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Ask most people what freediving is, and the chances are they will say it's probably a leap from either a plane or a cliff. Wrong!
Freediving, in the words of Red Fisher, one of Israel's premier freedivers, "is one of the most extreme of all the extreme sports."
This exhilarating activity of diving deep into the sea with only the air in one's lungs predates parachuting and skydiving by millennia, as early man dived to gather seashells and marine animals for survival.
The in joke is that competitive freediving is reserved for those whose brain had been deprived of oxygen a bit too long. Freedivers are subject to many risks, including drowning, shallow-water blackout (SWB), sinus injuries and shark attacks. The most common risk, SWB, is caused by a dramatic reduction in the partial pressure of oxygen during an ascent, leading to hypoxia. As a result, the freediver experiences unconsciousness.
If there are no indicators to predict the onset of SWB, there are clear indicators in recognizing a person wanting to take on freediving - a risk-taker with a passion for the sea, for depth, a love of solitude and possibly a disposition for defying common sense. In short, someone with abundant guts.
Fisher, a former South African and today a diving instructor in Eilat, was a prime candidate. In November he broke the Israeli record in the Unassisted/Fixed Weights No Fins category at an international competition in Dahab.
Ranked among the top eight in the world, the 29-year-old Fisher dived to a depth of 50 meters, smashing the previous local record of 43 meters. The world record for men in this category is 80 meters.
So how big a deal is this?
"Find a building that is 60 meters high. Each floor is on average three meters, so you're looking at a 20-story building. While looking up, imagine having to dive down that distance, using only body propulsion, and then ascending to the surface on only one lungful of air," explains Fisher.
At present, Fisher can hold his breath under water for five minutes and 30 seconds.
As an extreme sport, it follows that freediving attracts extreme individuals. Fisher admits to being "an adrenalin junkie," getting high on going low.
"It's a total rush being surrounded by thousands of tons of water. I don't go down to look at fish or coral. It's the solitude and knowing that I can do something that few other people in the world can."
Where does Fisher want to go with the sport?
"I want to be the deepest freediver in the world."
He laments, however, that his chances are slim, although not through any lack of ability, confidence or determination.
"He has all three," says proud father Colin, who reveals that he burst into tears upon hearing that his son had broken the Israeli record. "After all, he went to Dahab mainly for the experience and returned with the record."
Fisher believes he can be one the greats in the sport, and this is what drives him. "But I also have to work and earn a living. The deepest freedivers in the world today are sponsored, allowing them to focus full time on the sport. These guys are going down every day of their lives."
In the meantime, Fisher wants to extend his Israeli record for depth - not by a few meters but by some 20 to 30. Although there are various other categories to freediving, "it's the going deep that interests me. I thrive on pushing my limits. I have been like this since I was a kid."
Did young Fisher give his parents a rough time growing up in Richards Bay, a town on the north coast of Natal (Zululand) in South Africa? The answer is "yes, but not unexpected."
Red's parents, who now live on a moshav in northern Israel, are no less passionate about water. While his father was a commercial diver and worked for many years with the Natal Sharks Board, his mother Avlynne was a renowned swimming instructor who trained quite a few South African champions.
"His mother was still swimming three kilometers out to sea when she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with Red," chuckles Fisher senior.
As a youngster in South Africa, Fisher was a competitive swimmer, breaking many national records in his age category, "some of which I believe are still standing today," he says.
In striving to reach great depths, Fisher has set his sights on breaking the Israeli records of all the other categories of the sport. He is well on his way. Subsequent to his Dahab record, he set a new record in Dynamic Apnea, another category that requires the athlete to swim horizontally underwater as far as possible, swimming a distance of 103 meters, in Eilat. Although there are some six other categories baiting him, there may soon come a time when the only local records for him to break will be his own.
With the Red Sea offering ideal conditions for freediving, it was only a question of time for the sport to start taking off in Israel. Serious competitors do not have too far to travel. The Egyptian resort of Dahab is considered the mecca for holding international freediving competitions.
Much of the recent popularization of freediving was brought on by the 1998 film The Deep Blue. A visionary epic of obsession and beauty, the plot follows the lives of two divers who compete in the World Freediving Championships. But when the one diver falls in love, he finds himself torn between the damsel and the deep blue sea.
For Fisher, who got married in January, that is one obstacle he doesn't have to worry about. His wife, Tal, is ranked second in the women's freediving division in Israel.
Feel free - whether for pleasure or competition
In its simplest form, freediving is a low-tech alternative to scuba diving without the cumbersome and expensive equipment. Although freedivers cannot stay submerged as long as divers who have to lug along tanks and mouth regulators, they can move more quickly and freely and, with fewer bubbles, are less likely to scare away fish.
Competitive freediving, often referred to as "apnea," is generally divided into three categories - static, dynamic and depth - with male and female records recognized in each category.
Static Apnea is timed breath holding, usually attempted in a pool. The current world record for Static Apnea is held by Czech diver Martin Stepanek, who floated in a swimming pool while holding his breath for eight minutes and six seconds.
Dynamic Apnea is underwater distance swimming, also usually held in a pool.
The depth category is divided into subcategories:
Constant Weight is self-propelled maximum depth; no weights or lines are allowed. This category is further divided into with and without fins.
Free Immersion is self-propelled ascent and descent along a line and is for maximum depth.
In Variable Weight, divers use a weighted sled for descent; they ascend by pulling themselves up along a line.
No Limits competition allows the diver to descend with a weighted sled and ascend with a buoyancy control device, usually an air-filled bag with a tether. The world record for the No Limits category is held by Belgian diver Patrick Musimu, who dived to a depth of 209 meters in Dahab. This surpassed the previous record set by Loic Leferme by 38 meters, breaking the psychological barrier of 200 m.
AIDA is the Worldwide Federation for breath-hold diving. Established in 1992, it manages and oversees the recognition of records, organizes competitions, and sets the standards for the sport. (For further information, visit www.aida-international.org).
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