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Freediving 2003: Emma Farrell

The best and worst times in my freediving life happened this year in exactly the same place, about two weeks apart. The first was professional,the second personal.

At the end of April I was contacted by an advertising agency that needed a female freediver for a face cream TV advert. She had to be tall, have brown hair and be able to monofin. Well, there aren’t many of them in the UK and I ticked all the boxes. The idea for the advert was that a woman had to freedive deep into the ocean and then swim towards the camera and flash a smile. The swimming would be done by a freediver and the flashing by a model.

I got to the audition to find that there were just me and ‘uber babe’, a thin, tanned, professional swimmer from Sweden. Faced with this vision of athletic perfection, I thought there was no hope and I even lent her my monofin so she could glide up and down looking ‘beautiful ja?’

Imagine my surprise then when I actually got another call asking me if I wanted the job! As my face was not to be shown, I got a contract which contained the words ‘Body Double’ and ‘Emma Farrell’ in the same sentence, a fact that caused barely contained laughs from all my friends when I proudly showed it to them. I was due to be flown to Cyprus the next week for a four day shoot. How glamorous could my life be?

It started off well enough: upgraded to business class, my own room at The Four Seasons in Limassol and the company of the model, Adnana, who was there for the money shot. Adnana was the opposite of any modelling stereotype I could think of. She was sweet, kind, and without her help navigating the murky waters of modelling, I would have been completely at sea.

Then came The Fitting, or should I say The Fit-Up? Shy at the best of times about my figure, I was taken to a room with Adnana, made to undress in the bathroom and then put in ‘The Costume’. The cutters had ignored my measurements, despite having had them twice, and had convinced themselves only a freak of nature could have that hip to waist ratio. They looked suitably horrified when I sidled out, back to the wall, and they could see that, yes, my bum really did look big in that.

If the costume had been cut any higher it would have been illegal and it gaped indecently around my top half. I had to stand there, whilst the ‘Creatives’ and Producers (all male), stood back and looked critically at me, hands rubbing goatees, as if wishing air brushing technology could have been applied then and there. As Adnana, totally at ease, pranced about, I was mortified. Where was my 7mm coverall wetsuit when I needed it? The costume designer promised me that they would make the back fit more than half a butt cheek and I went off to bed, wrapping the covers tightly around me.

At four in the morning I woke from a fitful sleep and prepared for the first day’s shoot. The water was about 17 degrees on the surface, but two metres down and it dropped to around 12 degrees. I was wearing a silver swimming costume, a silver monofin, a long brown hair piece, and that was about it. For the sake of artistic beauty I was not allowed a mask and was expected to freedive down to about ten metres repeatedly, in the middle of the ocean without touching my nose. I would wear a tiny pink nose clip, which was bent so I could equalise against it. Getting into the water was painfully cold at seven in the morning, and after about thirty seconds I started to shiver. Then came the order to go. I took a breath, and duck dived into the unknown.

The cold water hit me at two metres and rushed over my bare skin. My ears squeaked as I tried to equalise against the most useless nose-clip in the world. I concentrated on keeping my arms straight by my sides, as instructed, and kept finning deeper until I could go no more. With no visual frame of reference it was quite frightening not to know how far I had to swim back to the surface. No mask, no rope, and no bottom. When I finally hit the ‘warm’ upper level it was such a relief and felt like a bath in comparison to the icy depths of eight or so metres.

I had to dive repeatedly as the same shot was taken from as many different angles and distances as possible. After about six or seven takes I was shaking so much through the cold that I could hardly breathe. I had lost the feeling in my hands and legs and had to be helped aboard where Adnana was waiting with towels and hot tea, knowing that as soon as I was warm enough, it would be time to go again. And that was the best day.

By the end of the four-day shoot I was unable to eat or sleep, got sea sick and a tummy bug and spent a lot of time running to the toilet on the boat. Even the sight of other people wolfing down croissants and coffee made me retch.

The worst part of it all was that it killed my love of freediving. The sages tell you not to make your hobby your job because it kills the enjoyment and how right they were. For a year and a half I had braved the freezing depths of a quarry in Wales and had still come back for more. Yet here I was, in beautiful Cyprus, with a crystal clear ocean, and wishing I had never ever seen ‘The Big Blue’.

I hated the water, I hated holding my breath, and felt so depressed knowing that I had truly lost that loving feeling. I flew back home knowing that the 2003 Sony Freediving Classic was less than two weeks away, and that I didn’t want to be there.

Fast forward to my competition dive in exactly the same place. Despite my warm suit, I was still questioning my mind and my motives. Then, when I duck dived and left the noise and swell behind, the quiet blue peace grabbed hold of me again and reminded me of how much we were in love. The day before, I had just done a static PB of 4:21 and so I knew that I had enough puff to make the dive even if my ears wouldn’t let me. When I made the decision to stop short and turn around, and then saw the tag just feet away, the joy was intense. I have only ever grabbed one tag in my entire life, and it was now, at my very first competition. Swimming back to the surface I knew I had done it. For me I had achieved the impossible, defeated my demons and rediscovered the sport I loved.

A couple of months later and back home, I frog-marched down to the gym in my usual state of heel -dragging unfitness. Puffing away on an exercise bike I watched the TV screens, an endless drip of music videos and skateboarding clips. Suddenly I saw something incredible! A silver mermaid with long flowing hair, swimming gracefully down into eternal blueness. My jaw dropped. Was that really me? I leapt off the bike and yelled ‘That’s me!’

Everyone stopped and stared at the screen, and then at me: sweaty red face, shorter hair, resplendent in my school gym kit. And then back to the screen in time to see the final beauty shot of Adnana, flashing her winning smile. ‘But… But the rest was of me!’ My cries were in vain. The exercise machines started up again. The whole gym thought I’m delusional. I got back on the bike but carried on smiling at the memory of what I had just seen. How beautiful freediving can be, and how much I love it.

Emma Farrell
Emma Farrell
Emma Farrell is one of the world’s leading freediving instructors and the author of the stunning book One Breath: A Reflection on Freediving. She has been freediving since 2001 and teaching since 2002. She is an Instructor Trainer with RAID, SSI, and AIDA, a founding member of the AIDA Education Commission and has written courses that are taught internationally, as well as her own specialty courses such as her course for surfers, spearfishing safety skills course and Gas Guzzler course.