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Meet the freedivers

Ahead of the AIDA world championship in Kalamata, Greece, we meet some of the world’s best freedivers

Meet the freedivers

Text by Rebecca Marshall

Frenchman Frédéric Sessa (main image), 28, has been the French champion in dynamic apnea (shallow underwater distance swimming, usually in a 50m pool) since 2009, with a current record of 255m. His grandfather was a diver and underwater fisherman; when he died, 12-year-old Frédéric took up the hobby, learning to hold his breath underwater in order to catch sea bream with a harpoon. “I see my grandfather in the water when I dive, rather than up in the sky,” he says. “Being in the water brings me closer to him.”

American Ashley Futral Chapman, 30, briefly held the female world record in the “constant weight without fins” category, diving to 67m on a single breath late last year (it was beaten by Natalia Molchanova, right). “When we’re diving, we’re almost weightless,” she says. “In normal life, gravity pulls you down. In the water, that tension disappears. The focus forces you to think about nothing – I find complete silence in my brain.”

Jesper Stechmann, 45, is one of Denmark’s top freedivers, with a number of national records – including 229m in the dynamic apnea. Panic attacks caused him to quit in 2001, but he came back two years later after counselling. “It feels like dying when you are holding your breath,” he says. “You have to really want to be able to lose control. You have no senses: no vision (I close my eyes), no hearing, no sense of smell, nothing.”

Russian Natalia Molchanova, 51, is the most successful female freediver ever, boasting 17 individual gold medals and 38 world records. She didn’t start until the age of 40, when the last of her children left home. One of them is Alexey Molchanov (below left) – on 6 June 2012, they became the first mother and son in any sport to break world records on the same day. “I feel at one with the world when I dive,” she says.

Russian Alexey Molchanov, 26, son of Natalie Molchanova (see above), is the first human ever to have dived deeper than 125m unaided. “A normal person sees it as unpleasant not being able to breathe,” he says. “But if you change your perspective and step away from the discomfort of the urge to breathe, you can see the beauty of it. You can enjoy the feeling of your body working on a whole different level.”

Saana Partinen, 39, is the Finnish champion in dynamic apnea (shallow water distance swimming), with a top distance of 182m. She has been partially deaf since birth, which means she can’t dive to any depths beyond shallow water. “In life there is so much noise,” she says. “People talking, music everywhere, all the time. The silence underwater is a relief. Underwater I am equal to others.”

Hirose Hanako, 32, is a core member of Japan’s world champion women’s freediving team. She grew up on Mikura-jima, a tiny volcanic island in the Philippine Sea, where she swam with wild dolphins. She says simply, “In the water I’m free.”

15-22 September; aidaworldchampionships.com


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