alone, and competitive freediving is safe.
For me, it's a combination of things.
It makes me incredibly happy. As I started to progress and didn't feel any discomfort or stress, it became a massive curiosity to find how deep I can go. I've never really been that good at a sport in my entire life. I'm not tall or super-lean like most of the athletes who do this sport. So I became more and more curious as to how I was able to do it and overtake stronger and more experienced people.
Q: Did freediving bring out that desire to see how far you can push yourself?
A: I tend to be quite bold and spontaneous. Moving to the desert in Egypt is not something most people would do. But I get really involved in it when I decide to do something.
My career is fascinatingly random — I went from marketing to yoga to P.R. and freediving — and I'm only 37. So I've been all over the place in the 15 years since I left university.
This is the first career where I'm being benchmarked against other people. Yoga is a contrast. It's not about competing, it's about the internal journey and introspection and personal growth. I've been told I'm a powerful yogi, but there's no benchmarking. When I learned to hold a chant, I, of course, had to hold it the longest. So I do have a competitive streak.
Q: Is this your full-time job?
A: Yeah — I continued working as a freelance P.R. consultant until March last year. But now I'm full time, working with sponsors, trying to raise awareness to the sport. I'm in a unique position with my world records and being a world champion, and also being a marketing professional. So I can understand what the media's looking for when I talk about the sport.
If you compare freediving to mainstream extreme sports like downhill skiing, for example, they are far, far more dangerous than what we do. There's a perception that there's a lot of damage we can do to our bodies in this sport, and I want to turn around people's understanding of the sport.
Q: When you’re in the middle of a dive, what do you concentrate on?
A: I am focusing 100 percent on what I'm doing. Being in the moment. If you're at 80 meters on your way down to 100 meters and you have a negative thought or don't feel relaxed and start stressing, all it takes is a split second to take you out of your focus and take you offline. You may grab the line, which is a disqualification.
In the first 10, 20 meters, I'm kicking as hard as I can. I then do the mouth-fill, which is an advanced technique in which I push all the air in my lungs into my mouth, using the air to equalize my ears.
I'm streamlining my body and staying calm, having positive thoughts. At the bottom, I hit the plate and grab the tag. You're allowed one pull at the bottom to start propelling you up. Then I'm just kicking, finding a rhythm and having positive thoughts.
Q: You were going to try for 100 meters again this weekend?
A: I've decided that rest is the best medicine for freediving. On my 100-meter attempt, I was down for 3:40, which is not a long period of time. But the intensity, lack of oxygen and lactic acid buildup — the body breaks down to a level that I don't think any other sport experiences.
This week, I experienced such exhaustion after the 100-meter dive that I slept for two days afterward. What I don't want to do is come out of this competition and try 100 meters and black out 10 meters below the surface.
I'll go back to Egypt and try again for 100 meters in the next month or so in my home waters.
Q: Is it scary to black out?
A: Not at all. I wake up, I have a big smile on my face, and I say, "Hi, everyone, I'm back!" The blackouts are as much a valued part of the sport as the deep dives. They give me the feedback I need on what to change or work on. It's the challenges you face that make you grow. As much as I don't want to have them, they're a positive part of freediving because I'm learning.
I'm reaching an interesting phase of finding my limits. Blacking out isn't a traumatic experience — it may look horrible from the outside, but on the inside, it's a very calm, almost loving experience. I have beautiful visions when I'm blacked out.
Q: Can you describe what it feels like when you’re diving?
A: It's very calm and peaceful. There's no noise down there. It's like long-distance running, when you get into that zone and everything feels like it flows and there's no effort — it's kind of like that.
I have my eyes shut, which just enhances the experience of being just me with me. It's a fairly unique experience to have that level of external peace and internal focus. Even when I meditate, I've got people walking past the door, noise, distractions. So this is like meditating in the most perfect place.
People ask me what the compression feels like — it almost feels like you're getting a big hug, or even more than that, like you're being wrapped up in a duvet and squeezed. It's a comforting, reassuring feeling.
Q: This is a return to form for you after your mother passed away in 2008. Was her death unexpected?
A: No. She had been suffering from scleroderma, an autoimmune disease. She was in a huge amount of pain, and she took her life in the end. I was with her when she died.
I was out of the sport really before that happened. I was in the process of training for two world records, and she died 10 days before that competition took place. So I was out of the water for a little over a year, from November 2007 to January 2009.
I did 17 or 18 training dives before I did 96 meters, which is remarkable.
After I got to Long Island, I cried for two days. March 27-28. I kept saying, I don't want to be here, I'm scared, I've taken on too much, I still haven't started grieving for my mum. I had also been ill in January with an ear infection, so I hadn't put in a lot of training time.
Somehow I managed to turn it around. I had to reassess my relationship with what I was doing here. The numbers had become too important. In this sport, we get obsessed with the benchmarks. Numbers take on an importance that they shouldn't have.
That breakdown allowed me to let go of it and get some perspective. So when I went for the world record, I said, I don't care if I don't make it. Today is about being in the water and loving what I do.
Q: What did your mom think of your freediving career?
A: When I first started, my parents were both terrified. When I first did 20 meters, I sent them a text. They said, Please be careful, we don't want you to do this.
As I progressed, national records started coming regularly. They thought, "Our daughter has found something that she is amazingly good at." There was pride and joy for me in my experience, though they were always scared for me when I did a deep dive.
When I explained the physiological and safety side of it, they grew calmer and more manageable. Plus, it's nice to be able to tell their friends that their daughter is a world record holder.
Before she died, my mum told me, "Go back there and set those world records." She was telling me, "Don't think about me, think about yourself — I want you to be the best that you can be."
This experience has been about fulfilling promises I made to her when she died. She's definitely with me.