How a lousy swimmer became a freediver – Letting go of negative preconceptions

Most freedivers I know say that they have been like fish in the water all their lives. But not me. I was nothing like a fish, I was more like a cat thrown in the water against its will. I was a lousy swimmer and even lousier diver. I was afraid of depths, I couldn’t dive longer than 10 seconds, I felt uncomfortable whenever my feet didn’t touch the bottom and my head was not above the surface. I couldn’t even breathe through a snorkel.

If the starting point was this hopeless, why on earth did I start freediving? Isn’t freediving an extreme sport that requires confidence and a lot of skill? Aren’t freedivers those crazy people who lie face down in the water and hold their breath for minutes? Well, it’s a long story, but I think many people could learn from it. It is a story of how I finally started believing in myself and my abilities instead of following the negative preconceptions that had been stuck in my brain for far too long.

The crystal blue sea at Koh Rok, January 2015

Me and the crystal blue sea at Koh Rok (January 2015).

The odds were that I never would have started freediving. My mind was strictly believing that I didn’t have the physical abilities required. There were three preconceptions that I was stubbornly holding on to: 1) I was born a lousy swimmer, 2) I couldn’t hold my breath long enough, and 3) my lungs were too small.

The idea of me being a naturally lousy swimmer rooted from my childhood. I used to love water like most children do, but when I went to school, something happened that changed my attitude towards swimming for a very long time. It seemed that my nose was broken overnight: water just started running in and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Tons of water. Or at least that’s how it felt.

Swimming as a child

Swimming in a pool in Italy when I was 10 years old.

I can still remember how it hit my self esteem. Why me? I had loved playing in the water, and now I was punished with a leaking nose. I thought it happened because my nose was too big. Back then it felt logical: the bigger the nose, the more water it could intake. I still kind of believe it, I guess I have been called Cleopatra too many times. Also, I have been told,  if I swim on my back, one could mistake me for a shark.

The famous shark nose. Luckily big sunglasses negate the effect.

The famous shark nose. Luckily a diving mask or big sunglasses negate the effect.

I still went swimming occasionally. I just wasn’t good at it. I could swim several hundred meters, so you can’t really say that I wasn’t able to swim, but I didn’t enjoy it and my technique was non-existent. I thought I just happened to be a naturally lousy swimmer. But the fact is that I didn’t improve because I couldn’t put my face in the water and no one instructed me what I could do to stop getting water in my nose. Finally I lost my motivation altogether.

The motivation didn’t get any better when we had to perform certain swimming and diving activities at school in order to gain swimming badges. My weakest link was diving, or in freediving terms, dynamic apnea without fins (DNF). Not a great starting point for a freediving career, don’t you think? I couldn’t even dive 10 meters because I just couldn’t hold my breath long enough and the urge to breathe was so strong. 15 meters felt utterly impossible. I tried and tried and tried, sneezing a barrel of water from my nose, and the teacher was just watching me with a grin on her face. She did nothing to help me. I never got the badge. Who needs badges anyway, I thought.

The cherry on the top was when we measured the volume of our lungs on a biology lesson. My lungs were the smallest in the whole group, less than three liters. The teacher claimed that the results were too poor and asked me to try again. But nothing changed, no matter how many times I tried. I just had riduculously small lungs. No wonder I was the worst diver in the world, I reasoned. If that moment someone had come and told me that in 2015 I would start freediving, I probably would have suggested him to go to talk to a psychiatrist and get medication.

In Turkey, 2001. It was a strict 'no' for diving back then.

Relaxing in Turkey (June 2001). Back then it was a strict ’no’ for diving.

Years passed and the preconceptions prevailed. I felt bad because I used to love water and a part of me still would have wanted to swim and dive, but I thought I just wasn’t able to do it. My swimming as an adult consisted mainly of running to the lake from sauna in order to get my body cool. The only swimming style I enjoyed (and only a bit), was backstroke as you didn’t have to put your face in the water while doing it.

The first important turning point was in 2010 when I was introduced to snorkeling by my ex-husband who – surprise, surprise – was one of those whose middle name was ‘Fish’. He had been spearfishing since he was ten years old and freediving before people even started talking about freediving. I, however, didn’t actually feel a pull towards the sea at that point. I had tried snorkeling once and it had ended up in panic. I was a bit reluctant to try again. But I did, and I’m glad I did.

I fell in love with the Big Blue in Parga in 2010

I fell in love with the Big Blue in Parga, Greece (July 2010). But it was not love at first sight.

It wasn’t easy for me at first. For some reason my brain kept telling me that it was not ok to breathe through the snorkel. Every time I put my face in the water and tried to inhale, I felt like I suffocated and had to lift my head back up. My mask was leaking, which was probably a part of the problem. But when we changed the mask to a non-leaking one and I just persistently kept practicing, I finally learned to breathe and a whole new world opened up for me.

Breathing through a snorkel was a pain for me at first

Eyes wide open. I was like reborn when I finally learned to breathe through a snorkel.

It was a great moment for my self esteem and I was filled with child-like joy. When I was snorkeling, it didn’t matter that I didn’t have an excellent swimming technique. Water didn’t go into my nose because the mask protected me. The warm sea water helped me to float. It was easy for me to use fins. Suddenly I could swim in the sea for a full hour, 20 meters of water beneath me, and I did not tire or panic. Me, the lousy swimmer. Many adults wore life vests when snorkeling, but I didn’t.

Going to the sea in Kalymnos (2011)

Going into the cold sea in Kalymnos, Greece (July 2011).

Next year we travelled to Kalymnos, Greece, and this time I packed my own brand new snorkeling equipment with me. I was longing to get back into the sea, but it didn’t go as smoothly as I had planned. I had to change the new mask as it was not good for the shape of my face and was leaking. The snorkel was too big for my mouth, so I had to change it too. The fins were too small for me and my feet ached. The water was freezing cold, and it was very windy and the sea was rough.

I really, really hated cold water. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have even looked at water if its temperature was below 22°c. In addition, snorkeling in waves was not easy at all for a beginner. But I was persistent and didn’t let any setbacks stop me anymore. I had my mind set on snorkeling. I had come to Kalymnos to be in the sea, and I was going to do it, no matter what. I changed the mask and snorkel to better ones and bravely went into the sea. I swam in the cold waves, day after day, swallowing a few liters of sea water, but also learning very fast to manage in the challenging conditions.

My first own fins

My first own fins. Photo taken in the island of Telendos, Greece (July 2011).

In Kalymnos my ex-husband started diving a bit deeper. I watched him from the surface, admiring how he descended, and it looked really fascinating but also really scary. I was certain that snorkeling would be the best that I could ever do. I was still holding on to the preconceptions 2 and 3, that I couldn’t hold my breath long enough and my lungs were too small for freediving.

In 2012 we continued snorkeling and diving in Makarska, Croatia. I was tired of cold water, so this time I had purchased my first wetsuit, a Mares Shorty. The water was very warm and clear, however, and I felt confident enough to try my first, very short dives. It didn’t go that well. The wetsuit foated like a cork and I didn’t know anything about diving technique. I guess I didn’t stay under water more than 10 seconds, but at least I got some diving experience, which was a good start.

One of my first diving attempts in Makarska, Croatia (2012)

One of my first diving attempts in Makarska, Croatia (July 2012).

In 2013 we traveled first to Dubrovnik and then to Paphos, and I became more and more confident in the sea. The problems with the snorkel were only a distant memory now. I continued practicing diving and could repeatedly go to about 3 meters, staying underwater for about 15 seconds at once. I begun to realise, however, that if you wanted to enjoy watching sea life and have enough time to take some good photographs, you should be able to go a bit deeper and stay underwater a bit longer.

Diving at the Wreck of Vera K, Cyprus (2013)

Diving at the Wreck of Vera K, Cyprus (July 2013). Note that I dive with a snorkel in my mouth, which is dangerous. Don’t ever do that.

At this point my interest in diving had grown considerably. I really enjoyed watching my ex-husband dive. He looked so peaceful and calm, floating in the Blue, weightless and free, like he was one with the sea. It was nothing like my dives. He felt no instant urge to go back to the surface. How does he do that, I was wondering. I wanted to learn. But I still thought I couldn’t.

Freediving at the wreck of Cedar Pride, Jordan (2014)

My ex-husband freediving at the wreck of Cedar Pride, Jordan (April 2014). The scubas are wondering what the hell he’s doing down there without a tank.

After we returned home from Cyprus, we went to a swimming hall for a couple of times to do some training. I wanted to get used to being in the water without fins, as well as to find out if there was anything I could do to get rid of the problem with the nose. With some good advice easily found from Internet, I almost immediately understood how to prevent the water from getting in the nose. It was a simple solution, yet I had suffered from the problem nearly all my life. If someone had just told me what to do when I was a kid, or if I had had the persistence to actively help myself, it would had spared me of so much self-pity and pain and I would have been able to enjoy swimming so much more.

I also did two or three short sessions of dynamic apnea without fins (DNF) under the guidance of my ex-husband. When I just put my mind to it, I quickly learned to be more relaxed in the water and hold my breath longer, easily reaching the horizontal distance of 17 meters. And I had previously thought that 10 meters was beyond my limits! At that moment I realised that I could do 25 meters in a short time if I just kept practicing, or even more if I only wanted to.

In Spring 2014 we went snorkeling and diving to Jordan, to the Red Sea. I had ordered a full custom made freediving suit for the trip. The suit protected me from cold, jellyfish and other nasty creatures, which allowed me to better focus on the most important thing: snorkeling and diving. However, the wetsuit also floated, which made it difficult to dive with it, and I had to wear a weight belt for the first time. It was a non-elastic scuba diving belt not ideal for freediving, but it helped me to do more relaxed dives as I didn’t have to struggle so much against the buoyancy. Now I managed to stay a bit longer underwater, 30 seconds or so, admiring corals and diving with the fish, without feeling an instant urge to rush to back the surface. It was amazing.

My first freediving suit

Testing my new freediving suit and a scuba diving weight belt in Jordan (April 2014

Testing my new freediving suit and a scuba diving weight belt in Jordan (April 2014).

At this point my mind was slowly turning towards the idea that I could be a freediver someday if I really wanted to. Maybe not the best freediver in the world, but a freediver nevertheless. I silently set a goal for myself that someday I would dive at least to the depth of 10 meters. I also decided that on my next trip I would take a freediving course. It had taken many years for me to reach this point, but I felt was ready. A bit scared, but ready.

In January 2015 we traveled to Koh Lanta, Thailand, where we dove 6 days with AIDA Master Instructor Pete Botman. My ex-husband took the AIDA2 and AIDA3 courses, whereas I took AIDA2 with 3 extra training days. I had practiced static apnea beforehand on dry land, which gave me some confidence, for I already knew that my breath hold would be long enough to easily pass AIDA2.

I knew the course would be challenging, but I never realised that it would have such a tremendous effect on me on a mental level. Static apnea training was like therapy for me. It was by no means easy or relaxing, but it was very rewarding. I know it sounds stupid when I say that by lying face down in the water you can find your true self, but that’s what happened to me. When you just float there doing nothing, holding your breath, trying to stay calm and relax in the ultimate discomfort zone, you learn a lot about yourself and your own subconscious. It felt like the puzzle pieces that had been missing or in wrong places were found and placed where they were supposed to be.

Training static apnea with Pete Botman at Koh Lanta, Thailand (January 2015)

Training static apnea in an outside pool with Pete Botman at Koh Lanta, Thailand (January 2015). My max breath hold was 3 min 14 s.

Under Pete’s guidance I managed to hold my breath up to 3 min 14 s, which was 1 min 14 s more than what was required for AIDA2. I also did 60 m of dynamic apnea, which was 20 meters longer than what was required. Not bad considering that I was a first timer who ‘couldn’t hold her breath long enough’ and who was supposed to have those ‘ridiculously small lungs’.

Open water training didn’t go that well, however. I had major problems with equalising my ears and I couldn’t dive deeper than 5 m – the AIDA2 level would have been 16 m. I got the AIDA2 Pool Freediver certificate instead of the AIDA2 Freediver, but I was satisfied with the results nevertheless.

Trying free immersion for the first time at Koh Lanta, Thailand (January 2015)

Training free immersion for the first time at Koh Lanta, Thailand (January 2015).

Soon after we returned from Thailand, my husband and I decided that we would get a divorce. Suddenly my whole life was turned upside down. I left my home and moved to a new town, and at the same time I lost my diving buddy, the one who had introduced me to freediving in the first place. In the whirlwind of changes, there was a big risk that I would have quit freediving altogether. But I didn’t want to give up that easily, not now when I had finally started learning. Thailand had been such an intense experience for me and it had practically changed my whole attitude towards life. I had begun to see that there was so much more potential in me than I had ever given myself credit for. So it was no option for me to let it go. I went to Cetus freedivers in Espoo, got new training buddies, and started practicing with them 2–3 times a week.

Pool training (July 2015)

Pool training in Malta (July 2015)

Being motivated and having a group of great buddies to train with, I learned fast. It took only two months for me to set my record of static apnea (STA) from 03:14 to 04:00, dynamic apnea (DYN) from 60 m to 104 m, and dynamic apnea without fins (DNF) from 25 m to 50 m. I also went to Malta to train in open water with David Watson from One Breath Freediving. Even though I still had equalising problems, I now managed to reach the depth of 14.8 m.

On the deck of Tug 2 in Sliema, Malta (July 2015)

The highlight of my freediving trip in Malta: I’m finally standing on the deck of Tug 2 after so many problems with equalisation (July 2015).

What had happened to the naturally born lousy swimmer who couldn’t hold her breath and whose lungs were too small? She was gone. I had finally given up living according to the harmful preconceptions that had ruled my life since childhood. There were no such limits, I had made them up. I could learn a proper swimming technique. I could learn to dive. I could learn to hold my breath. Even if I had small lungs, so what, it didn’t matter. I could freedive if I wanted to. I could do anything if I wanted to. There was still a lot to learn but the only thing that had been standing in my way was myself. I was nowhere near my limits. Never before had I felt such joy of winning myself. I had turned myself from a lousy swimmer into a freediver, and I felt like a superwoman.

So what can we learn from this story? I grew up from someone who didn’t believe in herself to someone who can do anything. I’m not the best freediver in the word, but I’m a freediver and I keep developing. Many of us keep sticking to negative preconceptions, maybe all our lives, not understanding that they prevent us from growing and becoming who we want to be. Next time when you say ‘I can’t’‘It’s not possible’, ‘I won’t learn’, ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m not strong enough’, ‘I’m not intelligent enough’‘That’s beyond my limit’ etc., just stop for a moment and breathe. Be conscious of what you are doing to yourself. You are telling your brain that you cannot, instead of telling it that you can. Remember that your brain actually believes what you tell it to believe and starts acting that way. Preconceptions are just ideas that we learn to follow. If you think you can, it’s true. If you think you can’t, it’s also true. Which do you want to believe? You decide.


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  1. Paluuviite: Face to face with a new me – 5 positive changes freediving has brought into my life | Highs and Deeps


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