S'pore hits new depths in free diving
WHEN I stopped breathing and submerged my head in the water, my world became light undulating and grains of sand shifting on pale blue tiles; the weightlessness of my limbs hanging in chlorinated water... until I began to feel the tightness against my chest.
I surfaced and exhaled, inhaled, and began to wonder, how long did I last?
Along with eight free-dive enthusiasts, I was attending a training session at the Bukit Merah Swimming Complex, where we attempted to stay underwater, fin or swim as long or as far as we could on one breath.
In the pool, there was some element of competition as divers noted times and distances covered, but free diving is not just about breaking records or going to depths unknown, as movies or videos online may have us believe.
"When I first started four years ago, people didn't even know what it was," free-dive coach Bernard Wong told My Paper. "It's more accepted as a sport now."
He loves the fact that it allows him to bond with marine life.
In his two years of teaching the sport, the former SEA Games cycling champion says he has seen a 20 to 30 per cent increase in the number of people coming to him for lessons each year.
Not all persist, but there is a pool of about 50 divers who may go on free-dive trips that he organises, he said.
Still, it is a challenge to practise the sport here. Despite being surrounded by sea, Singapore is hardly an underwater paradise.
"The problem with diving in Singapore (is), past 20m, you can't see a thing," Mr Wong, 38, who was reluctant to divulge his breath-hold record (more than six minutes) added. "It's not ideal to bring beginners out there."
So here, the group trains only in the pool. They travel to locations like Cebu and Bali for open-sea diving.
Mr Wong went to Phuket to pick up the sport, and took his instructor courses in the Philippines and Egypt.
The next step, he said, may be to start a Singapore chapter of Aida - the international association for free diving. In the future, he has hopes of forming a Singapore national team to compete in international competitions.
Another indication that the sport is picking up are records on the Aida website, which show Singapore free-dive records set at competitions in recent years.
Veterinarian Michelle Ooi, who has been free diving for three years, picked up the sport in Brisbane.
While Singapore has no official records, her dive of 22m is one of the deepest for Singapore women on Aida's website.
But the water sports enthusiast - who scuba dives, surfs and plays underwater rugby - said her unofficial personal best is 41m, and she hopes to rewrite her record soon.
For men, Jonathan Chong set a record of 52m in March while just three years ago, there were no records set by Singapore divers, according to Aida.
The world record is now more than 100m deep.
Another competitive free diver, Nuraliza Osman, 37, dived 25m in the free-immersion category at a competition in Moalboal, the Philippines, in 2012.
The lawyer and former beauty queen (Miss Universe Singapore 2002) is now based in Holland, but wants to get back to training soon, she said.
Free diving gives her "a sense of peace and oneness with the ocean", she wrote in an article for a dive magazine after the competition.
She also wrote of how the sport tests a diver's mental strength.
"It astounded me how, in this fascinating sport which tests the limitless potential of the human spirit, the mind was a far stronger determinant of how capable a free diver one would become," she wrote.
Jade Leutenegger, who was one of Ms Nuraliza's coaches, agreed.
"It's all mental, like a super power from X-men," said the Canadian, who lives in Singapore.
Ms Leutenegger, 40, was part of the Canadian national team which won the 2004 Aida free-diving world competition. She has trained more than 100 students since moving to Singapore with her husband in 2007, but rarely for competition.
In fact, not all practise it as a sport. About 30 per cent of her students treat it as a form of meditation, and some even practise it to get over their fear of water, she said.
As she described to me the feeling of diving beyond 50m, it became clear that nerves of steel are required.
Even for someone who says "water is my element", she would still get the jitters before each competitive dive.
"I would think, 'Oh my God, what am I doing?' Every time," she admitted.
The most difficult part is reaching the depth she is aiming for, because "if you look up, there is a 50m column of water on top of you", she said. But she is in love with the feeling of "being one with the ocean".
"The feeling is voluptuous, and very addictive." she added. "It's like an out-of-body experience."