The confession by one of the world’s top freedivers was… disturbing.
"I hate doing static apnea", he muttered. " Hate it."
Didn’t seem to hate being a static apnea record holder, though. "Noo o o …", he conceded. "That part was pretty good. It was the getting there I didn’t like at all. It was very painful."
Hates doing static apnea. Freediving is all about holding your breath, isn’t it? Well, no, not all about it. There’s more to freediving than just not breathing. There’s the love-dance with the pressure gradient, the orchestration of limbs and torso, the visual riot of the brimming reef and the formless mystery of the blue water. Apnea is – what is it? The key to all this? A means to these greater ends? If so, then maybe a bit of resentment is not unhealthy. Seen that way apnea’s an obstacle in the way of reward.
A perfectly good woman in a sleek Yamamoto suit floats on her back in the shallow end of a resort swimming pool. Another, similarly garbed, stands by her in the waist-deep water and murmurs cryptic numbers, staring at a stopwatch. The vacationers lounging by the pool wear bikinis and Speedos. It’s very, very hot. The woman floating on her back has her neoprene hood on.
An imperceptible effort rolls her over onto her stomach. The companion gently steadys her with a hand to the small of her back. Her face is in the water. It’s what some call the Dead Man’s Float. Time passes. One of the sunbathers sips his Margarita, squints at the motionless freedivers and nods. "Static apnea", he rules. "They call it static apnea." His girlfriend, on the lounger next to his, shrugs and delicately adjusts the filaments holding her suit top in place.
Static apnea is all about holding your breath. For time. As long as you can, if the competition flag is up. How long can you hold your breath? And why would you?
The woman floating prone in the water is by all appearances motionless. Nothing moves but the digits on the stopwatch face.
From her point of view, inside her head, it’s not quite like that. Her apnea is something that flows by her, on her, through her. Sort of like, as if – as if she were in a kind of wind tunnel. It starts up when she takes her peak breath and goes face down in the water. Her eyes are closed. The apnea tunnel powers on and the Stream begins to flow. She doesn’t feel it on her body, though she does sense, sort of incidentally, that her body is weightless and has no particular orientation in space. It could be spinning, could be rotating – irrelevant. It’s her consciousness, her very being that’s in the Stream.
That’s when it’s going well. It’s the zone, the way to breath-holds that win competitions and set records. Unwelcome dropouts do happen. Sometimes it’s a noise, a splash in the pool, a ridiculous itch in her left big toe. An eruption of doubt. Sometimes it’s just imperfection in the practice of static apnea. Whatever the cause of it, she’s suddenly just a girl in a pool in a rubber suit again, face down in the water, holding her breath. That’s when it gets tough. Sometimes painful. It’s a real struggle lying in a pool holding your breath. She’s no good at it, and frankly hates it.
Four minutes have passed. She’s in the apnea Stream. The current is strong, and warming. The view ahead is displayed on the insides of her eyelids, a red-orange screen backlit by the brilliant tropical sun reflected off the pastel blue pool bottom.
Sometimes she sees something like the bridge of a starship, the celestial bodies materializing from a centerpoint and streaking past her, beyond the periphery of her vision. Her pupils, under closed lids, settle down to the bottoms of her eye sockets. If the eyes are not relieved of all animation, if a stray motor signal has them flit or flicker it’s a near sure thing she’ll fall out of the Stream, so she forgets all about her eyes. There’s no need for them in the Stream.
Other times the Stream darkens, and swirls in eddies and plumes. Each section of the Stream has its own character. She knows them all, and how they follow one on the other. That’s another part of getting to the destination: knowing the way there. She drops out for a few seconds when she reflexively swallows. She’s a girl in a pool again. She’s had a contraction. A tap on her left shoulder, a whisper: Five minutes. Her index finger extends, all is well.
That is, all will be well once she’s back in the Stream. The closer you are to your destination when you drop out, the harder it is to get back in. She’s had another contraction, and her tongue’s not sitting right. She can feel her throat tightening against the pressure of the desperately large volume of air she’d stuffed into her lungs at the beginning. Her chest begins to tingle, presaging the inevitable burn. When her tongue sits just right, the tip against her bottom teeth and the body splayed onto the roof of her mouth, the pushback to her pharynx is oh-so leveraged and keeping her air in her lungs is effortless. There! Her tongue has assumed the position. Her soft palate melts and her body disappears. She’s just Her again, a being, and now in the Stream again.
This is her way of static apnea. It’s not getting from now to then. She feels it as getting from here to there. In reality – in her experienced reality – it’s really the Stream moving, not her. She does nothing but let the Stream flow through her, maintaining the proper attitude (so to speak) at all times. That’s all there is to static apnea.
The Stream is darkening now, the Voice’s cue: Five thirty. It’s cooling down, too. It always darkens and cools just before the six-minute mark. She notes this waypoint with an indifference such that it’s long forgotten by the time the Voice whispers again: Five forty five. It’s no good thinking about things too much, things like the way the Stream always matches the Voice. Thoughts like that have sharp corners, on which the flow can snag and tear. Then you might drop out of it and back into being the girl in the pool, struggling to hold her breath. Ouch.
At six minutes, dropping out of the flow would be… undesirable. A jarring splashdown into an oxygen-starved human shell, a whole entire situation within a tightening world of difficulty. There would be no question of getting back into the Stream at that point, none. From there on it would be like getting dragged along a rocky creek bottom rather than gliding through the water above it.
But inside the Stream all is flow. The darkening has yielded to a pale blue, a pastel, and there is no more hint of chill. This section of the Stream can go on forever, she knows, it can take you anywhere, forever and ever, if it weren’t for that tapping and the distant muffled words – but the pale blue is not inside the Stream at all. No, it’s the side of the pool– her eyes are open! Her hands – she has hands again – are before her, gripping the edge of the pool. Her feet touch the bottom, directly below her hips and-
Breathe….breathe…keep breathing . . . the Voice. It’s so tinny now, so nearby, not like the cosmic vox in the Stream. Her body is taking sharp, deep breaths as it’s trained to do, quite on its own. And the world is on fire! Everything is unbearably brilliant yellow-white, mottled. It’s time. Her left hand economically removes her mask. She turns to her spotter, meets her concerned gaze and frames it in the loop of her right hand’s OK signal.
"Nicely done!" says the Voice."Six thirteen. How was it ?"
Now breathing calmly, she’s lain back against the water and is gazing up a patch of perfectly clear blue sky. The balls of her bare feet make the most delicate contact with the concrete bottom.
"Okay", she says. "It was fine."