We spoke to Steph (virtually) about motivation, mindfulness, and going after goals without fear of being a beginner. See our conversation below!
Tell us about your path to becoming a freediver
I was introduced to freediving about three years ago. Growing up in Florida, I spent all of my free time in the water so I grew up snorkeling, and my brother-in-law was really good at lobstering–diving down holding your breath and grabbing lobsters.
To learn how to do a better job and keep up with them, I took a freediving course, and was introduced to the basics. I liked it but I didn't fall in love with the sport until I signed up for Deep Camp–a free diving camp where you learn all of the physiology and psychology behind deep free diving. After two days I was comfortably freediving past 30 meters, then past 200 feet, and that was my breakthrough moment and when I fell in love with the sport and the lifestyle.
I went straight to becoming an instructor, and then started traveling the world for freediving and spearfishing. I was the first American female instructor to complete the PADI instructors course. This year I'll go for the instructor trainer course to become the first PADI course director [instructor for other instructors].
What does being a freediver look like?
People free dive for different reasons. There’s competitive freediving and recreational freediving. For me, I do it professionally in the sense that I'm an instructor. Most of my dives are to train other people, introduce them to the sport, to do underwater photography, or for sustainable spear fishing. An average depth for me is probably 60 to 80 feet, a deep dive for me is 100 feet or a little bit past that.
How is the physicality of freediving different from a traditional endurance sport?
A lot of sports are about pushing yourself to be stronger, faster, better. In freediving you can't really push that way. You have to be more relaxed. The whole process is really counterintuitive because when you're holding your breath, you get this urge to breathe and your body wants to tense up and shoot to the surface, but really you do the opposite of that. You have to calm down and relax to continue to dive deeper.
Really it's about mindfulness. 80% of it is your mind, and just relaxing and trusting your body. Of course there are certain things in training that you can push yourself through like flexibility of your diaphragm, and training your legs to be strong or training your lungs, but when it comes to actually practicing freediving, it's all about lowering your heart rate, clearing your mind and then kind of letting your body do what it needs to do and not letting your mind get in the way.
This sounds very meditative.
Freediving is my meditation. I can feel it when I'm out of the water for a week or two. Everything is noisy and moves fast and your brain gets cluttered but then when you go freediving, everything like the stress melts away. It's very relaxing.
Has your mindfulness in freediving translated to your life out of the water?
Absolutely. The breathing techniques and the breathe-up process that prepares you for a dive is all about lowering your heart rate and oxygenating your body. You get more relaxed, you get calm and you're pulled into the moment. Stress and anxieties disappear because you're just focused on your breath. You can take that and apply it to everyday life where you get anything other than happy–sad, mad, angry, frustrated you're sitting in traffic or you had a fight with your spouse. Whatever the situation, you can apply those breathing techniques to pull yourself back into the moment and kind of reframe it so that you're able to respond instead of react to things. That's awesome.
What's an achievement as a diver you are most proud of?
In the very beginning, I was really proud that after two courses I had gone past 100 feet on a dive. For a lot of people, getting to the three digit club is big.
Now my accomplishments are not so much about depth or time, but more about seeing my students have breakthrough moments. Like when they overcome a fear and in a matter of two or three days they're hanging out at 50 or 60 feet, interacting with sharks and dolphins and their life is changed.
Another big accomplishment for me in spearfishing. There aren't too many females who spear fish. Two years ago, I got the World Record for Mahi Mahi on a Polespear. I was the first woman to set that record–it didn’t exist before I submitted my record! I also have a pending World Record for Dog Snapper on a Polespear, which is pretty exciting.
What motivates you to keep going?
There are times I'm freediving from sunrise to sunset, and it's just “go go go”. I am so addicted to it, and it's such a passion of mine that even when I'm exhausted, continuing on is way better than stopping.
For me, it's not even something that I consciously have to work towards because it's like there is no other option than to just keep going because when you're in the water, anything can happen. Whether I'm teaching a course or I'm spearfishing or I'm just diving or I'm doing photography and a whole pod of dolphins will spin up to you or a shark will come in and check you out or you have these massive light rays come through the water. It's just a different world and unexplainable unless you've been there. I can show pictures but the actual feeling of being there is very challenging to replicate.
What are some of the challenges you work through in the sport?
Something that's really challenging is taking the time to train for myself. So that is something that I want to do.
We've talked a bit about the mental prep that goes into freediving–can you share about your physical preparation?
One of the biggest things is diet. Reducing caffeine and sugar intake is ideal for being able to equalize your body. Then, increasing endurance by doing a lot of cardio.
Also, anything that's going to increase your leg strength and flexibility is huge. Lots of yoga and stretching. That helps resist the urge to breathe on a dive.
What does a day in the water look like?
How a dive day looks depends on what you're doing that day. For example if I'm teaching a course, we'll go out in the morning and all set up a float. And then the students are in the water learning safety skills and kick cycles and dive techniques. I'm following them down every dive and correcting behavior and giving them feedback.
If I'm going out for, let's say, a photo shoot, we'll go to the site, get dressed in whatever we're gonna go dive in and then we'll go dive for 2 to 3 hours until we get the shot. A lot of times I'm removing my mask or I don't have fins on or I'm wearing a dress. So there's a lot of outside challenges there.
Then with spearfishing, it's mostly covering a big area and jumping in on schools of fish. Each discipline is different depending on what you're doing, but all cover the four parts of a dive.
An average dive for me is about a minute and a half, and then I'm spending three to five minutes at the surface.
What tips would you give to anyone working towards their own challenging goal?
What worked for me was finding an interest and then taking a course. Then I went and took another course, and I continued on like that either taking courses or diving with people who are better than me, and who are the best in their field.
My recommendation would be to go into your goal with an open mind and learn as much as you can from everybody. Don't be afraid to engage with people who are way better than you and can give you a diverse education.
Also, to not be afraid of failure or looking bad. Just jump in and do your best!