Home Planet Blue Free diving a contest with oneself

Free diving a contest with oneself

The delicate but muscular Italian put soap in her suit to make the rubber glide over her body like a second skin. Only James Bond looked better in a wetsuit! Linda Paganelli is preparing herself for her competition in diving in time. She is laughing and is waving to her friends and colleagues.

The wind is coming hot from the desert and it is playing with her dark blond curls, which are hanging over her back. She takes her hair and puts it in the hood of her wetsuit. Then she climbs into the swimming pool, lays on the surface and concentrates on her breathing. Her supervisor and business partner Lotta Ericson gives her the time limits to warm up. Two minutes to competition time!

The 2006 Free Diving Cup has begun right now in Dahab, Egypt. Diving in time means holding your breath, whilst one lies motionless with the head down in the water. Linda is moved by Lotta into the closed area, in front of the three judges sitting on the edge of the swimming pool. Linda concentrates further - breathing with closed eyes. One minute to competition time.
The last ten seconds are counted down loudly by the main referee.

Linda gasps like a fish for air, trying to stow as much as possible in her windpipe and mouth. Go! The referee counts further. She has ten seconds time for preparation, she turns around on nine. The fight begins...
Maybe it appears boring not to breathe, lying with your face in the water. It is possible for an average human being to hold their breath for two to three minutes. The world records for men are set at over ten minutes, and for women eight minutes. The divers in Dahab have recorded times ranging from four to seven minutes. Diving in time is the discipline in which one burns the least oxygen, and can remain the longest without respiration.
The first two or three minutes are like a paradise. Total silence, meditative drifting through time and area, a recollection on the prenatal hovering in the stomach of one’s mother. As the body lays in the water, the diver is at one with herself – and tries to forget everyone above watching the clock. It is strange how much tension such a static kind of sport can evoke.

After three minutes, small waves begin to emerge in Linda's back muscles. The diaphragm twitches, the body asks for oxygen. From the heaven directly into the hell. There is no shorter way. What was full of peace and harmony before, is not a fight between the instinct to breathe and the consciousness that it is not yet truly necessary.

The body reacts to the low CO2-level in the blood, even though there is enough oxygen circulating to support the vital organs for some minutes. The art of this sport lies in knowing when the asphyxia will lead to unconsciousness and to stop before this. Linda is now over five minutes under water. The cramps in her musculature become stronger. Her hands embrace the edge of the pool and she brings her feet to the ground. At the edge of the pool, everyone is feverish with anticpation.

Lotta screams: 5.30. That is enough. Linda shall not tire herself too much. Another couple of seconds, then she lifts the head. Smiles. She pushes the mask up, removes the noseclip, gives an O.K. sign and says: " I am O.K... " A text book result. The referees wait half a minute to make sure that Linda is clearly conscious and then they hold up the small white cards that show her dive is valid.

Later on, Linda is sitting on the edge of the pool, wearing an orange-red bikini, moving her feet through the water and watching the other competitors.  A Russian is disqualified because his supervisor had touched him before the appraisal. A Swede, because he gave the O.K. sign, before he took off the noseclip. The rules are strict - the disappointment big. Linda is lucky to win the statics for the women and is pleased about the good omen for the further competition days.

Alotta linda copy.jpground her neck there is a sign, on which is written in big red letters “single”. A little embarrassed she tells me that she is free and would like not to be! However, any future man should not only be good looking and intelligent, but also rich and ready for marriage. Even in the busy field of the competition, a suitable candidate is yet to be found. Linda has quite something to offer: a perfect bikini body, passionate temper, financial independence, and, of course, she is one of the worlds’ best free divers. There are many admirers, but still no one that meets her wishes. And for the moment she concentrates on the Triple depth competition at the Blue Hole.


This most famous dive site of Dahab is approximately a 50m wide and 100m deep hole in the reef. These are ideal conditions for deep dives since no currents can become dangerous to the divers and the visibility is excellent. A peculiarity is the 20m long tunnel at a depth of 56-60m that leads into the open sea. Linda tells me how fascinated she is, by the mystic beauty of the tunnels. But today, she will give it no attention because she must reach the depth that she has declared at the day before: 73 metres, with one breath!

On the day before, free immersion took place. Linda describes this discipline as the laziest of all of the apnoea-sports. One pulls the body down the rope and up again. The strength of the arms is crucial. Little oxygen is burned and good depths are possible. Yesterday Linda won third place with 60m, after the Russian Natalia Molchanova, who could enter another world record with 80m, and Lotta Ericson, who reached 65m.

Today is the king discipline: constant weight. This means, the diver goes down with a fixed weight and must bring both themselves - and the weight - upward again. This is a real challenge for the body and spirit. Linda waits half an hour before her official entry into the water. She does her warming up dives and is then called to the platform. The referees are sitting at the sides and in the middle a rope leads into the depth. She has thirty seconds time to dive after the official time, but already after ten seconds her lungs and mouth are so tightly filled with air that she turns and dives.
The mono fin sticks out from the water for a second like a dolphin tail. Efficiently and with ease she overcomes the first 15 metres with just a few fin kicks. This free falling is the best of all. Her biggest problem is managing the equalisation of her ears until 70m. Down below she is quite alone and absolute silence prevails. Only her heart beating is perceptible in the distance. It is growing dark, but not completely. She sees the badge with her depth at the end of the rope.

She grabs the badge and turns upwards with a powerful fin kick again. Now, the fight begins - against gravity and against the urgent wish to breathe. She heads back to the surface relatively slowly, back into the life, back to breathing. The more relaxed she is when free diving, the less oxygen her body uses, and the better she can dive. In many years of training, she has learned to master the panic, each time learning to control the body and the immense fight with itself. Will against instinct. She wants to win it. She must win it. She is not allowed to go upward with wild actions; this would burn too much oxygen. She must be both efficient and quiet. The last 20 metres burns up the muscles in her legs. Two safety divers wait for her to accompany her upward. The last metres are dangerous. Here, one can easily lose consciousness because of the swift pressure changes and lack of oxygen.

As she reaches the surface, it is like a re-birth.  She grasps for the rope, the first breath, the fight after air. Breathes, breathes. Follows the strict rules, smiles, breathes and waits. The referees pull out the white cards, the dive is valid. Everyone is clapping and relieved, she is O.K. At the end of the day, she shares the first place with Natalia, her fiercest rival; her friend Lotta gets the third place. Also, Linda has achieved a new Italian record - and Lotta a Swedish one.

The purest and probably oldest form of free diving is delivered on the last day. The one which burns the most energy: constant weight without fins. One swims vertical along a rope. Natalia isn’t having a good day and doesn't make the competition. Linda achieves the same points as the South African Helen Garner and has accomplished the most constant performance out of all the women. Linda wins the Triple depth competition and is highly satisfied.

And is there now a husband on the horizon? Linda laughs as she packs her bag. Another time maybe. At least she has won and will hold her new, custom-made mono fin in her arms soon. This is a companion that she hopes will bring her yet more depth and lead her to new records. The rich husband will be waiting already somewhere... at the next beach or the next competition…


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