A week before the BFA UK Pool Championships, aka the Great Northern, I was starting to get my kit together in preparation. For the sake of due diligence, I tried on my favourite pool wetsuit, which had served me so well last season- only to find that, Yamamoto neoprene or not, there was no way I was getting that zip done up.
Twenty sweaty frantic minutes later, I gave up, and started looking for a new suit online that could be delivered in the next few days. Perfect- I found just the right one. It looks even better than my old suit. Oh wait. Wiggle doesn’t stock it in my size, a Women’s Large. Or Amazon. Or Sigma, or Ebay…
…and at that moment, I nearly pulled out of the competition altogether, £55 non-refundable entry fee be damned. Because at that moment, I realised that I don’t look like the typical competitive freediver, a honed athlete at the peak of fitness. Despite all my recent training efforts, I felt my body didn’t reflect that effort. And I was embarrassed to claim I was an athlete.
Type “freediver” into Google Images. Go ahead; I’ll wait. What did you find?
The long, lithe and lean. Ripped men and toned women in effortless smoothskin suits and stealthy camo numbers, bikini-clad beauties dancing with pelagics. I think it’s fair to say that freediving has a reputation for a certain “type” of person.
It’s for the daredevils, the yogis, the hardcore athletes. It’s about The Big Blue, Jacques Mayol, Tanya Streeter, the Molchanov/as, pushing the limits to ever deeper depths and having a high-performance vehicle of a body to do that.
I’m thinking this as I look down the pool lanes at my local freedive club night. Freedivers of all abilities are lined up, waiting to start the warm up. We are grouped by grades, with the higher ranks further down the pool. The nearest lane holds our newest recruits and, tonight, a couple of folk trying out the sport for the first time. The far lane, our World Championship hopefuls and a sprinkling of National Record holders across various disciplines and nationalities. We’re a mixed bunch.
But as I’m watching, that variety seems to go deeper than simply grading and ability. Training alongside me is every body type and fitness level imaginable, and in every lane. I love that. It’s inspirational. And, it would seem, somewhat unusual in the world of freediving.
At a size 14, I’m officially an “average” size- neither model thin, athletic, or even plus-sized. But there are times I certainly feel like it in this sport, when all my idols and role models are posing in bikinis and competing in borderline-sexy smoothskin wetsuits. I dream about going to the World Championships and making Team GB, maybe getting sponsorship or writing about my experiences, but I worry if that means I’ll have to drop a few sizes or show a bit more skin.
What about the eye-catching girls in my own club whose photos always make the front page of our website? Yes, they move well in the water, but they also happen to look great in a two piece and fins.
Can I be a successful freediver without looking like Tanya or Annelie or Rebecca or Georgina or Liv? That is to say, “easy on the eye”, as my male training partner put it. They are, each of them, athletic and attractive, as well as being exceptional divers. But can I be just as good, with my body?
I have great monofin technique and above average flexibility, but with a proportionally oversized chest, and any muscle hiding under a not-insubstantial layer of insulation. It serves me well, my body, and know that together we will improve and work around any weaknesses.
There are still days when I wish I could find a performance swimsuit range that doesn’t stop before my size, pick up a wetsuit off the rack, or just have the confidence to play in the sea in a bikini. And, yes, there are days I want to cry when I can’t zip my suit up, or it feels… snugger than last time I wore it.
On those days I cling on to knowing what I’m capable of, in that particular moment, and striving to improve. I try my best not to dictate what my body does or doesn’t look like, with any changes resulting only from diet or training routine planned to improve my strength, efficiency and technique. As my best friend said, “You’d look ridiculous as a size 6”, and she’s right, but that doesn’t impact how good a diver I am, or aren’t.
I’m not sure there is a freediving equivalent of the triangular swimmer’s body, the lean runner’s body, or the prominent thighs of the cyclist’s body. A group of divers from our club, all of whom I hold in high regard, recently went to meet with a personal trainer. That was a fascinating experience, in that it pronounced the differences between all our bodies and made us stop to consider our own, rather than those around us. Even among those who specialise in the same discipline, whether monofinning, no fins, or free immersion, found marked differences in body type, shape, height, strength, flexibility, all with areas that were naturally strong and areas that needed work. And yet, we are still all good freedivers.
I think fitness, and ability, come in many shapes and sizes. Do we need to be super fit yoga types with superior muscle definition to be good freedivers? No. We just need to be us.
For the record, I stopped by Decathlon on the way to my pool session tonight, and picked up a brand new, cheap, and fitting pool suit. Whether I look the part or not, my name is Kate and I am a competitive freediver. I’ll see you at the Great Northern.