The Freediver: Sara Campbell Interview

Sara Campbell, 36, is the current World Champion in Constant Weight freediving, reaching 90m after just nine months in the sport. We chat to the ‘fish woman’ about breathing, blackouts and swimming with sharks.

From: Not easy to answer! I was born in the UK, but I’ve moved around a lot and now I live in Egypt!

Where did you passion for freediving come from?
I have always been a water baby. I remember being absolutely magnetised by the film ‘The Water Babies’ as a child and have always loved the water, swimming and any water-based sports. I would say my first unconscious connection with freediving came on holiday in Greece when I loved showing off to the guys that I could swim from the pontoon to shore and back again on one breath – they couldn’t even make it one way! I didn’t think that there was anything different about me then, I just put it down to being comfortable in the water and practicing yoga, which makes my breathing very relaxed and my breath hold pretty long.
Anyway, then I moved to Dahab in a moment of pure intuition. I was here on holiday for a week and on day two was on a sunrise horse ride up to the Blue Hole. I felt a very deep conviction that this was where I would live. I decided to ignore the doubting voices, my concerned parents and my friends’ shock and made the move! It was easy and has continued to make me very, very happy.
I found freediving by chance – a yoga student had done the course, knew I loved swimming and nagged me for a year to take the course myself. Initially I thought it was silly, dangerous, and to be honest, I know that I have a deeply competitive streak and I was enjoying being out of the rat race, out of stress and just living. I didn’t want to get sucked into something – but after a year of nagging I gave in and it was love at first duck dive!

Have you always enjoyed water sports and swimming?
Yes, I grew up sailing. My father is a really keen sailor and I had my own boat from an early age. I have always loved the water and I think it was an essential part of holiday planning for my parents – as long as there was water around, they were free from child-care. They would have to drag me kicking, screaming and very wrinkled out of the water at the end of every day!

When did you decide to take your hobby further and take part in major world competitions?
My initial drive to keep diving was that it made me so happy. We had the bomb attacks in Dahab just before I did the course and I noticed how freediving had a profound affect on my happiness and in dealing with the depression I felt creeping in after that awful event. As I continued, it was a growing curiosity about just how far I could take it. Most of the other divers around me had reached ‘limits’ or were struggling to progress and I seemed to be sailing on through the metres without any problems at all. I never set out to break world records or compete at that level, but as I continued to get deeper and deeper, diving deeper than the British men, people started saying they thought I could be the next world record holder. I just laughed and shied away from the idea. But a mistake in training changed all of that.
Two weeks before Triple Depth last year (which is where I set my three world records), I was training, attempting a dive of 73m. For safety we drop our rope to exactly the depth we want to dive to – we turn when we reach the bottom. It seemed like a rather long dive, both down and up, and when I got back to the surface my training partner was really stressed – I’d taken almost a minute longer than planned and she’d been waiting for me at 20m on my way up. It wasn’t until I looked at my depth gauge that I realised what had happened – I’d misread the markings on my rope and had dived to 83m rather than 73m! Which put me effortlessly within just 5m of the then world record! I’d dived deeper than my previous personal best by over 10m and only had 5 more to go – I realised then that I was a world-class freediver! It was an incredible feeling!

What made you choose freediving as opposed to scuba diving?
I am a scuba diver too but when I moved to Dahab I didn’t really go that often; I find all that equipment rather clunky and prefer the feeling of freedom and weightlessness that freediving gives me. It’s also – contrary to common belief – much safer when you train properly and never dive alone. I last went scuba diving for Children in Need last year when I got into an aquarium with a bunch of sharks for charity! I probably shouldn’t say this, but I found it rather boring – the sharks weren’t in the least bit interested in us, and there was no challenge in sitting on the bottom breathing air from a tank!

Have you had any bad experiences or setbacks during your time freediving?
Not really, I seem to be blessed with an extraordinary physiology, which allows me to keep diving deeper. In fact, Erika Schagatay, a leading researcher into freediving thinks I’m probably the first ‘natural freediver’ she’s ever met. For me to have reached 90m with only nine months in the sport defies all the normal laws of human adaptation to this kind of sport – it seems I’m more fish than woman!
Having said that I suffered a major set-back this year when my mum died in the summer. I found for the first time how important a positive mind-set and relaxed attitude is to freediving. It has taken me almost five months to get over the loss and be happy and relaxed in the water. It’s an ongoing journey, but one of the last things my mum said to me was that she wanted me to continue diving (even though she was terrified for me!). She knew how happy it made me and I hope that one day I can set another world record for her.

You’ve held three world records, how much training do you have in order to achieve these results?
I set three world records in three days in October last year. It took me less than nine months to achieve this – two months training in 2006 after my first course, then I was hit by hepatitis A and was out of the water for seven months. I returned to the water at the end of March 2007 and progressed from around 40m then, to 90m by October the same year!
The most amazing thing is that I have the most relaxed, lazy training schedule of any freediver I know! I don’t do cardiovascular fitness, breathhold, strength or other training. I basically get in the water and do a dive. As I came to the sport with Hep A, I had to build a lot of rest into my programme and as that worked for me in the beginning, I stuck to it. I do a maximum of four training sessions a week, and a session typically consists of doing two warm-ups and one deep dive – it’s over in about 45 minutes! So definitely no sweat, blood or tears in there! I’m just having fun and loving what I do.

You’ve said you are going to dive even deeper this year, how deep are we expecting?
Well, because of my break over the summer, I’m not sure of my plans right now. I am back in training, but taking it easy. I want to keep the feeling of enjoyment in each dive and I noticed in spring that I was feeling the pressure to perform and dive deep. I would love to get back to world record diving, and explore other things. The Arch in the Blue Hole is something I’ve wanted to do since last year and I hope to get through this year – 55m down, 35m through a tunnel in the coral and 55m back up the other side! I think I’m also going to try my hand at sled-diving, from the film The Big Blue, for fun, but also to train depth adaptation. I certainly plan to get back to 90m before the year is out and beyond that, who knows. I want to do more environmental projects with The BLUE Project too – they’re not necessarily about depth, which appeals right now, and it brings a sense of deeper meaning to what I do.

Where is your favourite place to free dive?
For sure the Blue Hole. It’s where I do all my training and I certainly feel most comfortable there. The number of snorkellers there is getting a bit annoying, but it’s still a stunning dive site and perfect for freediving – it’s so easy to get to, set up the line and dive. Totally hassle-free. I was in Sharm the other day though, filming on a liveaboard. That was amazing – we did Shark Reef where there is a container from the wreck of the Yolanda ship, which sank in 1980. The container was full of toilets and baths, which are now scattered all over the sand bottom – very surreal but amazing to see how the environment has accepted this and they are now covered in stunning soft corals and there are hundreds of fish hiding and living within the toilets!

Are there any particular places you would like to go to for diving?
I’m planning on checking out Deans Blue Hole in the Bahamas in spring. There’s a competition organised by my good friend, Will Trubridge there. I have heard so much about it, since he’s been diving there for the past few years. It’s much deeper than my Blue Hole (mine is max 100m and his is over 200m!) so it’ll be fun to not be able to see the bottom on my maximum dives!

Do you enjoy diving alone or in a group?
Training is a very focused thing. We NEVER dive alone – it’s the first rule of freediving. That’s how people die. But when I train I prefer to have just one or maximum two other people on the buoy with me. Otherwise it gets crowded, unfocused and it takes too long! For fun diving though it’s great to have lots of people around. When we take a boat out and play on the reefs around Dahab it’s so much fun and just to sit on the bottom and watch all these amazing half-human-half-fish people freediving down, looking at the coral, is incredible. I can hardly believe that I can do it and look so graceful in the water too!

Does your career affect your personal life at all?
Not really. I had made the move to Dahab anyway and took up freediving two years after I arrived. Because my training schedule is so relaxed, it’s not exactly as if it eats into my time too much! Since I set the world records, I have travelled more, for media work, to raise awareness of the sport and the environment, and to take part in medical research, and that means I have to find someone to live in my house and take care of my pets – I have three dogs and three cats and they need a lot of love! I miss them when I’m away, but they understand 🙂 When I’m training I go out less and watch my diet, but Anna von Boetticher, my training partner, and I made a rule last year that we treated ourselves to a beer and a steak once a week when it got serious to make sure we felt that we can still enjoy treats! I think that’s really important. Freediving is a part of my life, it isn’t my life.

What made you want to join The BLUE Project?
It’s easy to get sucked into the numbers of deep diving, always adding a metre more. But I think there is potential to use what I do for something more meaningful and far more important than just getting deeper. I was introduced to Conrad (Humphreys) by a friend, I looked into what the Blue Project is about and was impressed, not only by its goals, but how it intends to go about achieving them. It’s hugely important to engage the passion of the public, and sport has a unique ability to do that. I’m also aware that I’m extremely privileged to live in one of the most beautiful yet fragile environments on earth and I feel strongly about getting the message out that we can’t go on as we are – we have to change to protect what we enjoy, otherwise it won’t be around for us, or our kids in the future.

Do you think the amount of time you spent in the water has made you more interested in the environment and the project itself?
Definitely. I’m trying to learn more about the corals and fish. I’m working with a new broadband TV channel as a presenter, and am using this platform to get the message out. That’s why I was on the boat in Sharm. And what I don’t know, I now have the perfect opportunity to learn about. I’m constantly thinking about how my diving can be used as a hook to get the media into the environment. At the moment I’m working on what will potentially be a very exciting project – totally outside of my comfort zone, but which has the potential to really get people excited. I’ll make sure you’re the first to know!

Have you spent much time with the other ambassadors so far?
Because I’m in Egypt I haven’t managed to meet many of them. I was at the House of Commons in July with Rob (Gauntlett) and James (Hooper), the guys who did the pole to pole expedition. It was so cool to hear about what they did and I have utter respect for them – their tenacity and determination to get through what were undoubtedly sometimes the toughest imaginable conditions is truly inspiring. Because of my sailing background, I’m dying to get to meet some of the other sailing ambassadors, but quite simply feel very privileged to have been chosen to represent BLUE among such incredible people.

Have you any continuing plans for the project?
Yes, but I can’t talk about them right now! The Arch is something I want to film and use to raise awareness of the importance of the reefs. Hopefully before the year is out I’ll have some exciting news to announce for The BLUE Project!

What are you hoping to achieve throughout your time with BLUE?
To make a difference and have an amazing time doing it!

What else can we expect from you in the future?
Phew, lots of diving, lots of fish, lots of holding my breath. Maybe the odd black-out or two as I explore my limits further, but the emphasis is most definitely on having fun!

The BLUE Climate and Oceans Project is a Sport Environment initiative featuring some of the worlds most inspiring sports men and women who use their projects and incredible adventures to educate, inspire and motivate people to reduce their impact on the world’s climate and oceans. To find out more about the BLUE ambassadors adventures and how you can to get involved with The BLUE Project visit and start by making a BLUE Pledge to the environment.


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