KALAMATA, Greece May 26, 2012 -- William Winram makes it sound so easy.
"You're going to hold your breath, pull yourself down a line under the sea," says the champion deep diver from Canada. Then he laughs. I am having my doubts about this assignment.
Winram and I are sitting on a floating diving platform half a mile off the coast of Kalamata, Greece. This is the site of the annual World Free Diving Championships. I have come see what it is all about. What I am quickly learning is that this is one of the most extreme of extreme sports. Divers descend to unthinkable depths in the ocean -- more than 700 feet down -- with no air tanks. That's why it is also called Breath-Hold Diving.
We are wearing wet suits and fins and adjusting our face masks.
"The urge to breath is actually not because oxygen levels are low, it's because CO2 levels are high and it's just a natural protective reflex. But the more you dive, the more you train yourself, the better you get at breathing, the better your body adapts to holding your breath," says Winram as he tries to reassure me. "You'll be surprised, even for rank beginners it's not difficult to teach them in a short period of time how to hold their breath for two or three minutes."
Divers spend years learning how to do this. In one day I have no intention of going down deep, but Winram insists that even a shallow breath-hold dive will give me – and viewers – a sense of what it takes. I gulp a deep breath. Winram corrects me. It's not about filling your chest, it's about filling your lungs. He sips air like he's slurping a bowl of hot soup, slowly filling his lungs to capacity as his belly expands.
"So you're breathing through the snorkel," he tells me, "holding the breath, taking the snorkel out, pinch, gently blow and start the dive."
"Do I let the air out bit by bit while I am underwater?" I ask.
"No," he says, revealing the secret of breath-hold diving, "you let the air out when you are back on the surface."
We jump in the water and swim to a cable suspended from the diving platform. Winram attaches his safety cord to the cable, slowly sips in air and descends to the deep. He moves in slow motion. Flipping his funs and using his arms he goes down effortlessly, like a classical dancer floating across the stage. When he surfaces he lets out his breath slowly. He's not even gasping.
Winram explains that the average person breathes 15 to 20 times a minute. He has taught himself take deeper, longer breaths. "If I'm sitting watching TV or at the computer, it's maybe two or three breaths a minute." He says it comes from years of training, "Chinese martial arts and meditation and yoga and the diving have changed my breathing."
(Winram and diving partner Fred Buyle no longer compete. They use their unique underwater skills to swim with sea creatures, including sharks. They say that without the noise of air tanks they are able to get much closer to the animals without startling them. It is, however, a double feat of daring: they are swimming underwater without tanks and without cages to protect themselves from the sharks. So far, they've survived without incident, the proof is can be seen in some spectacular photographs they have taken.)
I clip myself to the safety cable, slowly sip in air and I can feel the anxiety building. I head down, madly kicking with my legs and pulling with my arms. The undersea pressure starts to pop in my ears. I struggle to equalize my eardrums but turn back to the surface. It is not an elegant beginning.
Winram counsels me to catch my breath and try again. Calmly. Slowly.
After a few more attempts I do marginally better. Graceful moves undersea bring on a brief moment of Zen, as I begin to get a taste of what it is that Winram is talking about.
I am distracted by a competitor about to descend from another cable suspended from the diving platform. A French diver is about to go down hundreds of feet into the Mediterranean on one breath. Rather than swim he Winram glide down on a metal contraption attached to the safety cable. They call it a sled.
I look on in awe as the diver perches on a metal bar, folds his bare feet behind him and slides down into the deep, disappearing into the darkness like a rocket on a rope. A few minutes pass and I see him reappear from the depths, casually floating to the surface, pinching his nose from time-to-time to equalize the excruciating pressure.
It defies logic. He has no tanks, no breathing apparatus. He has done this in one breath.
"It is like a dream," he says to me after he reaches the surface. "The water is cold when you go down. On the way up the water gets warmer and warmer and you also begin to see the light. It's like a rebirth."
"Why do you do it? " I ask.
"Like George Mallory said 'because it's there'." Mallory is said to have uttered those legendary words in the 1920's during his attempt to be the first to climb Mt. Everest, when asked why he was doing it. I think to myself, 'Yes, the air is said to be oppressively thin on Everest, but at least there is air.'
The world record for a breath-hold sled descent is 705 feet. I am in awe. I've done more than a few crazy things for this job -- biking down the world's most dangerous road in Bolivia, swimming down glacial rivers in Chile, breaking the speed of sound in an F-16 over the coast of Florida -- but it does not take me long to conclude that deep breath diving is not a sport for me. And as my instructors keep telling me, it is not a sport anyone should contemplate without extensive training and without safety monitors.
That becomes clear when a few minutes later an unconscious diver is brought to the surface by safety swimmers. They breathe into his lungs and revive him. But I learn that earlier in the competition one of the swimmers wasn't so lucky. It took minutes to revive him and he had to be hospitalized. I am not surprised to hear that over the years some free divers have died attempting these daring feats of the deep.
There are several different sports at the competition here in Kalamata. In the free diving category -- where competitors have to swim their way down under their own power -- Russian Natalia Molchanova broke her own record diving down 331 feet. French diver Guillaume Nery won the men's division swimming down a staggering 383 feet. Without air tanks!
Swedish diver Annelie Pompe teaches deep-breath diving. She wants to show me that I can do better than I think I can.
We start on dry land.
"The real conquest has to happen within yourself, transcending your own mind" she tells me, "I would say about 75 percent of free diving is in the head."
We begin with deep-breathing exercises. A mix of yoga and meditation. Pompe tells me my breaths should expel tension and fear.
"A free dive starts hours before an actual dive," she says, "because you have to really arrive in the right mind set to do the dive and to keep nervousness away and not think of fear or anxiety or anything. You have to really be present and think one second at a time."
We move to the nearby swimming pool.
Pompe starts her lessons with what is called a "static breath hold" with the trainee suspended motionless, face down on the surface of the swimming pool. "Exhale all the air down and take the biggest breath you can take," she tells me. I do as she says and put my head in the water and let myself float. I can still hear Pompe. "Relax. Feel yourself being weightless. Relax your stomach. Relax your legs. Hold your breath until you feel a little uncomfortable in your stomach and slowly come back up again."
Surprisingly I do not feel panic. There is a sense of serenity. As instructed I hold the air in my lungs the entire time.
After one minute and forty-five seconds I surface. Pompe congratulates me but she thinks I can do much better. She wants me to hold my breath for three minutes.
I try again.
I feel calmer, more confident. As I pass two minutes and 30 seconds I can hear Pompe coaching me. The final phase of a deep breath dive, she tells me, is the fighting phase "that is where you start to switch your mind from relaxation toward fighting because you have to fight yourself.
"Come on you can do twenty seconds more!" she coaches me at the 2.40 mark.
I can feel the urge to breathe. My lungs are calling for air.
"You can do it!" says Pompe.
I slowly put hands on the side of the pool and pull my head up. Surprisingly, I am not gasping. I feel astonishingly serene. I had no idea I could hold my breath that long.
It's fine in a pool. But I will leave the deepwater exploits to Winram and Pompe and the others.