Imagine the abyss.
Immersed in the deep void, Cebu-born, record-breaking freediver Maria Noella “Wei” Zosa has reveled again and again in the strange calm of the single breath she brings down to the dark of the ocean whenever she competes.
Diving to depths below 100 feet requires elite skills, mental fortitude, and mastery of calmness to thwart and delay your primal need to breathe that often takes years to achieve. It’s something that Philippine national team freedivers like Zosa train as a matter of routine.
Freediving is not an extreme sport. It does not require any adrenaline.
At about 100 feet below sea level, the increasing pressure starts to bruise ribs and constrain lungs, causing enough nitrogen to dissolve in the bloodstream, for nitrogen narcosis to set in—too much nitrogen forced lulls you into stupor and sleep. There’s a constant and impending sense of dizziness spinning out of control. Basic thought processes become hard, like telling time, or making your arms move.
Yet in 2019, at the Asian Freediving Cup Competition in Panglao, Zosa posted her latest national deep dive record of 55 meters in the Discipline Constant Weight Bi-Fin (CWT-B). At around 180.4 feet, that’s about as tall as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and more than the combined elevation of the three drops of Niagara Falls (167 feet). It was a feat of training and will that surprised even her.
Zosa was also one of the freedivers featured in the recently released Netflix series Home Game. The six-time national record-holder is also currently the number one-ranked women’s freediver in the country. She will be the first to admit that the sport has a reputation as a strange and extreme activity, but really it’s far from being one of the events that could be in the X-Games.
“Freediving is not an extreme sport,” she said. “It does not require any adrenaline. We don't ‘psych’ ourselves to get into the zone. It requires us to be our calmest selves to achieve amazing and beautiful dives.”
The sport of freediving has a few simple rules, but it’s basically all about divers betting on themselves and stating the depths that they intend to reach per dive. You hold your breath at the surface. During the dive, at the depth you gambled on, tied to the dive line (a rope) is a card you must retrieve. You then turn around and go back up, decompressing slowly in exhalation as you go, wary of the phenomenon known as hypoxia (low oxygen in the brain) which results in Shallow Water Blackout—the “faint” brought on by holding your breath. Back at the surface, three judges then award you one of three cards: white (meaning, all rules have been followed), yellow (you’ve acquired some penalties), or the dreaded red card (for disqualification).
Writing from Thailand, where she’s currently based, Zosa talked to PhilSTAR L!fe about the elation and dangers of freediving.
Netflix's "Home Game" episode on freediving has put the spotlight on competitors like you. How was the experience doing the documentary?
MARIA NOELLA ZOSA: It was definitely one for the book's experience. Never thought I would be seeing myself on international TV. And yes, I loved the way they created the show, it showed the viewers a glimpse of freediving competition and some of the athletes in the country.
Being underwater on breath hold just takes you to a different dimension. Freediving is pretty much meditation; nothing else matters, not the past, not the future, it's just you, the ocean and the silence.
How did you find out about the sport and eventually get into competing?
MNZ: The first video I saw was called Free Fall by French freediving champion Guillame Nery. But I was exposed to the ocean at a very young age for two reasons: one, my grandfather owned a beach house in Danao, Cebu and we stayed there every weekend. And two, my pops is a scuba diver and me and my brothers tagged along on some of his trips. While he scuba dove, we snorkeled around or threw each other into the ocean!
I got into freediving because I simply wanted to see the underwater world without having to bring so much equipment with me and to feel free-er underwater. I fell in love with freediving so I decided to learn the sport with certified instructors. And when I learned more, I started going deep with my dives and my partner realized I was diving deeper than the current women's national records and he suggested that I give competition a try. I loved every bit of training and competing that I decided to focus on being a freediving athlete.
What was the initial pull or fascination like for you?
MNZ: Being underwater on breath hold just takes you to a different dimension (physically, emotionally, and mentally). Freediving is pretty much meditation; nothing else matters, not the past, not the future, it's just you, the ocean and the silence.
Never ever let your ego get in the way every time you dive.
Freediving is a form of meditation. It brings us to what truly matters: THE NOW. For some people, it is their stress reliever from their busy lives. Most people do not like the thought of sitting in stillness and silence for long periods of time because they are afraid of their thoughts, their emotions. Afraid to face their truth.
Did you have concerns about the dangers, like shallow water blackouts?
MNZ: Two ways to make your freediving journey safe and avoid potential accidents and injuries is to learn freediving from a certified instructor and to NEVER EVER let your EGO get in the way every time you dive.
My first black out was during my first pool competition. I underestimated pool disciplines and let my ego get in the way. I just relied on "I am strong." I basically had bad technique and my ego was so cocky that time, which led to my first black out. People think BO (black outs) are scary but our bodies are very smart. When O2 in the body runs low, the brain conserves it and shuts down the rest of the body, putting you into REM phase. And for as long as you have a buddy with you, you can easily recover.
What exactly does freediving training entail? Walk us through a typical training day.
MNZ: When I first started competing, training was just diving every single time. But as I learned more, met more experienced elite athletes, my training has changed a lot. From just diving every single day to cardio, strength, flexibility, mobility, endurance training, proper nutrition and to a lot of massage rest days. This is different for every athlete. I have different training methods for the different freediving disciplines but in whatever training I do, I always keep my yoga practice (poses, breathing exercises and meditation). I plan when I want to compete (what competition I will be joining) and months before that, I do all the training I mentioned.
Yoga compliments freediving.
You are also a yoga instructor, do the disciplines complement each other?
MSZ: Yoga compliments freediving. "Yoga unites the body and mind" and this is absolutely true. Yoga is observing. Yoga allows us to be mindful and aware. This in turn can be beneficial for freedivers because we become more aware with how to maximize our O2 consumption for longer breath holds. While staying in-tune with our inner being—this lies at the core of both yoga and freediving. When one is more aware and self-kind, this allows freedivers to understand more about relaxation and relaxation is an essential part of freediving.
Walk me through that moment at your first competition reedive. How was the experience different from non-competition dives?
MNZ: My first competition, I think was in 2017 in Panglao, Bohol. Before our official top (start of your dive), athletes were given two minutes to do their relaxation phase and I could clearly remember that, that was the most nerve-wracking two minutes of my entire life!
Always have a beginner's mind.
My competition jitters were sky high that time. But the set-up was pretty great. Total silence, the sun touching my face, the ocean was just so peaceful and calm, me on the dive line preparing for my dive, my coach by my side and the safety team around me.
Kindly take me through your routine before you go into a dive. Do you follow a personal specific ritual or just flow with how you feel at the time?
MNZ: Before a dive I ask for guidance and protection as I dive and talk to the ocean, to welcome me into its depths as I dive that day. Then I start to visualize my dive. Once I'm done visualizing, I take my full breath and do my dive. And in the dive I practice attention of de-concentration (mental technique) to stay focused with myself and the entire dive. When I am in a competition, it's pretty much the same but I listen to music (EDM, to be specific) while waiting for my official top—the time I perform.
Speaking of flow states, plenty of science research and athletic modalities tackle the human flow state as essential to achieving optimal performance. What are your thoughts on achieving this state of "flow"?
MNZ: Flow state for me is when I let go of thinking and let my body, my abilities, and capabilities take over what I am doing. It's being completely present with the current situation. In freediving, flow state happens the moment I attach my lanyard to the dive line. It is the time I surrender any judgement or fear and trust myself, my safety buddy and allow myself to immerse into the ocean's peace and calm.
What are your thoughts on developing the sport in the PH, what can practitioners and fans do to help support it and grow it?
MNZ: I'd say 90& of Filipino freedivers do it to take cool underwater photos, which we call "Awra." Freediving has exponentially grown in the Philippines over the years and in 2021, I'm happy to share that there are more local freedivers venturing into the competitive side of freediving. Freedive Panglao and Freedive Superhome are two of the many great schools in Bohol, and they’ve been organizing competitions for locals.
And tips for those trying to get into this sport for the first time and want to compete?
MNZ: Training methods and goals are different. The only thing that remains the same is mindset: "always have a beginner's mind."
(Thumbnail and banner photo from the Maria Noella “Wei” Zosa's Instagram)