I have never experienced an embrace stronger than that of the ocean at depth. Unendingly soft, the ocean allows me into her inner chamber. On one breath I leave the surface and kick my way down to where liquid turns black, the sun is only a memory and water presses in on me from all sides, squeezing me harder than I think I can survive. But it’s still only water. Gentle, flowing water — the same water can crush a human as easily as you crumple a piece of paper in your hand. Kick, kick, relax. I fall deeper and deeper. I don’t think of the long way back up while going down. If I think of the end of the dive at the start, I will never finish it.
This too is the strength of women — we are not conquerors; we do not need to break the spirit of the oceans. We are strong enough to recognise great beauty and infinite power, to appreciate and cultivate, protect and share. We are like water. Our strength is in our ability to be soft and nurturing. This is not because we are physically “weaker” but because we strive to be mentally “stronger”.
Over 10 years I have explored my physical ability as a freediver, training my body to be perfectly prepared for record-breaking dives, only to realise that it’s not about my body. My deepest dives, my longest breath-holds are all successes purely of the mind. As I feed my body nutritious whole foods and superfood supplements, so I feed my mind with thoughts harvested from the five senses, the past and the future. Your senses tell you your immediate condition: “I am cold, it is too loud, I am hungry.” The past brings you guilt, hurt or a fantasy condition of “it was better then” the future brings anxiety, worry or an escape into “it will all be better when?…” The mind is kept busy trying to digest these unhealthy thoughts and the present ceases to exist.
We are like water. Our strength is in our ability to be soft and nurturing
As with many physical disciplines, freediving is a sport for the mind, teaching the mind to fast. You are most powerful when you are not contemplating past successes or failures, future fears or hopes. None of these are real. The only real thing is right now. Now. Now. And every now becomes a then and you have to train hard to be present. I have learnt that when I am only here, only now, I can do anything, overcome anything. I make choices based on reality and desire, as opposed to a warped ego and irrational fears. This is the discipline of the professional athlete — the ability to still the mind and focus on the present perfect, taking ownership of our environment, be it water or land, sky or sand. I freedive with whales, dolphins, seals, bull sharks and tiger sharks. Creatures a hundred times larger than me, some with more teeth than I have bones in my body, yet I have never been afraid. I have learnt when you can or can’t approach a whale; what is the body language of an aggressive shark; how to own your piece of ocean without threatening any of the locals. It is never about who is bigger or physically superior. As vast as the ocean seems when you stand on the rocks and stare and stare at that shifting horizon, you are stronger.
As athletes, as women, as human beings even, our greatest power lies not in our ability to dominate the competition and control our environment. Once we realise our strength, our infinite power, our greatness in being able to be both strong and soft, we can begin to protect and own. Untamed, wild, powerful but gentle — we are water, we are free.
— Hanli Prinsloo