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Pas de Deux Champion freediver Mandy-Rae Cruikshank and friend off Kona
Vol. 11, No. 4
August/September 2008

  >>   On One Breath
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On One Breath 

story by Michael Shapiro
photos by Sergio Goes


In the training pool at Jack’s Diving Locker in Kailua-Kona, I am about to attempt the impossible.

In morning air redolent of neoprene and sunblock, I am standing chest-deep in the water, breathing up in preparation for static apnea—that is, holding your breath without moving. Inhale, hold, exhale for ten seconds, pause, inhale again. Mandy stands next to me, counting softly so I don’t lose my place. Her presence is reassuring; she’s done this dozens of times. Kirk walks the edge of the pool, coaching the other buddy teams as they breathe up. “Thirty seconds,” he calls. “Start your clearing breaths.” We switch to a new breathing pattern, a 4-second strong exhalation that clears carbon dioxide. Thirty seconds from now, we will all drop face down in the water and attempt something impossible. Something, at least, that I once thought impossible: We’re going to hold our breath for four minutes.

Before we go further, try this. Loosen your seat belt, relax and take a breath. See if you can hold it for as long as it takes to read the next paragraph (without speeding up). Ready? Go.

Kirk Krack and Mandy-Rae Cruikshank are freediving superstars. He’s coached six different freedivers to more than twenty national and world records. She’s held seven of those records. Her most recent, in 2007, was an 88-meter (289-foot) “constant ballast” dive. (Constant ballast is when the diver kicks down to depth and returns carrying the same weight; it’s the most respected of the eight competitive freediving disciplines.) She’s been deeper than that, though: Her first world record was a 136-meter (446-foot) “no-limits” dive (wherein the diver rides a weighted sled to depth and ascends with the aid of an air-filled bag). Outside the world of competitive freediving, the husband-and-wife team is almost famous for having coached extremophile David Blaine during his 2006 “Drowned Alive” performance at Lincoln Center, when he lived in a water-filled sphere for seven days and then tried (but failed) to complete a 9-minute breath hold. Had he succeeded, he would have broken the then-current world record of 8:58. (It was Mandy who eventually dived into the sphere to pull Blaine out.) They went on to train Blaine for his subsequent (and successful) attempt to break the world record by holding his breath for a lung-bursting 17 minutes on The Oprah Winfrey Show last April.

OK, breathe. If you’re an average person, you may have felt your heart rate increase, followed by the tingle or throb of blood in your head. (You might also have to reread that paragraph when your head clears). By the end of the second sentence, you were perhaps scanning down to see how long the paragraph was. If you got as far as Oprah, your diaphragm might have begun nudging you. Maybe the urge to breathe felt primordially irresistible much earlier, and you gave in. Maybe you could have struggled on longer—a minute, two even if you’re very relaxed. But 4 minutes? Good luck. Seventeen minutes? To the average person, that sounds not only impossible, it sounds fatal.

But 4 minutes at least is not only possible; it is (I’m assured) within reach. When they’re not training for record attempts, Kirk and Mandy travel the world, teaching average people how to hold their breath and freedive to 100 feet—or deeper. Their four-day workshops, which come to Kona about twice a year, are popular with spearfishers, amateur competitors, snorkelers, underwater photographers and the occasional extremophiles-in-training who just want to see if they have what it takes to go deep and long.

Archeological evidence suggests that people have been freediving for at least 4,500 years (for the last 2,000, the female Ama pearl divers of Japan have been diving deeper than 100 feet), but it’s gone mainstream only in the last twenty. With films like The Big Blue and pioneering freedivers Umberto Pelizzari and Pipín Ferreras sounding unheard-of depths through the ’90s, popular interest has grown. The sport is still in its adolescence, but it’s maturing swiftly as competitors dive ever deeper—at the time of this writing, the record is Herbert Nitsch’s 2007 no-limits dive to 214 meters (702 feet)—and hold their breath for durations that scientists once thought would cause brain damage if not death. The current generation of freedivers, including Kirk and Mandy, has refined the training techniques to a point where a reader on an airplane who struggles through a 30-second breath hold might, after a single training session, go 4 minutes or longer. Since they started Performance Freediving International in 2000, Kirk and Mandy have trained about 2,500 people; their students have included a few celebrity alpha-types like Tiger Woods, who’s an avid freediver. (Tiger brought his mojo; he made it just over 4 minutes and reached 100 feet.)

Given, I enjoy doing extreme-ish things. Last summer, I hiked 60 miles through Glacier National Park. I’ve fasted for two weeks. I’ve surfed a 10-foot wave. I’ve summited Mount Rainier and scuba-dived to 200 feet. But I balked when Sergio Goes, the intrepid photographer who shot the images for this story, suggested we go to Kona for the workshop, which he had taken once already. None of my prior exploits required intentionally putting myself 100 feet down, cut off from sweet Mother Air. “Don’t worry! You’re going to lahv it, dude,” Sergio had said in his assuaging Brazilian accent. “You’ll get addicted!”

I don’t have an addictive personality. But given the sorry state of my golf game, it would be nice, thought I, to beat Tiger Woods at anything.