By Dr Sophia van Coller

Image by Mark van Coller

Discover the exciting world of competitive freediving and its various disciplines.

Freediving has come a long way since the days of the ancient sponge and pearl divers. Nowadays, it is also a recognised competitive sport with various depth and pool disciplines. People are often surprised to find out that there are several pool disciplines involved in the sport of competitive freediving and that it is not just about swimming as deep as you can. “Are you training to become a mermaid?” This is just one of the many odd remarks I get when I pull out my monofin before a dynamic pool training session. Normally, I just chuckle and explain that it is just one of the many disciplines of this fascinating sport.

There are many different depth categories, but the category of constant weight with fins (CWT) is probably the most common and widely known. This is where the freediver swims down a line (using the line as a reference and without using it as an aid) as deep as possible, keeping his or her weight the same throughout the dive. He or she can use bifins or a monofin for this dive. The Russian champion, Alexey Molchanov, holds the current CWT world record for men. Governed by the AIDA (International Association for the Development of Apnea), this record is at an incredible 128m in depth.

In the constant weight with no fins (CNF) category, the freediver swims as deep as possible without the aid of any fins or of the line and keeps his or her weight the same throughout the dive. New Zealander William Trubridge has mastered this technique and holds the world record at 101m in depth. It is one of the most strenuous and physically challenging dives to do and is thus thought of as the ultimate freedive.

There is also the free immersion category (FIM) where the freediver pulls himself or herself down and up the line whilst keeping his or her weight constant. Many freedivers prefer using this style as  a warm up as it is slow, relaxing and easy to iron out any equalisation issues before the main dive.

The variable weight (VWT) and no limits (NLT) categories are separate from competitive freediving. The more extreme VWT category is where the diver descends with the help of a heavy weight (typically a sled) and then ascends to the surface using their own strength while using fins if they choose to.

Possibly the ultimate in human endurance underwater, and also the most extreme discipline in the sport, is the NLT category. Here, the diver descends with the help of a heavy weight and then ascends, traditionally using a lift bag, but more recently using fast counter-balance pulley systems. Austrian world record freediver, Herbert Nitsch, has proven the impossible by successfully having descended to 214m in depth. This is deeper than what some submarines operate at.

But, let us not forget the pool disciplines. The dynamic with fins (DYN) category is where freedivers, with a monofin or with byfins, swim fully submerged on a single breath of air (horizontally) as far as possible in a pool. Most freedivers start out with bifins as monofins are expensive and it takes some time to master the proper kick and style. In a controlled pool environment, this category is great fun and helps freedivers to practise their buoyancy control, use their equipment efficiently and to relax underwater while holding their breaths.

There is also the dynamic without fins (DNF) category where a freediver swims as far as possible on a single breath of air without the use of any fins. This discipline focuses on technique, perfecting  buoyancy, gliding style and overall fitness, all of which will definitely add value to a swim.

Possibly the most difficult of all the pool disciplines is the static apnea (STA) category where the freediver lies face-down in the water with their respiratory tracts fully submerged and holds his or her breath for as long as possible. Some freedivers find it relaxing, while others find it a real challenge, as you literally just lie still while fighting the urge to breathe.

Even though this might seem like torture, I quite like STA as it helps to switch off the noise inside my head and I enjoy simply drifting along with the water. But, I do confess that on some days, a minute can seem like an eternity. The men’s world record, held by Stephane Mifsud of France, does make it seem like an eternity at a whopping 11 minutes and 35 seconds. This feat does not involve fancy tricks such as breathing pure oxygen before the record attempt, but simply years and years of hard work and training. That said, breaking records is not all that this sport is about as many freedivers purely enjoy weekly training sessions with their team.

Freediving and all of its facets certainly have a lot to offer as a sport, including adventure, reaching personal goals and pushing yourself to reach new levels while having fun in the water. I would certainly recommend including freediving on any water enthusiast’s bucket list.