Bodies Less Than 1% of Military Divers are Women—I Was One of Them
Contrary to its reputation as an extreme sport, freediving has meditative aspects.
I tried to relax every muscle in my body as I breathed through my snorkel and peered down through my diving mask. The water was a vibrant blue shot through with rays of sunlight. A boat had taken our group of thirteen students and two instructors several miles off the coast of Florida, so we could dive in this deep water with gentle currents. I felt calm knowing I could never reach the sea bottom, thousands of feet below. I stared at a weight tied to the end of the rope hanging at a depth of twenty meters (sixty-six feet). Swimming down on one breath and touching that weight was my goal.
I wore heavy black rubber fins, not the specialty long-bladed fiberglass fins that free divers usually wear for increased efficiency, but I felt ready. I’d just completed the warm-up of pull-downs progressing in depth, an exercise designed to activate the mammalian diving reflex, an innate ability that all mammals have, including human beings. When we hold our breath for prolonged periods, our bodies automatically make changes to allow us to conserve oxygen, slowing the heart rate and altering blood circulation. I readied my mind. Taking a full breath, I spit out my snorkel and equalized my ears on the surface. I performed a water entry, quickly bending my torso forward to aim my body toward the ocean floor, propelling myself further down with a breaststroke from my arms.
Fully submerged, I placed my right hand on my nose to pinch it closed and blew to equalize the pressure in my ears with a Valsalva maneuver, elbow held close to my body, left arm above, and kicked hard with my finned feet. I tried to keep my chin tucked in a streamlined position, but I stole a quick look at the weight. I was immediately disappointed at how far away it seemed now that I was holding my breath. I passed the first mark on the rope, five meters (sixteen feet). Still kicking my legs, I willed my neck and shoulders to relax, tried to widen my strokes and move as efficiently as possible. I passed the second mark, ten meters (thirty-three feet). A few more kicks then the third mark, fifteen meters (forty-nine feet).
I felt the pressure of the ocean squeezing me. My diaphragm, the flat plate of muscle between the stomach and lungs, began to contract rhythmically, like gentle hiccups reminding me to keep moving. My lungs wanted to expel the excess CO2 that was building. My body’s early warning system was telling me it would need oxygen soon. If I ignored it for too long, I would black out. I looked down and saw the weight, narrowed my kicks, fighting instincts that told me to turn around and head directly for air. Lungs burning now, contractions shaking through my body, I pushed deeper and touched the metal weight tied to the rope at twenty meters (sixty-six feet).
Grabbing the rope and flipping my body around, I swam toward the surface. With my arms outstretched above me, biceps held tight to my ears and one hand on top of the other in a streamlined position, I faced the group of students on three similar lines, diving at different intervals. I saw the instructor floating at ten meters (thirty-three feet) on a breath hold. As I swam upward, he watched, motionless, as if suspended in amber and not the bright blue saltwater of the Atlantic Ocean. I tried to stay calm with coordinated kicks as my body ached for oxygen. Remembering to exhale just before breaking the surface of the water so I could breathe the moment I reached air, I swept my arms down to my waist and felt like a torpedo as I popped up into the warm Florida breeze. I breathed deeply and grinned.
Giving the OK signal with my right hand to my safety buddy at the float, I recited, “I’m OK.” He looked into my eyes, mirroring the hand signal, and reminded me to breathe. He was ready to catch me if I were to black out or have a loss of motor control. I felt exhilarated and proud that I’d hit the goal depth for the weekend class, a personal best.
I took my first freediving class before attending Navy Dive School, in an attempt to get a slight edge over my classmates. The course I went through at Dive School was five and a half months long and taught everything from SCUBA diving to surface supplied diving with heavy helmets, a forty-five-pound emergency air tank on your back, and an umbilical to the surface allowing divers to work underwater for long uninterrupted periods. We learned to use hydraulic tools underwater and to react quickly to diving medical emergencies including operating hyperbaric chambers. At 120 pounds bodyweight and often required to carry twin steel tanks weighing eighty-four pounds, I felt I needed every advantage I could get at Dive School where I would be watched very carefully.
Women make up less than one percent of military divers, even though the position has been open to women under the same physical standards as men for decades. Only a few dozen women have ever qualified as military surface supplied divers since the first woman graduated from Navy Dive School in 1976. I didn’t realize I was doing something so unusual when I qualified as a deep-sea diver, I just never believed people when they told me I couldn’t do it. I trained to be strong and efficient, smart and calm in an emergency; those traits didn’t come naturally, but stubbornness did. If I could freedive at a level no one thought possible, then surely the men in my Coast Guard dive unit, who frequently questioned my authority, were wrong about other things too.
Before that first twenty-meter dive in Florida, I spent hours upon hours of swimming technique drills and sprints in pools, training with a female coach who specialized in combat side stroke, a complicated technique designed to be efficient, low profile, and fast. I spent miles swimming with fins in the open water of San Diego. There were daily sessions lying in bed holding my breath in increasingly longer segments with shrinking recovery time until I could hit a three minute and thirty-second hold regularly, without a trace of panic in my mind.
Freediving is a sport of contradictions: When your body is screaming the loudest to return to the surface and breathe is when you most need to slow down, glide, and conserve oxygen. One of the keys of holding your breath longer is learning how to breathe properly before a dive and to ensure you’re as relaxed as possible during the dive. The widest portion of the lungs is located in the lower third; it contains the largest volume of air and is controlled by the diaphragm. Thus, breathing from the belly instead of the upper chest gives you a greater volume of air for less effort.
I came to relish the feeling of control the sport gave me. An intense body awareness was necessary. No movement could be wasted, and every kick had to be as efficient as possible. Contrary to its reputation as an extreme sport, freediving has meditative aspects. It requires you to be fully present in the moment. A sense of solitude accompanied every immersion in the dark and cold waters near San Diego, but I preferred the warmer waters of Mexico and Hawaii where I could observe sea creatures in the clear blue. As I became more comfortable holding my breath at depth, I started training to become an Assistant Freediving Instructor through the organization Freediving Instructors International. Over the next two years, I’d learn to reach the depth of twenty-meters on dive after dive while watching students’ technique.
When freediving, I could forget the frustrations of being a female dive officer. Instead, I focused on those few moments of sublime grace, and the knowledge that I had the mental strength to participate in a sport that defied most rational thought. Freediving was simultaneously the most difficult and the most natural thing in the world.