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Deep pleasure of free diving

By Xing Yi | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2016-11-06 13:57

This is guaranteed to take your breath away: Put on a mask, don a pair of fins and plunge into the deep blue. You're on your own.

Welcome to the sport of freediving, in which there are no air tanks, no mechanical equipment, just you plunging into the water and staying well under the surface with just one breath.

It is a young sport with an ancient lineage, some early human fishermen having dived with no breathing apparatus to gather sponges, abalone, oysters and pearls. Modern freediving originated in Europe and grew in popularity over the 20th century.

To many, a sport in which some proponents compete at a depth of more than 100 meters sounds dicey to say the least, but with proper training it's safe and enjoyable. And it's catching on in China.

 Deep pleasure of free diving

Li Da (center), a Chinese underwater model, and her trained team of 10 give an underwater play about mermaids and princes for a newly-opened aquarium in Guangzhou everyday. Photos Provided to China Daily


One of the Chinese national record holders, Wang Aolin, first became acquainted with freediving while taking a holiday in the Philippines four years ago. He was a competent scuba diver at the time, but when he saw freedivers in the ocean unencumbered by bulky breathing equipment he decided to give it a try.

Wang, who was born in Kunming, Yunnan province, in mountainous southwestern China, says he used to be afraid of water because as a child he nearly drowned.

"As I did more training I gradually overcame my fear. There is a sense of accomplishment when you can achieve something you had at first thought was impossible."

Wang got hooked on freediving and is now unrelenting in his training.

"I just want to go deeper and deeper, 20 meters, 30 meters, 40 meters," he says.

As is apparently the case with many freedivers, Wang says that at one point he was too preoccupied with figures, and because of that he could not break his personal 80-meter record.

"Fortunately, I met Aharon Solomons, an instructor known worldwide. He told me I should forget the numbers and simply focus on the process of diving.

"His words brought back the pleasure of when I started freediving. So I let go of all those figures relating to depth that were clogging my mind, and I made breakthroughs to the next level," he says.

In April, during one of the sport's most important competitions, the Vertical Blue Freedive Challenge, held at one of the world's deepest blue holes - Dean's Blue Hole in the Bahamas - Wang dived to 85 meters in the constant weight section, setting a Chinese record.

In another competition in Bali, Indonesia, in August, he improved on that, diving to 96 meters. The world record is 129 meters, held by Alexey Molchanov of Russia.

"It has opened a door for me to another world," says Wang, who quit his job in finance and in 2014 founded Freefall, one of a handful of freediving clubs in China.

Last month Wang and three Chinese freedivers took part in the Team World Championship held by international freediving association AIDA in the southern Greek port of Kalamata, the first time a team from China had competed with other countries.

A Chinese woman in the competition, Lu Wenjie, 31, who lives in Hawaii, broke the national women's record with a depth of 72 meters in the constant weight discipline.

Lu, who was born in Changzhou, Zhejiang province, attended Peking University. After graduation, she studied in the US for a doctorate in medicine. She was certified as a scuba diver during a trip to Hawaii in 2010.

Enamored with the ocean and diving, she moved to Hawaii in 2012 and learned freediving in 2014. She now holds all the Chinese women's records in the sport's six disciplines.

"Compared with scuba diving, in which you can lap up the underwater world on a long dive, freediving is more about one's inner world," Lu says.

Anyone who practices holding their breath will first feel uncomfortable, then anxious and finally, as panic sets in, will give up, she says. However, with determined training most people will accustomize themselves to the feeling and gradually feel more at ease.

"In everyday life when you come up against difficulties you can be full of anxiety, too," she says. "Freediving has taught me to deal better with such situations."

Lu's personal best for holding her breath is 8 minutes, a national record that exceeds that of the record for men, 6 minutes 28 seconds, held by Wang.

Lu now works as an independent medicine consultant and teaches freediving in the Hawaiian town of Kona.

Wang and Lu estimate that there are as many as 6,000 certified freedivers in China, and the number is growing rapidly, they say. To register in a beginner's course, preplanning is advised because courses can be booked out months in advance.

Some Chinese travel to Southeast Asia, to places such as Thailand's Phuket island or Bohol island in the Philippines, to learn and practice.

Those who choose to stay in the country usually begin with an introductory course in diving pools and then travel to Suzhou, where there is a 16-meter-deep diving tank, or to Nanning, where there is a deep lake called Sheng Long Tan.

"More and more people in China are keen to pursue a sense of individuality, and of being different from others," Zhao Lei, one of the first freediving instructors in China, says of the sport's rising popularity.

Zhao, who was inspired by the 168-minute Luc Besson movie Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue), made in 1988, about the friendship and rivalry between two freedivers, became an instructor in 2013. He says he has trained about 800 people and founded the One Breath Freediving Club last year.

"My students are active in many sportsthey ski, run marathons, and kite surf. Freediving is becoming popular among Chinese who have a heart for sport and adventure," Zhao says.

"I don't consider it an extreme sport but a new lifestyle. Competition is just one small part of it."

Many freedivers attracted to the lifestyle have turned it into a career. Apart from those who become instructors, Li Da has become what is known as a mermaid. This refers to underwater models in specially designed mermaid fins, and Li is one of those in China best known for that role. She founded Dada Li Freediving and Mermaid Academy in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, in April.

"Depth is not what I dive for," Li says. "I prefer to enjoy the underwater moments that leave me with beautiful images."

Li, who once worked for a Norwegian shipping company in China, started freediving in 2012, and in subsequent years has used all her holidays to travel to dive locations.

Li once spotted photos of mermaids online and decided to make her own mermaid fins. Last year, photos of her swimming as a mermaid in the western Pacific country of Palau were widely circulated among diving aficionados.

"The photos amazed many, and I got people wanting me to teach them to be a mermaid," says Li, who became a certified instructor last year.

"Many people, especially women, learn freediving so they can take beautiful pictures."

Her company offers courses priced from 1,500 yuan ($222; 199 euros; 180).

"I throw a few things from dancing into freediving and teach students techniques of underwater posing," she says.

This year Li has recruited and trained a team of 10 mermaids, creating a 10-minute underwater play about mermaids and princes for a newly-opened aquarium in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. The show, which is performed daily, has become popular among visitors to the aquarium.

Last month Li created a new play in which the actors dressed as superheroes - Superman, Batman and Catwoman.

"At first, freediving was just a bit of fun for me," Li says. "Now I teach others how to get fun out of freediving. The joy on the faces of my students, just as I first experienced it, is what keeps me teaching it."



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