By Justine Diacomihalis
When the fires hit at the end of 2019, on the day that the backyard,the sky, the town, what seemed like the entire universe went black at 10am in the morning, I had been evacuated from my home at Broulee and found myself at my parents house (the home in which I grew up in ).
I was pacing back and forth through the old fashioned carpeted formal dining room wondering quietly if today is the day we are going to die.
Years ago in this same dining room whenever I was afraid or looking for answers I’d always turn to mum and dad for reassurance that everything was going to be ok. But looking at mum and dad in their 80’s now, their tired worried faces full of confusion and concern, I knew they couldn’t guarantee me that we were going to be ok. We were all wondering it.
If anything, I think they were hoping I would tell them it’s going to be ok.
All we could do was wait it out. There was no one to call, the phones were down, there was no one to ask, everyone was hiding from the embers flying through the air or fighting to keep their home safe and desperately hosing their roofs in the hot so bloody hot and forceful, what seemed like gale force winds out there. The power was out, and the house was dark from the surrounding black skies but it wasn’t even lunch time yet. It seemed uncanny to light a candle to walk down the corridor when it was fire itself outside that was threatening our very existence. Bangs were going off in the near distance what sounded like bombs, we were presuming it was the gas cylinders at the shops in the industrial area, we were not sure but.
As I paced back and forth I desperately pondered, “if today is the day, am I ok to go? Am I satisfied with everything I’ve done in this life? Did I achieve what I wanted? Am I happy with the way I have lived?” And oh my Lord did I receive a big fat slap in the face! It suddenly dawned on me that I had spent the last 20 years revolving my life around being a mum and running a family business. Caring for everyone else except myself. Yes I’ve had some great holidays in between and was grateful thinking about those adventures. But in regards to every day living…. What the hell am I doing?
Being comfortable that’s what.
As the darkness lifted that day, my heart remained heavy and black.
I continued on at the family business, more so than ever, trying to get through a burnt out peak season in the tourism industry and then to add injury to insult, Covid hit and lockdowns begun. It felt like I had only just moved back home when I was forced to move out again and live in our motel to run it 24/7 with my brother who had been put down temporarily during Lockdown from Virgin Australia. We had no staff and no guests. We had no business. No idea what was in store for us at all. For the first time since my father had opened the motel doors to tourism in 1972, we had absolutely no one staying for weeks on end. By Easter time we had decided to close down until further notice just like the rest of the Main Street, and I guess the whole world really.
I was left again, pondering, what am I doing with my life? Single parenting isn’t easy, and with full time custody it didn’t really leave me many options to go out and pursue any of my dreams that I had dreamt of since first becoming a mum 17 years ago. But I felt determined to start ticking my bucket list.
So I did. Fate led me to my amazing dream man. Mick Austin from Drawn 2 Water Freediving and Yoga School. He started teaching me about how to live under water. I’d always been a surface surfer. Never really thought about spending much time down there. From the first breath hold I became hooked. It was like an awakening, as if I had returned home from a long lost journey.
And as we continued down this underwater path I soon discovered the community in the sub culture of freediving all felt the same. It has been such an amazing experience learning not only about this sport (well I see it more as therapy) but learning about myself and who and where I am meant to be. And especially, how I am meant to be living.
SO, WHAT ACTUALLY IS FREEDIVING?
Essentially it is prolonging your time under water on apnea. With no reliance on instruments or equipment. Just you and your last breath. On breath hold a humans heartbeat is slowed, there is a sense of being suspended in time. The freedom of being immersed in water like an oceanic animal is addictive. Freediving can be performed in many ways such as snorkelling, spearfishing, line diving, pool disciplines and simple recreational swimming underwater.
I became hooked on freediving because of the silence. We live in such a busy loud contactable world, it is exhausting always responding to everyone and everything. When I found the silence down there in the blue, I stopped and listened to my heart beat. I never listen to my heart beat. It was humbling. Soon, Mick taught me how to take freediving and the silence into the pool. I began to train with him and found such therapy in that in itself. We started talking about the competitive side of freediving and played with the idea of competing in a pool discipline to set a goal for something different in life for once. It was then I found my purpose. Outside of the family business. Outside of being a mum. Outside of caring for my mum. Outside of just being me.
Competitive freediving in Australia is regulated by the AFA (Australian Freediving Association) which sits under the umbrella of the Australian Underwater Federation. Internationally, two bodies run freediving competitions : The International Association for the development of apnea (AIDA) and the World Underwater Federation (CMAS)
Eight competitive disciplines are recognised by AFA and the two international bodies. Four are pool based disciplines with 3 dynamic categories where divers swim as far as they can in a 50m pool on a single breath. Dynamic Monofin, Dynamic bifins and Dynamic No Fins. The fourth pool category is Static Apnea where the diver floats without moving, face submerged for as long as possible on a single breath.
Depth competitions are held in the ocean, deep lakes or sink holes. Divers follow a single vertical rope to a pre-announced depth, retrieving a tag at the end of the rope before surfacing.
Safety is the forefront of competitive freediving and dedicated safety divers stand by to help any competitor in trouble. Competitors must complete a surface protocol as well before their dive is deemed legal and the competitor issued a white, yellow or red card. The diver must remove any facial equipment within 15 seconds of finishing any dive and say and signal that they are ok. These measures assure the judges that the diver is fully conscious and functioning and that the diver is competing within their physical means.
In February this year I was listening to a pod cast with Jarrod Briffa talking about competing in the pool and the breath work involved in training up to learning how to hold your breath in the pool while dynamically moving in competition underwater. He spoke about nasal breathing and the benefits, about reducing the amount of breaths you take per minute to reduce load on the heart in every day life and about mindfulness.
He had recently competed in nationals on the Gold Coast and his result placed him number 2 in Australia for the mono fin discipline. This discipline was something in particular I had always wanted to master.
My thoughtful partner Mick had actually given me a mono fin in lockdown for my birthday and I so wanted to learn how to use it properly. I had tried if a few times and it felt so naturally easy gliding under water. But I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I decided to contact Jarrod and ask him to write me up a program focusing on Monofin discipline.
He told me about an AIDA national competition that Melbourne Freedivers were holding in May this year so he set me an 8 week program to lead up to it.
Mick coached me through it in the Eurobodalla and Shoalhaven pools as well as land training which involved static breathold training and Apnea walks. I also trained regularly with a local friend who is an avid free diver Ali Ryan, I am hoping she will compete with me next time as she is a bloody legend!
The AIDA Melbourne Freedivers Winter Championships were held over three days May 5,6 & 7 2023.
First day of competition I had a go at bi-fins. This discipline is kicking bi-laterally wearing fins underwater on breathold with either your arms outstretched in front or beside you. The aim is to dive for as far as you can on one breath.
In this discipline I managed to make 161m with a white card which means I successfully completed the dive and received points in the competition for it. I placed first in womens on this event. I was actually very surprised and stoked of course.
The next day I competed in monofin discipline which is like a butterfly kicking motion underwater wearing a mono fin it’s like a dolphin shaped tail and propels you ever so gracefully through the water every time you simple flick it. In this discipline you have your arms outstretched in front of you with your hands together. I surfaced at 181m in this discipline and received a lovely white card for this dive too. This result placed me first in ladies in this discipline. My points went towards a tally system for final placings.
On the third day of the championships I competed in the static discipline. This is holding your breath in a static position on the surface of the water with your face submerged for as long as you can. I made 4:05 with a white card in this discipline which placed me second in women’s. Suzy Malseed, the former New Zealand national pool freediving champion smashed out over 6 minutes in her static! Such an inspiration! After statics was presentation, I was gob-smacked to hear that I had won the women’s division and that my mono fin distance actually landed me number 3 in Australia and bi-fins number 4! This has inspired me now to train for World Freediving championships because if you are in the top 4 for your country you qualify to represent it! Woo Hoo!
Whilst the bush fires in 2019 may have tarnished and traumatised a big part of me it also changed my entire perspective on life and has lead me to seeking a better quality of life.
I love having goals and an actual purpose now that I am passionate about and not just on auto pilot for.
Freediving has actually recently entered the program of the World Games and will be held in China in 2025. My goal is to first train and compete well in the next Australian Nationals, hopefully re-qualify for World championships there and compete in worlds next year and then go on to the actual World Games!
Since the fires I have completed 3 certified levels of freediving through PADI and have now become an instructor with Mick at Drawn 2 Water, we offer freediving courses, yoga, breath work, surf survival and snorkel tours/ after school kids programs all along the coast, including Canberra.
Breath workshops are becoming increasingly popular for team work and local businesses. We help people interact more calmly in their stressful work environment by using the breath. Learning to train the breath on a daily basis is initiating the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in which leads to lower anxiety levels and a sense of calm and wellbeing. If you or you business would like to give it a try please get in touch with us we would love to help you!
The childrens snorkel programs are an absolute hit too, be sure to book your child in for term 4 before we fill up as there are only limited spots available. The kids absolutely thrive in an aquatic environment, they love learning how to snorkel and explore the underwater world with their friends!
Please check out our website for more information and get in contact to learn more ????
Mick and Justine 0424 711 422 [email protected]
PHYSICS OF FREEDIVING
The human body is so remarkable. It has physiological adaptations to help protect it during a dive. The “mammalian dive reflex” is a response that our body has where it instinctively recognises water as a low oxygen environment therefore it begins conserving oxygen as soon as the face is submersed in water. Then next, the heart rate drops. the next reflex is peripheral vasoconstriction. During this response blood moves from the arms and legs where it is not needed so much and pumps towards the heart, brain and vital organs. The spleen also contracts resulting in more red blood cells secreting into the circulatory system to assist with transportation of oxygen.
Whilst freediving is about holding your breath, to actually be able to freedive successfully and peacefully you first need to train the breath. To learn to control your breathing is in turn a rewarding calming effect that relays through your entire nervous system and changes the entire ambience of your being. Most of us breathe shallow, in the upper respiratory system. This is a learned behaviour. And not ideal.
When we are born we naturally “belly breathe” have you ever noticed a babies belly rise and fall whilst breathing calmly? This is often referred to as belly breathing where lungs are filled in the lower respiratory area. This type of breathing triggers one of the biggest nerves we have - the vegus nerve. This nerve comes under the parasympathetic nervous system which stimulates us to have a lower heart rate and remain in a calm state. The parasympathetic nervous system also helps with digestive function, lowers blood pressure and reduces stress.
For this reason, I absolutely fell in love with training the breath, I continue to practice multiple times a day. My resting heart rate has gone from a solid 58-62 bpm to 42bpm!
I am a walking, talking peaced out dream machine!
WHY DO I FREEDIVE?
A lot of people have asked me this question. A lot of people do not understand the feeling and freedom of freediving and see it actually as scary or hard. A scuba diver recently said to me she couldn’t think of anything worse - struggling under water to hold her breath… But for someone who free dives, it is not a struggle, it is actually bliss!
I have always had a strong affiliation with the ocean so being in the open water was not something that phased me when I began freediving.
Learning to hold my breath and dive deep was at first confronting and the sensations felt through my body were strange. The contractions that occur when your C02 levels become high are quite uncomfortable and it takes a lot of training to learn to allow these contractions to pass through your body gently.
I still struggle with the uncomfortable feelings during static breath hold on land. I am unsure why.
But the relaxation in the water whilst under breath hold is honestly something I have not ever felt in my life. And it seems the longer I hold the better it gets. There comes a point in my dive at about 1:30 that my awareness of being under breathold transitions into a silent sense of freedom flowing endlessly through a soft envelope of water. My heart is beating so slow that I feel like I am dreaming. My focus is so distant that I am not even sure I am still inside my physical body. It is such a complete deep relaxation that sometimes I have to really force myself to come up to breathe. But I know my limits and common sense always surfaces me after 3:30 or so. The after effects of those few minutes of that dive stays with me for days.
I can’t stop thinking about doing it again just to have that silence, that freedom. That natural therapy.