On the morning of May 11, equipped with a pair of extra-long
fins and a pair of extraordinary lungs, Tanya Streeter plunged
into the Caribbean off Guadeloupe. At 130 feet below, the water
pressure made her chest feel as if it were caving in; passing
140 feet, the pain in her eardrums piercing, she pinched her
nose and blew gently, an act she periodically repeated to
relieve the pressure. Finally, at 230 feet, a depth that can
crush a soda can and cause lungs to contract to one-eighth of
their normal capacity, she flipped and began her ascent to the
surface and the promise of oxygen.
"I felt absolutely horrible," Streeter, 28, says of that 2:28
descent, which eclipsed the women's world record for the deepest
unassisted dive on a single breath by 10 feet. "At the same time,
being that far underwater is a surreal, beautiful experience."
Streeter's deep immersion in free diving can be traced to her
childhood in the Cayman Islands, where she recalls being known as
the kid who could duck-dive for the deepest seashells. Three
years ago she started pursuing free-diving records, and though
she and her husband, Paul, now call Austin home, Streeter still
spends roughly half the year in Grand Cayman.
In addition to a daily two-hour run or bike ride, Streeter spends
three hours a day in the water, practicing dives of 100 to 130
feet or swimming laps in a pool while holding her breath for long
intervals (she can float on a single breath for almost six
minutes). As important as respiratory fitness is during the
descent, it's equally crucial during the ascent, when the lungs
start to expand and the concentration of oxygen reaching the
brain sharply drops. Ascend too quickly and the body will shut
off, causing what is known as shallow water blackout, which
afflicts even the most skilled divers. At the '98 World Cup in
Sardinia, for example, 14 of the 130 competitors had to be
rescued from the water because of blackouts.
June 17, 2001
In August, Streeter will attempt to break the women's record of
426 feet in free diving's no-limits category, in which divers
ride a weighted sled on the way down before ascending with the
aid of an inflated air bag. "There will be more pain, but the
real challenge is mental," she says. "Being at that depth is
scary, even for me."