Claire Walsh can hold her breath for just under six minutes and has free-dived to 60 metres. So how did a former puppeteer from Leixlip end up competing in one of the most dangerous sports on the planet? Colm O’Connor finds out.
Claire Walsh must have an impressive collection of business cards.
She laughs as she plots a line through the varied career path she has taken since her childhood days growing up in (landlocked) Leixlip, Kildare.
“I’ve a background in theatre, a masters in movement, I worked as a puppeteer for years (with Lambert Theatre), I was a singing coach, a voice coach, and a performer.”
She is still performing in front of large crowds, only the stage has changed — and changed dramatically.
Five years ago she added freediving or “the sport of holding your breath in water” to her repertoire and since then has spent more time in the oceans than treading the boards of dusty old theatres.
A chance encounter while travelling in Belize in 2015 literally changed her life. “I was snorkeling when a couple of lads I was with kicked down from the surface and swam into a cave and came out the other side. I thought that this was the coolest thing in the world so naturally I tried to do it myself but my ears stopped me immediately because of the pressure.
“Later that evening, I asked them what they had been doing and they told me about freediving. I looked up a beginners’ course and got myself over to the island of Utila (off Honduras) and started a course there and then went straight onto the advanced section. I spent a few weeks diving and came back the following year to do more and then the year after that I stayed for nine months!”
She was a natural: “It just seemed like something that I could do. Since childhood I have always been comfortable in the water. I remember snorkeling in the Galapagos and I saw some of the locals freedive. And it was the closest thing to a merman that I had seen in my life. It was incredible to see how they moved in the water — they have been doing this all their lives — but it just blew me away. From the first time I saw it I wanted to learn more.
“When you are in travelling mode you are more open to trying new things — zip lining, paragliding and so on — all the stuff that I would never do here at home. Freediving was just something else to try while I was away. I thought it would stay that way, that it would be something you did on your travels and that would be the end of it. I tried to give it up when I came home but it hasn’t really worked out like that.”
Most holiday romances fizzle out once the humdrum of home life returns. Walsh never found that. If anything the passion increased.
“After I came back from that holiday I began going to the pool because there are disciplines that you can do in the pool which are helpful for freediving.
“The following summer I went away again and I came back home in September 2016. And that is when I started to put plans in place to spend much more time freediving.”
She would spend the majority of 2017 abroad as our water isn’t conducive to depth training. “It is perfect for kicking around and snorkeling and there are some great spots out west but we don’t have as big a freediving community as in other parts of the world.
“Doing it with people who are experienced who know what they are doing, is really important. When I am in Ireland I really, really miss it -freediving) but I’m in the ocean five times a week all year round, to maintain that connection to the water.”
Three years ago Walsh returned home to join in her mother Joyce’s birthday celebrations. Her love of the water certainly isn’t on the maternal bloodline and none of her family were fully aware of her new lifestyle choice, and its inherent dangers.
“Mum doesn’t swim, she hates the water, she tries to avoid getting her face wet in the shower!
At the time I had been scuba diving and she just accepted this adventure as ‘something that Claire does’. She tries not to think about it too much. So when I told her I was freediving the response was along the lines of ‘oh great, you don’t have to pay for your scuba anymore!’
“But funnily around the same time there was an interview on the radio with Feargus Callagy who is another Irish diver who operates out of Mullaghmore -check out freediveireland.com). He was talking about freediving and explaining it to listeners. The timing was quite coincidental so she texted me going ‘hang on a second, I’ve just learned what freediving is!’
“But my parents and the rest of my family are absolutely super. They are used to me coming up with different projects that maybe are a little bit outside the box but they always get on board and row in behind me.”
This departure has taken ‘outside the box’ to a different postcode. So what exactly does their daughter do? The sport is divided into a number of disciplines and sub categories. Walsh attempts to break it down to its component parts. “There is a pool discipline called static apnea where you are lying still on the surface of the water and your airways — your mouth and nose — are submerged. That is measured in time — that is the longest breath hold that you will have. Then there are the depth disciplines and these are measured in metres below the surface. I mainly compete in depth — I love depth — I think a lot of divers prefer open water. It is all about the Big Blue.”
SLIPPING WITHOUT FALLING
Johanna: What’s it feel like when you dive?
Jacques: It’s a feeling of slipping without falling. The hardest thing is when you’re at the bottom.
Jacques: ‘Cause you have to find a good reason to come back up... and I have a hard time finding one.
- 1988 movie: The Big Blue (Le Grand Bleu).
Yes, Claire Walsh has seen The Big Blue, the Luc Besson cult classic that charts the rivalry between Enzo and Jacques, two free divers.
No, it didn’t inspire her to take up the sport but she admits it still resonates with her 32 years since it first screened. (Indeed the sports governing body, the International Association for the Development of Apnea, was created in 1992, partially due to the enormous interest in freediving and many record attempts which were attempted following the film’s release).
The film is a masterful piece of cinematography but despite the beauty of the backdrops of Greece, Sicily and the Virgin Islands, the danger of the sport is a lurking undercurrent throughout. Walsh knows the risks — more than most — but insists that she is comfortable with what she does.
“I was only talking to my flatmate last week — he is a diver — and he said that he wants to get a motorbike. And I said ‘are you cracked, that is so dangerous’ And he just looked at me and went ‘you freedive!’ But I think that freediving is safe and there are rules to the sport.
There is obviously an inherent danger, you are holding your breath under water. A lot can go wrong. It is supposedly the second most dangerous sport in the world — I don’t know what the first is but I find it hard to think about it like that because my experience of freediving is so serene and calming. Much of what you have to do to get in the water is about mindfulness, relaxation, meditation, awareness. All of these don’t match an idea of extreme.
“I suppose when you go to the other end of it being a competitive sport and certainly when you witness some competitions, you can see how extreme it is.
“But the primary rule is to never dive alone. And we would be pretty strict on that. I would take it a step further and say you should only dive with someone you know, who knows you and has a similar level of experience — if not higher — and knows what to do if something happens.”
Much of the training and preparation is done away from the water: “A lot of it is mediation, mobility, other people will have different routines like visualisation practices, journaling, stretching, lung stretches, practicing holding your breath, all of these kinds of things feed into what happens in the water. So you need to get all these techniques down before you start trying them underwater.”
Four years after taking up the sport, Walsh represented Ireland in the world freediving championships in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a short spin from Nice.
She was the first person from Ireland to compete at the championships. Walsh competed in three disciplines: constant weight, constant weight without fins and free immersion. “I wasn’t particularly nervous, I was quite emotional as there were a lot of people supporting me. Randomly there were a few Irish people in Nice on their holidays and they had seen that this was happening and as Irish people do they really rode in to support me. I found that really overwhelming. Incredible but overwhelming. The conditions weren’t super and a combination of nerves, overthinking, the conditions got the best of me and I ended up having a small blackout at the end of my first dive in the constant weight without fins competition.
“The word blackout doesn’t have positive connotations in any context but it is part of the sport. But there are such tight safety procedures, it happened on the surface, it was a couple of seconds. But yes it was a really difficult one.”
Walsh remains incredibly matter of fact, removing emotion from the experience. She talks through what happened as if analysing the raw footage of the incident with the clarity and directness of a forensic scientist.
“I remember coming up and I was 10 metres from the surface. There was a safety diver in front of me. I remember angling my body so that I would come up in the right position. And then I don’t remember anything else. I have seen the video. I just come up to the surface.”
What is it like to blackout nearly 30 feet underwater? Not as frightening as you’d imagine.
“Did you ever fall asleep on a bus or on public transport? You know the way you just nod your head down and then jerk back awake. It was like that. There is no moment of me going ‘I’m conscious and now I am not conscious’. It was just a kind of melting into unconsciousness.
I don’t remember it happening. The last thing I remember is looking up and seeing the platform and the surface. The next thing I remember was a French man giving me a kiss actually! He was helping to resuscitate me, bringing me back, whatever you want to call it. I was unconscious for six or seven seconds, it wasn’t that long but my memory around it is a bit fuzzy.
The blackout came as she completed a 30m dive. That equates to 98.4252 feet. “That was relatively shallow for that discipline,” she shrugs with a tone of disappointment you’d get from a sportperson who got injured in a warmup.
Walsh was checked over in the medical boat and was put on oxygen. All her vitals came back normal and she was given a clean bill of health. She returned to shore and warm embraces of her family who had watched the drama play out like a slow motion car crash.
Then a strange thing happened.
Walsh’s dive was being shown again on delay and her family and new found supporters huddled over as if watching a World Cup penalty shootout.
“My dive came on, and other athletes came over to watch it and if goodwill could have changed the outcome it would have. It was just hilarious.
“Everyone was shouting ‘Come on Claire, Come on Claire’ and I’m going ‘We all know what happens here! Spoiler alert!’ But it was just incredible the good feeling of everyone, it was just so Irish, it was terrific when you compared it to the other pockets of people who were just calmly observing what was happening. So that was one of my favourite moments.”
Walsh set Irish national records in Nice but only mentions them in passing. That buzz was shortlived from that Sunday evening in the French sunshine. Walsh was due to dive again on Tuesday but weather conditions grew progressively worse and organisers were forced to cancel competition for 48 hours and push it back to Thursday. Those minutes, hours, days, were difficult.
“I needed to get back on the horse. I had more time to build it up and had a fear that it would happen again. I was scared it would happen again. I ended up going for a really easy dive in a different discipline and it was great. The video at the end is just a demonstration of pure relief. Pure relief. It meant that I could go into my next dive with plenty of confidence. I don’t think that confidence was ever a factor. It was more a case of what will be, will be. It is easy now to ressaure myself, the third dive was easy but your headspace is such an important part of what you do underwater. I was just glad to be done.”
That is not to say the chapter is fully closed: “I haven’t done that discipline since. My plan for 2020 was to really put that demon to rest. It is called no fins and you are propelling yourself down using a variation of breaststroke. The plan was to make that my complete comfort zone — and I will still do it.”
Walsh is still unsure what happened that caused such a serious outcome: “I was well prepared. I was really conservative in terms of the dive, it was relatively shallow.
“The whole thing was to give myself a nice experience to kick off the competition and put my nerves at ease. And that did not happen.”
Walsh returned home from those World Championships and let her hair down after three months of intense training and competition.
A family wedding was the perfect release valve.
“The day after the wedding, a little bit worse for wear I admit, I decided that I wasn’t done for the year. The World Championships had been so stressful, I hadn’t done what I hoped to do so I booked a place in a competition -the Infinity Depth Games) in Cyprus in October and then headed off two days later to go train for that. That event was a really nice palette cleanser. I became a lot more comfortable in competition and that was my goal to build up more experience competing because it is totally different than just diving for yourself. So I did five competition dives in Cyprus and set some more Irish national records. I had a much nicer experience. It was really great to end the season like that.”
Walsh now holds three of the four Irish depth records. Her deepest dive is 60m -her best in competition is 50 metres). On such dives she is under the water for close to two minutes.
But she can hold her breath for a lot longer.
“Five minutes 59 seconds,” she admits when I finally pluck up the courage to ask the most personal of questions of a freediver. “It is a bit mad!”
That is four seconds longer than the entirety of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. “I hang out and train with freedivers who are way out of my league. Those are the big shots.
“I am used to being with them and being the baby of the group. My numbers are always so much lower than any of those guys so I am kind of used to that. But saying you can hold your breath for six minutes is pretty incredible. The world record for a woman is nine minutes and two seconds. I’ve watched the video of that dive and it is just mind blowing. She lifts her head up after holding her breath for nine minutes and two seconds like it was nothing. That, I think, is incredible.
“I am comfortable in the water. I’ve done a lot of signing over the years so I have a good awareness of my breath, where I can carry tension in terms of jaw, neck and so on. It makes a huge difference. When I did my first breath hold I got to 4:07 which is really, really good for a beginner. But then I plateaued for a long time, and in fact I went backwards to three and two minutes. All the singing and speech and drama that I did since I was five years old has carried on and helps now. The way I equalise my ears is a little different as well which is an advantage.
“What I love about freediving and teaching people how to hold their breath is that they invariably surprise themselves. It isn’t about genetics. It is really a mental game, reflective of where you are in your own headspace, how comfortable you are with dealing with discomfort. It is something that can be developed.”
And now she is helping people from all walks of life learn and discover how breath hold and its key components — breathing techniques, relaxation and mental strategy — can improve wellness and enhance performance.
“I have that diverse background and when I tell people this they go ‘What?’
“There has been a true line and that is the breath. I’ve bought together a lot of my skills because there are crossovers — I teach freediving techniques to singers and I teach singing to freedivers. There is such a focus on wellness now and the breath techniques that I am offering is another way into that. I am coming at it from a different perspective and am getting a very good response. You’ve heard the encouragement to just take a deep breath and that is great advice — but we need to know how to do that and how to breathe efficiently.”