Swedish Free Diver Annelie Pompe on What She Loves About Oxygen Deprivation (Interview)

By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photograph by Stephane Bailliez

The Scandinavians have long been known for their polar exploration so it came as a surprise to us when a Swedish woman named Annelie Pompe snatched the new free diving world record in the Variable Weight Apnea class in October. The smiley 29-year-old rode a weighted sled 126 meters down into the Red Sea, then ascended back to the surface along a line. That’s 413 feet, underwater, with nothing but a mask and some flippers.

 And it doesn’t stop there. An accomplished mountaineer, Pompe is planning to take on Mount Everest in May. Assuming all goes well, she’ll then set her lungs to the task of breaking Nat Geo Adventure favorite, Tanya Streeter’s No Limit class free-dive world record. (For an explanation of the different competitive classes, check out the free diving wikipedia page.)

Clearly, we had to talk to this lady and figure out what she loves so much about oxygen deprivation. We tracked her down to her home in Sweden this week for a few questions. English may not be her first language but she had a lot of interesting things to say.

When people think of free diving, Sweden isn’t the first country that springs to mind. How did you get into the sport?

There's actually quite a lot of divers in Sweden. I grew up close by the sea and I've always felt at home in the ocean. I don't think that feeling has any continental boundaries.

Since I loved being in the sea I got a scuba certification as soon as I was allowed to—and I really enjoyed it. Though I realized after a few years that the best feeling was diving in the water without any clumsy equipment. So I took up free diving and found a free-diving course. I was immediately captured by the challenge of diving as deep as possible on one breath. It's not only a physical challenge. For deep free diving you have to take your mind and mental strength to new levels.

How about your physical strength? Can you explain how you train and tell us a little about your weekly training program?

As in many other sports, you get good at what you practice. So during the Swedish summer I spend every weekend in the sea training deep free diving. I train different techniques and disciplines to be able to cope with the pressure, be able to relax, and also enjoy the feeling of freedom which free diving brings. I think it's important to feel good while diving. During the weeks, I start early every morning with a yoga routine where I also practice stretching the muscles around the lungs so that I can take big breaths. I combine this with cardio training in the swimming pool, running, some weightlifting, and also "cycling-apnea" where I sit on a stationary bike bicycling while holding my breath. A normal week has about 20 hours of free-diving training before a competition.

Do you have a coach? 

I have a coach, but he is more of an advisor. Of course I know my body and my mind better than anyone else, and I know how to train, but it's good having someone outside giving me new ideas. He also helps me with things around the competitions, like keeping track of starting times and paper work, marketing, taking photos, and so on. My coach is the very same person who taught me to free dive in the first place. He's been with me through all my deepest dives, and I always feel safe when he's there.

I always see pictures of free divers in beautiful, blue green water. How do you decide where to attempt your dives?

Both mentally and physically it's easier to dive in blue, clear, and warm water, so I prefer to go to those (warmer) seas for deep free diving. Though I actually made my first 100-meter dive in Swedish cold waters! It was pitch dark from 60 meters on down. At the bottom it was only 4 degrees Celsius. For recreational free diving, I still prefer the Swedish sea before anywhere else.

That sounds terrifying to me. How do you deal with fear?

I believe there are different types of fear. There is the good kind of fear which makes me aware of possible risks and helps me assess risk. It's easy to deal with—I just take care of and minimize possible risks, then the fear is gone. Then there's the bad kind of fear, a kind of fear which puts up limits for you and makes you stop doing things you'd want to do. This fear is usually unwarranted and illogical, like suddenly having fear of darkness in the Swedish waters. I got over this by turning my mind over and starting to like the darkness as something cozy and relaxing.

If you can get used to that, it seems like there isn’t much that would bother you. What is the biggest challenge to being a professional free diver?

Actually, I'm not a professional free diver because I can't yet live off of free diving. It's still such a small sport, there's no big money to be made even if you're one of the best. I have to work and have a "normal" life besides training for deep dives.

Well, I suppose that is one of the worst parts of it. What’s the best part?

The best part is that, the better I get, the more I can enjoy free diving! My success makes me believe I can do more and deeper dives.

What goes through your mind as you are looking down into the water, preparing for your dive?

I try to concentrate on one thing at a time. Mindfulness. While breathing I concentrate all my focus on the breath, making every breath perfect. While putting on my mask, I only focus on putting on my mask. I think this is a good way to keep nervosity at bay and focusing on what's important.

I would think the nerves come when you get under the water. What goes through your mind when you are 126 meters below the ocean surface and you have to swim back to the top?

As a first reflection I'm very happy, because I'm halfway through the dive. And I know that if I make it to the surface I'll have a world record! Also on really deep dives you get what's called nitrogen narcosis, which makes your thoughts slow and happy, so by then I really have to focus on moving upwards toward the surface and keeping a good hydrodynamic technique.

Do you ever encounter sea creatures? It seems like running into school of fish would throw off your concentration….

It's rare, but if I do I'll just get very happy to have some company and crowd cheering me on. I really like fish, not for eating though, just for swimming with them!

To change it up a bit, I read that you are planning to climb Mount Everest in May. What made you decide to take on this challenge? What do you hope to gain from it?

Ever since I started climbing rocks and smaller mountains 14 years ago, Everest has been my big dream. I decided that now is a good time to make the dream come true. It's good to climb Everest when you are young and in a good shape. And doing it in a combination with a free-diving record will make me the highest and deepest woman in the world.

Is climbing very high similar to diving very deep?

The feeling of freedom is the same for both sports! They also have in common the lack of oxygen, though in different ways. The challenge is keeping your mind calm and controlled while in difficult situations.

What will it take for you, mentally and physically, to break Tanya Streeter’s No Limit record?

Actually, I think the main problem with no limit is making a safe organization to make it possible. It has to be fool proof and with quadruple safety back-up systems. I don't want to risk my life in taking the record, because I'm very much fond of life.

How about physically?

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Physically I will have to take my yoga routine to new levels and train my lungs in different ways to cope with the pressure. Mentally I will have to find a greater peace of mind and also a way to manage and train for the nitrogen narcosis at depth.

Is there a performance gap between male and female free divers?

Yes, there is. Mainly because of physical differences like lung volume. But women have the advantage of having more flexible ribcages which compress more easily with the pressure of the water.

What items do you always take with you when you travel?

I don't like to be dependent on any particular item. But I usually bring a yoga mat, though in the worst cases I can do yoga with any mat or on nice grounds. I try to always make time for some yoga during travelling and adventures. I also have a teddy bear that always goes with me. It ruins my image as a extreme sports person, but it's nice to have some comfort from home!

Do you bring any books with you?

Yes! I love to read books! Even if they are heavy to bring on travels, I always bring a few. I like to read good fiction as well as biographies, books about philosophy, psychology, and Buddhism.

Do you have a favorite book at the moment?

Yes, it’s called The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusac. It has amazing prose.

What motivates you?

I get motivated by big challenges. A challenge like Everest or a No Limit dive gives me a focus and something to strive towards. It's so much easier to achieve something if you have a goal. In my case I like big, almost impossible goals.

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