30 Minutes With... Sara Campbell Freediving World record holder
Reknowned as much for the strength of her Yoga practise as her multiple world records, Sara Campbell has already well and truly earned her place in the freediving hall of fame. Here she talks to Freedive-Earth about the emotional and spiritual journey that it took to get her there, the role of competition in a spiritual approach to freediving, feminism, vegetarianism, and a camel called Welma.
We’ve published a few interviews in this style in the short history of Freedive-Earth, and this is the first to feature a woman. Is freediving an equal opportunities sport?
Haha, nice opener. I don’t think ‘equal opportunities’ is the right term – financial rewards are often implied when we talk about equal opportunities between the sexes and we know there’s no money in freediving, for anyone! ☺ But, to be serious, freediving, certainly at the stage the sport finds itself now, is fascinating because there are still so many different approaches among the top athletes; some of the men achieve their results through physical strength and extremely hard and disciplined training, while others take a more relaxed, gentle approach and are also counted in the top 10 in the world. So, I don’t believe that women have any disadvantages in this sport as opposed to men, but of course our depths and times are less – and, as I believe strength is not necessarily the deciding factor in being a great freediver, I do wonder whether this is just a question of what we BELIEVE to be possible, and as women are always out-performed by men in sports, therefore allow this to be the case in freediving also.
These beliefs are held to be truths until they are broken – think about the 4-minute mile, or diving below 50m back in Mayol and Majorca’s time.
What message would you like to give to female freedivers out there?
We have so many strengths, whether we are talking about freediving or not, but very often we believe that we have to work to our more masculine side (adrenalin, pushing for results, more aggressive than we perhaps naturally are) and forget to nourish the feminine aspects in ourselves. If we are talking about freediving (and actually this doesn’t apply only to women, but to all freedivers), often the motto ‘less is more’ can be such an important one to remember. Over-training is a very real issue in our sport, resulting in plateaus in training at best, squeezes and black-outs at worst. Taking a healthy, measured approach to diving, one which focuses on the joys of the experience rather than pushing always for numbers and goals, can help us to progress in a safe and healthy way – and actually more rapidly than if we are over-trained or out of the water for weeks or longer with persistent squeeze injuries.
Women certainly need to give their bodies plenty of time to rest and recover from training, go with the flow and enjoy the elegance and grace of the sport which really are two qualities which all of us should be nurturing, rather than trying to become tough, six-pack athletes in line with our male counterparts.
Your 96m constant weight still stands as one of the deepest dives of all time by a woman without a sled, what did it take to get you down there?
A good monofin and a great pair of lungs! ☺ Actually the 96m WR doesn’t stand out for me as one of my best dives. I achieved it in 2009 less than a year after my mum died. I would say that that dive took everything from me and more. I was really pushing myself to return to the sport after by far the hardest year of my life, and looking back, I really wasn’t ready mentally to be doing those deep dives. 96m was tough and of course I blacked out twice attempting to be the first woman in the world to 100m. If I could go back, I would take more time off after my mum’s death and allow myself to grieve and ‘just be’, rather than pushing myself to get back into the competitive circuit.
Of course that’s easy to say with hindsight; the reality was that I had sponsors who’d been waiting for me to repeat my first three world records from 2007 and I felt immense pressure to deliver what they needed – more world records and publicity. Neither of which are good foundations for making good dives. My 104m dive was a completely different story, and one which speaks volumes about how we SHOULD approach the sport.
Do you like static apnoea?
Not really. I never really enjoyed the pool disciplines and I think there are a number of reasons; firstly I have the Blue Hole on my doorstep so why on earth would I want to go to a pool!?!? Also, I don’t experience any urge to breathe on deep dives, I don’t get contractions, whereas in the pool, I still don’t get contractions, but I have a fairly strong and unpleasant burning sensation in my solar plexus. I guess I’m just a bit of a pussy. And I like deep diving too much.
What obstacles have you had to overcome on your way to the very top -or should I say bottom - of the sport?
Well back in 2007 when I set my first three world records, having just nine months of experience under my belt, I think I can safely say, I didn’t experience any obstacles at all. They came later. Certainly making those surprise first records brought a lot of joy, but also a lot of confusion and emotional mess. A lot of ego, I guess. There was so much speculation over what I would achieve next, having set those first three so easily and quickly, and of course that was hard to deal with mentally. I didn’t have a coach or trainer, I was doing it all on my own, and I remember coming back to training in early 2008 and absolutely hating it, wishing that I didn’t have to be doing this again, proving myself, and putting myself under such pressure to dive even deeper. That’s when my mum died, and of course I was haunted by the ‘be careful what you wish for’ message – but it meant that I was out of training and competition for a while.
I’ve already mentioned the journey to 96m which wasn’t fun, and the two 100m BOs – while this was a tough year, it was an important learning experience. I decided to again take a year off – or I should probably say that my body decided for me after I experienced a complete break-down in early 2010 and I went off to India and Nepal to slowly put myself back together again. I really had reached a very dark and difficult place personally, emotionally (a rather nasty and unhealthy relationship was also a major contributing factor – it’s scary the things we do when we’re weak and vulnerable) but taking that time out was crucial for me to change direction and start again.
That's exactly what I did in early 2011 when I returned to a solid daily personal practice in my yoga, and make the life-changing decision that I would dive for joy, and joy alone. I remembered how happy and connected freediving used to make me, and I made a very solemn promise to myself, not to dive for depth, numbers, records or titles, but to dive for joy. If I found myself feeling pressure or stress, I promised myself that I would either transform it into curiosity and joy, or I would simply not dive. This approach throughout 2011 is what took me all the way to 104m in the most relaxed, happy, and blissful way.
You were diving very deep within just a year of starting, have you ever injured yourself whilst freediving?
Thankfully not, and I really believe that's because I have always dived in line with my yoga practice: it’s about self-love, exploration, and joy, not about numbers and records, and that's how I’ve managed to stay healthy and away from any need to push myself beyond any natural adaptive process of my body – or my mind for that matter. After all, it’s all part of the same thing!
You've mentioned the 104m CWT dive which you did in training, 2m deeper than the current world record. There's a video of that dive on Youtube and you surface looking more like you’ve come up from 40m than 104. Is competition integral to the sport of freediving, or an unpleasant distraction?
I think competition is a fascinating aspect of the sport, but it is a bit of a paradox at the same time. How can we train and aim for success, when really the crucial element in gaining that success is being able to step away from needing it. It’s one of the toughest lessons we can learn through freediving. I’ve been sad to see the increasing incidence of squeezes in the sport since I started – there really were hardly any in big competitions back in 2007 when I started and now there are considered a minor but almost necessary frustration by far too many freedivers. Competition and the perceived glory of records - national or world - certainly contributes to this attitude of pushing beyond limits and ignoring the very clear signals that our bodies give us that we’ve gone too far, and need to take time out to rest, recover, regroup and maybe even retire. However, it is also this striving that is a key characteristic of mankind to explore and further our understanding of what in fact is possible for us as a race.
Maybe without the dynamics of competition, the deepest dives would be much shallower and our understanding of our capacity as aquatic mammals drastically reduced, who knows. Also the energy, atmosphere, and buzz around competitions is really unique. The feeling of being part of a big, wonderful, slightly wacky family is one of the best things about competitive freediving. Seeing the different personalities, the politics and game-playing of the top countries at team events, and even the less attractive side of back-stabbing within teams and between athletes, can be fun as long as you’re not part of it. And of course the parties…. Where would we be without the parties… ? Haha! But certainly, I see competition as adding a huge layer of complexity to the mental aspect of freediving – we are already challenging ourselves, challenging our beliefs about what we think is possible.
You’ve been out of competition for a number of years now, any plans to return?
The big question, right?! I get asked so many times when I will return. For me the 104m dive was a very personal journey, recovering from the grief, darkness of depression, and finding myself again. I had no intention of making it ‘official’ (after all, really, what does that mean?) and was very happy to draw a line under my deep explorations – at least for the time being. Some people know that I suffer from a disease called ulcerative colitis and my symptoms always got a lot worse when I was training deep. So, I realized, in the spirit of self-love that is yoga and freediving, that perhaps deep dives aren’t my best expression of self-love for me right now.
Plus I feel really passionate about sharing all that these amazing experiences – the good and the challenging – have taught me, and I’ve been putting a LOT of energy into creating my own coaching system and sharing this with students through workshops and training camps. Plus something VERY big, which is going to be announced very soon. So I certainly don’t feel that I’ve been sitting on my laurels in retirement since the 104. Rather I have a big bubble of creative energy inside of me which has been pushing me onwards and is about to burst into the world!
You’re known affectionately in the freediving community as “Mighty Mouse”. Is your small size an advantage to you or does it hold you back? We’ve just heard from Miguel Lozano about some of the advantages of being very large…
Haha! I tried to find this on your site, but couldn’t so you’ll have to enlighten me on those advantages, other than being able to stash your hand luggage in the overhead lockers on a plane all by yourself ☺ I’ve taught alongside him before and confused a lot of students with our conflicting views – he drinks and smokes and is more laid back than pretty much anyone I know. We agree on the relaxation thing, but our paths to achieving it are drastically different – mine involves a disciplined yoga and meditation practice, and a surrender to some kind of higher power in my dives.
Having said that, from a purely physical perspective, I think most people agree that long, thin objects (ie tall skinny men) are hydrodynamically more effective. As Herbert so politely said in an interview in 2007 ‘she really doesn’t have an athletic body’, I’m short and not always that thin either, but there was no denying the fact that I went from beginner to having three world records with only nine months training. I believe the deciding factor for me, was not necessarily my size, but my mental training through my yoga practice. This helped my body to adapt more effectively and without injury.
Flexibility is a key factor, and women are naturally more flexible (part of our potential role as childbearers at some stage) so we definitely have an advantage over tall, skinny, often stiff men ☺ and of course my yoga practice has helped to increase that further. In addition although my lungs are a paltry 3.7l, I believe that it is less about lung volume itself, and more about the ratio of lung volume to muscle mass, and also the other ‘unknown’ factors of the sport such as how we metabolise O2 and CO2. So being ‘not particularly athletic’ could actually be an advantage in that lower muscle mass, means a better ratio for slower O2 consumption.
So in short, there are pros and cons and I certainly don’t believe size itself to be even close to the most important deciding factors in the physiology of great freedivers.
How important is yoga to your freediving, and to your way of life? How much is it a spiritual thing for you?
For me, yoga IS freediving, freediving IS yoga. And freediving and yoga are life! They can’t be separated. Certainly the yoga really supports the freediving, and understanding of yogic philosophy and some of the deeper concepts about how we can apply yoga to our daily lives, have been crucial for me to take some of the big important steps I took in the water. I also try as much as possible to apply these in my day to day challenges, of work, relationships, communication, time-management. Trust and surrender were really the two key words that resounded for me again and again in my deep dives, and of course being able to let go, not over-control, micro-manage ourselves or our loved ones, trust that everything will be OK, not grasping for money, but living for joy and satisfaction – these are all things that I can directly apply from my freediving, with sometimes greater or lesser success, I must admit!
I find it funny to be asked how much a spiritual thing freediving is for me – it’s like asking how important breathing is to living. They are slightly different, but equate to the same thing. There is a quote from Yogi Bhajan, the Master of Kundalini Yoga, which I teach and practice, that goes,
“ We’re not human beings looking for a spiritual experience, we are spirits having a human experience.”
I love how simply that one sentence can turn our understanding of the fundamental nature of who and what we are in this life, completely inside out and on its head. The core to any spiritual practice is to remember that we are more than just the physical body, we are the microcosm of the macrocosm, there are universes and worlds within us, we are walking miracles every second of our lives, and we are God.
Hmmm, it’s a big concept, but one that I found much easier to understand through freediving, and one that I teach as it is so profoundly important to all that we do, and once someone is hooked on freediving, they have far better direct access to experiencing these truths, beyond the intellectual concept of ‘spirituality’ – they can actually feel it within their own body, which is why I love teaching freediving the way I do.
It’s so much richer than technique, time and depth. It’s about personal growth and enlightenment! Wow!
So how often do you encounter something spiritual in your diving?
All the time. The ocean is the perfect environment for spiritual practice because there has to be complete and utter honesty. When we are on breathhold we can’t bullshit our way out of our neuroses, our insecurities, our fears, our self-doubt – they all come flooding to the surface, where we can finally look at them in a way we rarely are able to in daily life, even in yoga practice. When we ‘get’ the principles of freediving as a spiritual path, we see that diving is the physical manifestation of Oneness – we literally allow ourselves to be absorbed into the ocean, we allow that embrace of the Divine, rather than fearing, resisting, running away from this beauty.
We step into it and can truly let go of all the day to day crap that holds us back and weighs us down.
You’re known as a Kundalini yoga teacher, does your practise mean you can get away with hyperventilation?
Well, yes we do use strong breathing techniques (pranayama) in Kundalini Yoga and I know that my practice has changed the physiology of my own breathing – I can hyperventilate and not experience any of the symptoms of dizziness or tingling until far, FAR later than most people (I have to really breathe like a complete nutter if I want to get those sensations anymore!). This doesn’t mean that I hyperventilate around my dives. I use hyperventilation as part of my dry warm-up and training as it is the most effective way to cleanse the blood, and strengthen the diaphragm and breathing muscles. But my pre-dive breathe-up is much gentler, although I must admit, compared to other divers, it still may look like hyperventilation, but for my body, it is simply long deep breathing.
You now run a successful freediving and yoga business in Dahab, feature prominently in a variety of different media and promote yourself as a freediving personality all over the world. How much have you had to be the hard-nosed businesswoman in order to make a living from freediving?
I don’t like to think of myself as a hard-nosed anything, thank you very much! I have been extremely fortunate in that my pathway to the top was pretty unusual and so the interest has been generated more or less on its own. If I write an article, it’s pretty easy to place it, and as I am really focusing on the spiritual side of freediving, including how to manage the mind, this kind of gives me a nice niche which very few other instructors or schools are addressing. Having worked in PR before coming to freediving, I have used some of my previous skills to help me with the awareness side of what I do, but I have to say, it is exhausting to be both teaching, developing these techniques and philosophies into a structured programme, and handling the marketing.
I have good days and less good days – and weeks and months! Ideally I would find someone who can come on board with me and handle the management and marketing of the business so that I can focus more on the creative aspects and the actual teaching. But that’s in an ideal world…. Let’s see who reads this ☺
Why are you a vegetarian? How important is it for freediving and/or for your yoga practise?
I have gone through various phases of vegetarianism, starting with a fairly uninformed decision at the age of 13 which resulted in years of insufficient and imbalanced diet, which combined with stress in my 20s, leading to diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. Since then I have gone back to eating meat and fish (organic only) at various phases. A few years ago I read ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer (author of Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud, and Everything is Illuminated – both now movies) and it was this that switched me to what I believe is now my current and permanent state of vegetarianism – I simply cannot condone or be a part of the hideous cruelty of the commercial farming industry.
I was also vegan for a while, for the same reason, but it doesn’t work for me, so I also eat a small amount of goats milk products. With regard to yoga and freediving, on the yogic side it remains an ethical decision; as the ‘highest’ beings on this planet we have a responsibility to care for all other beings, including the plants. It is not our God-given right to destroy, abuse, manipulate, cage, commercially farm, kill, or eat animals. We may have intellect, but with that comes a huge responsibility to use it wisely – sadly one of our biggest failings as human beings since the industrial revolution began, and probably even earlier.
With regard to freediving and the body, I don’t believe in forcing my views on anybody. There are some people who find that they simply can’t function to a normal level, especially when training, if they don’t have meat and/or fish. There are others who find that meat slows them down mentally and physically. So we each need to get to know our bodies – and to do this, it is important that we experiment with different diets. For me and my training, a vegetarian, tending towards vegan, diet seems to work best, also for my health. Although back in 2007 when I was training intensely, I found that I was craving protein over and above what vegetarian sources could provide so I added some fish or chicken on training days.
The whole lactic acid, alkaline diet thing is important, but it does not stand alone in being important for performance. Of course we should all try and cut out the processed, toxic elements of our diets; sugar, caffeine, chemicals such as colourings, flavourings and preservatives. Ultimately our bodies have been designed to digest food, which Nature already provides. We kid ourselves if we think we can improve on this through manmade substances – although in the modern world it does take time, effort and awareness to create a fully nutritious, organic, plant-based diet. But it’s possible if we make it our priority!
What’s it like living in Egypt?
I love Egypt! I came here for a week back in 2004 and on day three, I was horseriding along the beach to the Blue Hole and I heard a voice inside me say ‘You’re home’. I trusted this voice as my intuition, my spirit guiding me, and decided to go with it, even though I had no idea where it was leading me. At the time I didn’t even know what freediving was! I made a conscious decision NOT to write long lists with reasons for and against making the move – I decided to truly trust and jump into the unknown. After all, I realised the absolutely worst thing that could happen to me, was that I return to my flat in London, The next worst, was I find somewhere else to live, such as Spain, Australia, Asia… pretty much any other wonderful, warm, sunny place by the sea, and try again. There really was nothing to lose, and when you learn to trust your intuition, as much as it might feel scary to jump completely into the unknown, you learn that it’s always going to take you somewhere amazing.
For me it lead me to the depths of the Red Sea, to a place of deep understanding about some profound spiritual truths, and a new path in life, teaching, and sharing. It always takes us way beyond anything we could have planned or imagined! Over the past 11 years (yes, it’s been that long!) there have been plenty of ups and downs; bombs, shark attacks, revolutions, counter-revolutions, travel warnings and a whole load of complete and utter bullshit in the media, which makes it hugely challenging to run trainings and programmes here. But more people realise that 90% of what appears in the media is bollocks and they still come, if they can.
But I really love this country, the sea, the desert, the people, the weather… There is a magic to this part of the world that I haven’t found elsewhere. I don’t know if I’m here forever, but it’s certainly home for me for now.
Is it difficult politically? As a woman? As a non-muslim?
I haven’t found that my sex or spiritual beliefs count against me in any way living here. It might be different if I were living in Cairo or a more conservative part of the country, and working within a less touristy environment, but here in Dahab, the locals accept that pretty much anything goes, and they are extremely accommodating of our foreign quirks, lifestyle and religious/spiritual beliefs.
Ever ridden a camel?
Ridden one? I used to own one!!! Her name was Welma and she really was a cutie! Quite a handful as she was young and not fully trained, but we had lots of fun together, much of which involved her running away from me when I took her for walks, and having to be brought back by the local Bedouin kids who found her wandering around Assalah village. She had a penchant for mushy strawberries, which made her look like she had lipstick on, and with her long eyelashes, she really was a bit of a beauty! I didn’t own her as such, she came with the first house I rented, and it broke my heart to leave her behind when I left.
Sara Campbell is a former World Record Holder in Constant Weight (96m), Free Immersion (81m) and No-Fins (54m) She currently lives, trains and teaches in Dahab, Egypt. Freedive Earth is proud to support her new freediving and yoga education program at Discover Your Depths:
Photo by Jacques de Vos