story by David Thompson
Annabel Briseno’s belly emerges from the water and bulges upward as she inhales. It holds for a moment, then subsides into the sloshing sea. Again and again, it rises and falls, slowly inflating and deflating her wetsuit while she floats on her back—"breathing up" for her first dive of the day.
photos by Wayne Levin
We’re a few hundred yards offshore in Honaunau Bay, a popular Kona dive site, where Annabel and her small pod of fellow freedivers train on Sunday mornings. Last fall in this bay, with a boatload of reporters and two international judges in the water, Annabel held her breath and dolphin-kicked down to 232 feet, setting a new women’s world record for free immersion, an event where divers are allowed to pull themselves down and back up along an anchored line. Two days earlier, she broke the women’s world record for breath-holding by lying face down in a swimming pool for six minutes and twenty-one seconds.
At first, this fifty-two-year-old grandmother of five, whose competitors tend to be in their twenties and thirties, might seem a bit old for this sort of thing, but that’s hardly the case. Annabel just started competing four years ago, and she’s been winning events and breaking records ever since. Annabel finds that swimming deep underwater on a single breath of air provides her a peace of mind unlike any she finds on dry land, where she works as a family therapist. "Down there, it’s calm and peaceful," she says. "It washes away all the bad things." Her drive to hold her breath longer and push herself deeper comes from the thrill she gets out of excelling in competition. "The excitement of winning feeds the enjoyment," she says. "It’s such a rush to win at the world level."
Though she set two world records last fall, Annabel was actually attempting to set four. She’d done it unofficially in training, but during the week-long event—when it counted—a cold settled into her sinuses and hampered her performance. You can still hear her disappointment. "I had a rough week," she says. "But on the other hand, it gives me something to really work on."
For her first dive today, Annabel descends to just thirty-some feet. The catch is, she blows out all of her air before going. This exercise, called a "negative," simulates what she’ll feel on the 200-foot dive she’s warming up for, where the pressure will squeeze her full lungs to the size of baby mangoes. It also helps to rev up her "dive reflex," a phenomenon where the heart rate drops and blood vessels in the arms, legs and skin constrict to shunt blood to the heart, lungs and brain. "It’s a survival-mode thing," says Matt Briseno, Annabel’s husband and trainer. It’s also something world-class freedivers exploit to extend their stays underwater: Some have achieved heart rates as low as eight beats per minute.
Annabel lingers at about thirty feet, examining the marine life on the mooring line as she stretches her negative to a full minute. Even with her empty lungs squeezed to half their surface volume, she appears perfectly comfortable. As she lightly fans the water with the oversized monofin she wears, I think how much she resembles a real-life mermaid in a hooded wetsuit. When she surfaces, she takes a few deep breaths, then gives Matt the okay signal. He watches her closely for a few moments anyway, just to make sure she doesn’t pass out.
Shallow-water blackout—blacking out on or near the surface after a long dive—is a common experience among competitive freedivers. It occurs when an ascending diver’s expanding lungs suck too much dissolved oxygen out of the blood. Usually the diver regains consciousness within seconds. Annabel insists the experience isn’t dangerous as long as a safety diver is present. I ask about brain damage, and she explains the brain is never starved for oxygen in the short time a blackout lasts. "The general consensus is you lose more brain cells in the party after a competition," she says wryly.
Matt, a seasoned safety diver, has pulled up many a blackout victim, including his wife. Last November, Annabel blacked out during her first world-record attempt on a no-fins dive to 143 feet. Matt met her at eighty feet to accompany her to the surface and soon realized all was not well. "You could see the stress in her face," he says. Near the tail end of a long dive, a diver’s chest and shoulders can start convulsing as the lungs scream for air. Matt watched as Annabel’s convulsions kicked in too soon. "By the time we got to sixty feet, there was no doubt in my mind that she wasn’t going to make it," he recalls. Ten feet from the surface, with a violent jerk of her shoulders and a small burst of bubbles from her mouth, Annabel stopped moving. Immediately, Matt pulled heup. She came to a few seconds later, no worse for wear, but was disqualified for passing out.
I watch Annabel take a huge breath then rapidly pack in forty or more extra mouthfuls of air. She dives to sixty-five feet, where she lingers, resuming her study of mooring-line marine life. She pops back to the surface three minutes later, gives Matt the okay, then begins breathing up for the grand finale, a 200-foot trip to the bottom of the bay.
As a kid growing up in Northern California, Annabel was a strong swimmer and good breath-holder. She discovered her talent for freediving at twenty-nine, when she took up abalone hunting. Later she got into underwater hockey, discovering both the sport and her future husband. Annabel credits a few of her underwater hockey buddies with kick-starting her competitive career. "They dirty-double-dog dared me to go down 100 feet," says Annabel. Wearing her stubby hockey fins, she joined the 100-Foot Club with ease. Then her hockey buddies dared her to beat the U.S. women’s record of 165 feet set by twenty-year-old Mehgan Heaney-Grier, and Annabel’s quest to go deeper was on. "They said, ‘We bet you can beat that young girl on TV,’" Annabel recalls.
Although freediving dates to ancient times, the first international competition wasn’t held until 1998. With her eye on the 2000 world championships, Annabel decided to try out for the U.S. women’s team, only to discover that there was no U.S. women’s team. After finding an American freediver in Germany who was interested in representing the United States, Annabel recruited and rapidly trained her twenty-three-year-old daughter, Jessica, to round out the team. The U.S. women came away empty-handed that year but took silver in 2001 and gold in 2002. Along the way, Annabel set two U.S. women’s records and one U.S. overall record. As for Jessica, now a nurse in Northern California, she has what it takes to become a world champion herself, Annabel says. But, the mother laments, she doesn’t train enough.
Annabel Briseno and
her megafin at
Of all the competitive breath-holding categories, the one Annabel has nointerest in is no-limits freediving, in which a diver rides a weighted sled down a cable to extreme depths and returns to the surface holding an inflated lift bag. "To me, that’s an elevator ride," Annabel says. A celebrated American freediver named Tanya Streeter set an overall world record for no-limits in 2002 with a dive to 525 feet. Two months later, a French woman, Audrey Mestre, tried to go even deeper and died in the attempt.
Freedivers form a tight-knit community, and Mestre’s death hit the Brisenos hard. Annabel credits Mestre with helping her deal with the convulsions that kick in toward the end of a dive. "Everybody was saying, ‘Gut it out,’" Annabel recalls. "Audrey said: ‘Learn to welcome the pain. Use the energy of the ocean.’ Somehow I liked that little phrase, ‘welcome the pain.’ Pain means you’re near the finish. And when you learn to like hurting, that’s when you become a champion."
The Brisenos were present off the coast of the Dominican Republic during Mestre’s fatal plunge, and Mestre’s family made them promise to stay away from no-limits. Annabel says she has no interest in challenging Streeter’s no-limits record—though she does have her eye on some of Streeter’s other records. And she’s got the next world championships to train for; they’re coming up this August in Canada.
Visibility in Honaunau Bay today reaches about 100 feet, which is where Annabel fades from view as she cruises down the mooring line on her 200-foot dive. A long minute passes as I stare at the spot where she vanished. I hear nothing but the raspy breathing in my snorkel. Matt dives to about eighty feet and waits. Finally Annabel reappears, faintly at first but quickly coming into full sharpness, dolphin-kicking in her monofin back up the line, smoothly and rhythmically, and looking perfectly at home in the deep.