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by Marianna Gillespie August 03, 2021

The line is set. Holding onto it, I try not to think about what I am about to do. A clip is painfully attached to my nose, tight as possible to keep the water out. Waves cover my face as I float on my back and I inhale deeply. I close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Slowly my fears of the unknown future dissolve, like clouds in the sky just before the sunrise. I take my last breath of air and dive into the deep blue. My mind is in a “flow” with no thoughts, no fears, no expectations. The sea color changes gradually from light blue to dark blue as I descend deeper and deeper. I don’t even feel my body anymore. I close my eyes and let the darkness swallow me.

The line is set. Holding onto it, I try not to think about what I am about to do. A clip is painfully attached to my nose, tight as possible to keep the water out. Waves cover my face as I float on my back and I inhale deeply. I close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Slowly my fears of the unknown future dissolve, like clouds in the sky just before the sunrise. I take my last breath of air and dive into the deep blue. My mind is in a “flow” with no thoughts, no fears, no expectations. The sea color changes gradually from light blue to dark blue as I descend deeper and deeper. I don’t even feel my body anymore. I close my eyes and let the darkness swallow me.

Moments before taking my last breath at Sabang International Freediving Competition. Photo by Nanna Kreutzmann

Freediving is the practice of holding your breath when diving underwater without the use of breathing equipment, such as a scuba tank. Historically used to collect shells and sponges, it has evolved into a modern sport, where competitors try to cover a distance horizontally (in a pool), a maximum depth vertically (at sea) or stay still and hold their breath for the longest time possible. I started freediving back in 2012, and with a background in competitive swimming, I quickly realized I love the sport. With hard work I’ve reached some amazing results: twice I became a World Champion and four times was ranked #1 in the World.

Freediving for me was never a challenge, but more an adventure. Ever since I tried to swim one lap underwater in the pool, I knew I could do more. I just wanted to see how far I could really go on one breath? Where were my limits? The biggest risks for freedivers are losing consciousness or a “black-out”, pressure-related traumas, such as DCS (decompression sickness), or a lung squeeze (pulmonary edema). Black-outs happen because during breath-holding the levels of oxygen in the blood gradually decrease, and if they drop too low the athlete loses consciousness. It is quite tricky to understand when you should finish your breath-hold, especially when you are competing. If a diver blacks out during a competition, a safety team is on site to prevent you from drowning, but if you black out, you get disqualified. For this reason, many athletes prefer to stay in the safe zone, and finish their attempts before it’s too late.

Freediving is the practice of holding your breath when diving underwater without the use of breathing equipment, such as a scuba tank. Historically used to collect shells and sponges, it has evolved into a modern sport, where competitors try to cover a distance horizontally (in a pool), a maximum depth vertically (at sea) or stay still and hold their breath for the longest time possible. I started freediving back in 2012, and with a background in competitive swimming, I quickly realized I love the sport. With hard work I’ve reached some amazing results: twice I became a World Champion and four times was ranked #1 in the World.

Freediving for me was never a challenge, but more an adventure. Ever since I tried to swim one lap underwater in the pool, I knew I could do more. I just wanted to see how far I could really go on one breath? Where were my limits? The biggest risks for freedivers are losing consciousness or a “black-out”, pressure-related traumas, such as DCS (decompression sickness), or a lung squeeze (pulmonary edema). Black-outs happen because during breath-holding the levels of oxygen in the blood gradually decrease, and if they drop too low the athlete loses consciousness. It is quite tricky to understand when you should finish your breath-hold, especially when you are competing. If a diver blacks out during a competition, a safety team is on site to prevent you from drowning, but if you black out, you get disqualified. For this reason, many athletes prefer to stay in the safe zone, and finish their attempts before it’s too late.

Enjoying the blue waters of Greece. Photo by Nejc Likar

As I descend deeper and deeper into the darkness, my only guideline is a marked line just in front of me. When I open my eyes, I can see these marks passing by in silence. I know that my dive-computer will give me a signal 5 meters before the bottom. All I have to do is make sure that I don’t let negative thoughts flow in. “What if the computer alarm won’t work?” “Is there a scary monster waiting for me with its mouth wide-open at the end of the line?” “Do I have enough air in my lungs to come back up?” With time I’ve learned the hardest limits, in freediving and life, are the ones that we imagine for ourselves. Realizing this, has been a challenging journey.

As I descend deeper and deeper into the darkness, my only guideline is a marked line just in front of me. When I open my eyes, I can see these marks passing by in silence. I know that my dive-computer will give me a signal 5 meters before the bottom. All I have to do is make sure that I don’t let negative thoughts flow in. “What if the computer alarm won’t work?” “Is there a scary monster waiting for me with its mouth wide-open at the end of the line?” “Do I have enough air in my lungs to come back up?” With time I’ve learned the hardest limits, in freediving and life, are the ones that we imagine for ourselves. Realizing this, has been a challenging journey.

Descending to 93 meters during the Vertical Blue Competition. Photo by Daan Verhoeven

Freediving has taught me to listen to my body. To distinguish between the “real threat” and the “imaginary threat”. “Am I really going to black-out now or am I just going out of my comfort zone?” The mind plays tricky games that we don’t often notice, but it is something that is possible to control. Inside my head I answer every question at the same moment that it appears: “You have just recently changed the battery in your dive-computer, don’t worry, the alarm will definitely work. Just wait for it.” “Which monster are you talking about? You should stop watching scary movies, your imagination is too vivid!” “Why wouldn’t you have enough air? You have done this so many times and it wasn’t even hard. Chill out and focus on your technique!”


And there it comes: the long-awaited alarm!

Freediving has taught me to listen to my body. To distinguish between the “real threat” and the “imaginary threat”. “Am I really going to black-out now or am I just going out of my comfort zone?” The mind plays tricky games that we don’t often notice, but it is something that is possible to control. Inside my head I answer every question at the same moment that it appears: “You have just recently changed the battery in your dive-computer, don’t worry, the alarm will definitely work. Just wait for it.” “Which monster are you talking about? You should stop watching scary movies, your imagination is too vivid!” “Why wouldn’t you have enough air? You have done this so many times and it wasn’t even hard. Chill out and focus on your technique!”


And there it comes: the long-awaited alarm!

Team World Championship, Sardinia Italy. Photo by Daan Verhoeven

Many freedivers that I know can’t accept that they are scared. And believe me, everyone is scared. I was scared many times that safety divers were not good enough. I was scared that during a dive, a sudden current might hold me down. I’ve been scared that I would not be able to come back to the surface. My mind has created these fears, despite never having been in a situation close to them. My recipe to control them is to close my eyes, accept that I am scared for no reason, and through acceptance, I find that they disappear just as suddenly as they appeared in the first place.

What I’ve learned from freediving is that acceptance is a very powerful thing. Last year with the covid crisis, many competitions were cancelled at the last moment. I had been preparing for nearly a year for a specific event and wasn’t sure whether to continue training or stop. Like everybody in the pandemic, I lost the power to plan things ahead and it felt as if I was not in control anymore. On top of this I was going through a complicated divorce, feeling betrayed, and scared for my future. Like on a deep dive, I felt myself sinking into darkness with my mind echoing with fears.

I suspect a lot of people, maybe even you reading this now, have felt that way over the past year. Maybe you feel that way now? Here is what I did to get through it. I hope it is of some help to you.

Many freedivers that I know can’t accept that they are scared. And believe me, everyone is scared. I was scared many times that safety divers were not good enough. I was scared that during a dive, a sudden current might hold me down. I’ve been scared that I would not be able to come back to the surface. My mind has created these fears, despite never having been in a situation close to them. My recipe to control them is to close my eyes, accept that I am scared for no reason, and through acceptance, I find that they disappear just as suddenly as they appeared in the first place.

What I’ve learned from freediving is that acceptance is a very powerful thing. Last year with the covid crisis, many competitions were cancelled at the last moment. I had been preparing for nearly a year for a specific event and wasn’t sure whether to continue training or stop. Like everybody in the pandemic, I lost the power to plan things ahead and it felt as if I was not in control anymore. On top of this I was going through a complicated divorce, feeling betrayed, and scared for my future. Like on a deep dive, I felt myself sinking into darkness with my mind echoing with fears.

I suspect a lot of people, maybe even you reading this now, have felt that way over the past year. Maybe you feel that way now? Here is what I did to get through it. I hope it is of some help to you.

Exploring the underwater caves in Greece. Photo by Nejc Likar

Exploring the underwater caves in Greece. Photo by Nejc Likar

I decided to take control of the things I could control. I found a place in Greece where freedive competitions were still happening. I continued my training. Instead of focusing on winning an event, I focused on setting a record and achieved 4 National Records in 3 different disciplines in a span of 2 months. I reached out to as many companies as I could and managed to secure some sponsorship contracts. I fell in love again and let myself move on from my previous negative experiences. And most importantly, I have accepted and let go of the things I cannot control and stay mindful of the present.

In this process, like confronting my fears underwater, it has been very important to be sure that I am not lying to myself. Very, very deep down, I’ve asked myself many times, “Is a divorce something that you really want?” My true answer was yes, even though my brain was telling me to wait, just as it tells me to turn back and swim up for air when I dive. But I knew that carrying on being together would be a lie to myself, and by listening to it, I would be letting an imaginary fear hold me back.

Life decisions like these don’t come easily. In a lot of ways, it feels like reaching the bottom and touching ones limits. I was depressed, destabilized and without any self-confidence. It was time to turn around and to come back to the surface. But while being in that moment is scary, ascending from it is life changing.

I decided to take control of the things I could control. I found a place in Greece where freedive competitions were still happening. I continued my training. Instead of focusing on winning an event, I focused on setting a record and achieved 4 National Records in 3 different disciplines in a span of 2 months. I reached out to as many companies as I could and managed to secure some sponsorship contracts. I fell in love again and let myself move on from my previous negative experiences. And most importantly, I have accepted and let go of the things I cannot control and stay mindful of the present.

In this process, like confronting my fears underwater, it has been very important to be sure that I am not lying to myself. Very, very deep down, I’ve asked myself many times, “Is a divorce something that you really want?” My true answer was yes, even though my brain was telling me to wait, just as it tells me to turn back and swim up for air when I dive. But I knew that carrying on being together would be a lie to myself, and by listening to it, I would be letting an imaginary fear hold me back.

Life decisions like these don’t come easily. In a lot of ways, it feels like reaching the bottom and touching ones limits. I was depressed, destabilized and without any self-confidence. It was time to turn around and to come back to the surface. But while being in that moment is scary, ascending from it is life changing.

Ascending from 93 meters during the Vertical Blue Competition. Photo by Daan Verhoeven

I have more than 90 meters to come back up, 10 BAR of pressure squeeze me, my lungs are compressed to the size of two oranges and I need to fight against the negative buoyancy to reach the surface. This requires precious oxygen. I count my monofin kicks: 1-2, 1-2, 1-2… Counting helps me focus on the present, one kick at a time. I focus on technique. Time does not exist. It doesn’t matter to me how long I’ve been underwater. The blue color is gradually changing from dark to light. My mind is wondering quietly, “How far is it still to go?” I can see the 50 mark on the line. “Is it still 50 meters till I reach the surface?” 1-2, 1-2, 1-2…I see my safeties swimming next to me, shadowing my final stretch to the surface. I look at them and smile. Knowing they are there helps me feel safer. It empowers me. Inside, I feel great. I feel that I’ve managed to control my mind and accepted it’s imaginary limitations. I feel that my limits do not exist.

I have more than 90 meters to come back up, 10 BAR of pressure squeeze me, my lungs are compressed to the size of two oranges and I need to fight against the negative buoyancy to reach the surface. This requires precious oxygen. I count my monofin kicks: 1-2, 1-2, 1-2… Counting helps me focus on the present, one kick at a time. I focus on technique. Time does not exist. It doesn’t matter to me how long I’ve been underwater. The blue color is gradually changing from dark to light. My mind is wondering quietly, “How far is it still to go?” I can see the 50 mark on the line. “Is it still 50 meters till I reach the surface?” 1-2, 1-2, 1-2…I see my safeties swimming next to me, shadowing my final stretch to the surface. I look at them and smile. Knowing they are there helps me feel safer. It empowers me. Inside, I feel great. I feel that I’ve managed to control my mind and accepted it’s imaginary limitations. I feel that my limits do not exist.

Team World Championship, Kalamata Greece. Photo by Daan Verhoeven

But life has taught me not to celebrate too early. I still have 30 meters to go. Shallow water black-outs usually happen within the last 10 meters from the surface. Similar to when people say “I’m fine” soon after a traumatic event without realizing that they are not, it’s only a matter of time before that harsh reality can become clear. I keep my focus and count my kicks. My safety divers are here for me if I need them. My friends and loved ones will be here for me throughout my life if I need them. The surface is near, I can see the sunlight. My buoyancy becomes positive and nature surges me upward. I fight to preserve the last oxygen used by my muscles. My hand glides on the line, ready to grab it when I surface. I remove my nose-clip in anticipation of the breath. I break through the surface and gasp in the air.

I am alive.

But life has taught me not to celebrate too early. I still have 30 meters to go. Shallow water black-outs usually happen within the last 10 meters from the surface. Similar to when people say “I’m fine” soon after a traumatic event without realizing that they are not, it’s only a matter of time before that harsh reality can become clear. I keep my focus and count my kicks. My safety divers are here for me if I need them. My friends and loved ones will be here for me throughout my life if I need them. The surface is near, I can see the sunlight. My buoyancy becomes positive and nature surges me upward. I fight to preserve the last oxygen used by my muscles. My hand glides on the line, ready to grab it when I surface. I remove my nose-clip in anticipation of the breath. I break through the surface and gasp in the air.

I am alive.

Marianna Gillespie is a Russian born French competitive freediver. Four times ranked #1 in the world, two-time world champion, she is also winner of the Vertical Blue competition. Passionate about the ocean, she works on underwater art projects, often performing on a single breath. Learn more about her at worldchampionfreediver.com.


5 Responses

Tina
Tina

August 13, 2021

I love this so much! What an amazing athlete you are, with great self-awareness. I bet freediving is good for development of such. Be safe and well!

Mary
Mary

August 07, 2021

Thank you so much for sharing your gifts and story. As I traverse challenges in my journey I will hold this blog and the visual of you vertical in the water as an inspiration and fuel to believe in myself, trust in the process, and soar!

Ricki
Ricki

August 03, 2021

Our brains exist to protect us, but it becomes a fine line between protecting ourselves and holding ourselves back due to fear and anxiety of the unknown. Acceptance and the calmness that follows are so important. Thank you so much for writing this! I am inspired by your world. ❤️

mary motte
mary motte

August 03, 2021

You are a beautiful, talented and amazing woman!
A mermaid, perhaps?! Awesome story and incredibly honest and humanizing. Thank you for telling your story. You are, not to be “punny,” a breath of fresh air.

Annie
Annie

August 03, 2021

I loved reading every second of this!! Thank you for sharing your insight and giving me a glimpse into your life :)

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