By Natalie Rudman

Image by Kalindi Wijsmuller.

I grew up in KwaZulu-Natal in a small, green, suburban town called Kloof. I spent as much time at the ocean as I could, surfing in my teens and emulating the beach bums as much as possible. Fortunately, I found one buddy from our hilly area to share this joy with, especially when discovering that her father and brothers surfed. We would occasionally wake at 5am to head to the beach, undergoing a 30-minute commute to the Durban waters to cram in a surf session before school. I remember sometimes sitting in class with my skin burning from the fire weed that would wash up in the Durban waters from time to time. The sensation gave me so much joy because it reminded me of that experience: That moment in the water with the sun rising from the ocean and the moon setting behind the high rise buildings of Durban City, no one but me and the water.

I think I was freediving from the age of four. There was one occasion where, while at a holiday resort, I kept jumping into the pool and then quickly getting back up onto the step as I was not yet able to swim. At one point, I jumped in and did not get back up quickly enough so I just sank to the bottom. But I remember not being afraid, just being there in this new space, in this new-found silence. Hands were suddenly reaching for me and I still recall the look of slight horror on the face of the adult who had just rescued me. 

Image by Daan Verhoeven

Freediving with a line came much later for me. After finishing school, I followed a huge group of South Africans to London and became trapped in the rat race. Slowly, I started to feel the need to break away and after a few bouts in unhealthy distractions to my reality, I started to find healthier and more beneficial distractions that helped me to deal with my reality. I began to run during lunch breaks and, having never been a runner, I endured a few physical injuries; I knew how to push myself, but I did not quite have the body awareness I now aspire to have. I trained hard and ran the London Marathon, after which I knew that I could do whatever I put my mind to. One year later, I packed up my life in London and moved to Australia after which, having saved enough money in an office job, I bought a van and moved to the Whitsunday Islands (right in the midst of the Great Barrier Reef) where I worked on boats for almost two years. I worked myself up to divemaster level and when my work visa came to an end, I left for Thailand, where my life would completely change forever!

I became a scuba diving instructor in 2013 and began to teach yoga on the little Thai Island of Koh Tao. In 2014, I took my first Freediving Course and I fell in love. Apparently the love was not mutual and I endured many obstacles. Any intention I had to train was halted by constant sinus problems. I left Thailand for the last time in 2016 and headed to the east coast town of Amed and Tulamben in Bali to begin training for a Master Programme with Apnea Bali. My sinuses cleared and I could finally dive with ease. The waters of Bali invited me in and, before training began, I hit a depth I had aspired to for so long: 40m. When my training was finished, I was comfortable doing dives to depths of 50m. I occasionally went beyond this so to match the South African Freediving Women’s record of 53m, held by Sophia Van Coller at the time.

Image by Daan Verhoeven

Competitive freediving was never on my agenda. I actually did not understand why people would want to turn such a beautiful and, to me, spiritual practice into something competitive and ego-based. When I decided to compete last year at the Australian Nationals held in Bali, diving completely changed for me. It turned from the blissful withdrawal of senses and instantaneous meditation to stress and discomfort. Every dive became a chore and as the self-inflicted pressure crept in, so did tension and displeasure. I withdrew from the competition and returned to my blissful, competition-free diving. However, this year, I decided to join the competitive diving scene: For myself, for my country, for the people I love and for the people I wish to inspire. When the competition came around, I was at the forefront of the action and watched it with absolute joy and amazement. Competing is nothing I had expected it to be. Every dive was important, every white card received a cheer, there was no rivalry and no one really cared about how deep someone was going. Most importantly, there was joy and fulfilment in each and every dive.

On 20 August 2017, I broke my first record for South African Women’s freediving by diving into the Caribbean Ocean to a depth of 58m with one breath. I used my arms to pull myself down a line and back up again (Free Immersion or FIM). It was the start of a very successful pre-competition warm up to the World Championships in the Caribbean Cup, held annually in Roatan, Honduras.

The next day, I broke another SA Women’s record by diving to 50m, using bi-fins to propel myself down and then up again, in the discipline called Constant Weight (CWT) with Bi-Fins.

Then, on 26 August, superstar divers from all over the globe joined together in Roatan, Honduras and the Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée (AIDA) Freediving World championships began. Eight Women’s National records were broken on the first day, including my own record in the FIM discipline. I broke this FIM record, set just six days before, by diving to 60m.

On the final day of the competition, I hesitantly announced a personal best in the discipline of Constant Weight No Fins (CNF) with a depth of 43m. This is the most physically demanding discipline with a record that has not been broken in seven years. This success means that I now hold three South African records in the four depth disciplines of freediving and I set four new records throughout the two competitions.

These were all incredibly humbling experiences because from a late start in freediving to breaking records, I have realised that you can do anything you want to do and you are always stronger than you think you are. When you find something you love doing, do not let anything stand in your way. Life is short, lessons are hard and no one can hold you back but yourself. I still have fuel in my tank and I am going to keep on going. The ocean is always ready for us.

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