— For most people, diving to the bottom of the deep end of the swimming pool is far enough. Even 10 or 12 feet underwater, they can feel the pressure on their eardrums. And it doesn’t take long before their lungs demand a fresh load of oxygen.
Sara Campbell is not most people. She came to the TODAY Show Tuesday to tell co-host Matt Lauer about her latest underwater adventure. At a recent contest in the Bahamas, she set a women’s world record by diving 314 feet on a single breath.
That’s almost five yards more than the length of a football field and nine feet more than the height of the Statue of Liberty and the pedestal on which it stands. It took her 3 minutes and 36 seconds to swim down that far, grab a tag to prove she’d made it, and then return to the surface.
“I do it because I love it,” said the petite 37-year-old British subject, who is known in the sport of freediving — or apnea, as it calls itself — as “Mighty Mouse.”
Standing just 4 feet 11 inches, Campbell says she’s never been particularly athletic. Most great competitors in her extreme sport are long and lean, and she’s not. But several years ago she moved to Egypt, where she worked as a yoga instructor. By chance, she had a student who had taken a freediving course. After a breath control session that she used in her yoga class, the student said she should try freediving because she could hold her breath for so long.
Discovering her natural gift
Campbell’s initial reaction was that it seemed a stupid thing to do. But after a year of pestering by the student, she decided to give it a try. That was in 2006, and Campbell loved it immediately.
“I stumbled upon freediving sort of by accident, really. I discovered I have a very remarkable talent for holding my breath underwater,” she told Lauer.
She said her lungs are about 25 percent larger than those of a normal woman her size. That natural gift enabled her to stun the freediving community in 2007 when she broke three world records despite having less than a year’s experience and just a handful of dives under her weight belt.
There are a number of different disciplines in freediving. Campbell set her most recent record earlier this month in what’s known as a constant weight freedive. That means the diver carries the same weight to the bottom and back to the top and propels herself with a single big flipper and a dolphinlike swimming motion.
To be recognized, divers have to return with the tag attached to the line at the depth they’re aiming for and have to remain conscious. After diving to 96 meters to set her record, Campbell attempted a dive to 100 meters. She successfully completed it, but when she got to the surface, she blacked out for a few seconds and the record was not recognized.
Lauer suggested that blacking out doesn’t sound like a good thing, but Campbell says it’s part of the sport and causes no harm.
“It’s not bad for you. There’s a real big misconception about freediving: It’s very dangerous,” she said. “We never ever, ever dive on our own. This shallow-water blackout, which can happen, is just a temporary loss of consciousness.”
She’s experienced it twice, and she says each time it’s been a valuable learning experience.
Extreme sport, extreme danger
Freediving gets dangerous and claims lives when extreme athletes push their bodies to the very limits in what’s called no-limits freediving, in which the diver holds onto a weighted sled on the way down and is helped to the surface by an air bag. The men’s world record belongs to Austrian Herbert Nitsch, who successfully completed a dive in 2007 to a depth of 214 meters — 702 feet.
When a human dives in the water, something called the mammalian dive reflex kicks in. The heart rate slows, blood vessels constrict and other physiological changes occur that allow the body to cope with the enormous pressures of being immersed so far underwater. Freedivers also have to learn special techniques to constantly equalize the pressure on their ears to avoid ruptured eardrums.
“As soon as you go into water, you feel that pressure, and you have to learn special techniques in order to keep your ears clear, and that’s really the biggest limiting factor for a lot of people,” Campbell told Lauer. “They have the strength, they have the capacity to hold their breath, but they can’t equalize their ears.”
Campbell took 2008 off when her mother died after a painful battle with scleroderma. She’s known in the sport as a natural athlete who doesn’t train as hard as her fellow competitors and still beats them.
“It’s not dangerous,” she insisted. “We have safety divers who come down. On a deep dive, at 30 meters they meet us. They’re swimming all the way up with us. The danger zone is the last 10 meters, and you’re on the surface within seconds, your airways are clear, you start breathing again.”
She said she keeps going because of the sense of adventure. The sport is relatively new and no one — including medical experts — knows what the limits of human physiology are.
“We have no idea,” she said. “That’s really my motivating factor. It’s just so fascinating. It’s like science in motion, and it’s happening inside my body.”