You’d pass Claire Walsh on the street and never guess her extraordinariness. She’s got lush, shoulder-length dark hair, is attractive, animated and full of gesticulation, chatty, smart, open, funny. All the same, she looks like any ordinary young woman of our world, rather than some class of mermaid.
Walsh can hold her breath underwater for five minutes and 59 seconds. As she explains for the uninitiated, for whom this is a crude measure of ability, that’s about the time it takes to play Bohemian Rhapsody. (Hum it. Keep going … and on.) She dives to 60m. That’s roughly the height of Liberty Hall.
Walsh is a freediver. She represented Ireland in world championships of what is reputedly the second most dangerous sport in the world. (What is the most dangerous sport I ask her later, idly; “Base-jumping, I think.” Neither of us knows what that is. I check later: it’s a type of parachute jumping.)
Freediving is, in essence, holding your breath and travelling underwater, with only the oxygen in your lungs. A freediver goes deep underwater all in one breath. A recreational and competitive sport, freediving is measured in time, distance or depth.
Walsh is stunning in her descriptions of what this meditative, “extreme sport of relaxation” is like, and its appeal for her. The sound of slight dragging of the air through the snorkel is one she dreams about: “When sleep evades me, I think of this moment, this soothing lullaby.”
She relishes “the delicious sink in freefall of negative buoyancy. In that light, there is a sense of breaking through, of release. The glides stretch further still and it makes me think that this is the closest I’ll get to flying. Peter Pan sort of flying … effortless soaring-through-the-clouds freedom … I’m underwater but still flying.” In the hazy, dark-green surroundings, careful not to make any big movements, she sends a message to her body to soften. “Light, sounds and surface have faded. To be here, at this depth, is both incredibly empowering and completely humbling.”
That’s freefall. There’s also static apnoea, usually in a pool, which Walsh considers the most fundamental discipline: “It’s just you your body your breath and your mind”, forced into the present moment. “Here I learn to observe my thoughts, not judge them, not attach a story or meaning but simply observe and let them float past my eyes.”
It is “an exercise in mindfulness like nothing I’ve experienced before. To be in just that moment, and then the next, and then the next. It is somewhere I’ve learnt a different definition of strong and, always surprisingly, the softness it takes to get there.”
What she calls “the real freediving showstopper” is the journey below the surface to depth. This is divided into different disciplines: free immersion, pulling yourself down by a weighted line; constant weight, using a mono-fin and dolphin-kicking to reach greater depths (“the power of the athlete mixed with their grace in the water”) or using bi-fins to scissor-kick down; and constant weight no fins, considered the purist of disciplines. This last, the most physically and technically demanding, involves no equipment, and is “hypnotising, a poem of movement in water”.
We’re a long way from all that now, sitting in a cafe on the seafront in Bray in Co Wicklow, near where Walsh lives, looking out at the sea. Sometimes she swims near here, but her usual spot is Greystones.
She has written a book, Under Water, subtitled “How holding my breath taught me to live”.
Freediving, and her path into this most unusual, very challenging sport, is the hook for the book. But its appeal is equally as the voice of an Everywoman of her generation. She writes about growing up in land-locked Leixlip, in a close family (the book is dedicated to Mum and Dad) who fostered her enduring love of water, and her daily life as a young adult, full of the precarity of portmanteau career and housing and relationships.
She describes adventures in online dating. “Oh sweet Jesus, I can’t believe I put on a full face of make-up for this. Lipstick, I’m wearing Lipstick, for feck’s sake.”
There’s always the cringey, inevitable What do you do? (“I do a lot of things. I sing. I swim in the sea, all year round. I work as a puppeteer. I work as a drama teacher, a singing teacher, a movement teacher and occasionally a movement director. I run choirs, gospel choirs, choirs for fun, and I’ve taught people about breathing and how to use the voice. I sometimes run workshops and sometimes put on shows.”)
There was the guy who really just needed a therapist. And the guy who spent the start of their date helpfully describing to her his perfect woman. (“His last girlfriend was a model, did I know that?”).
She describes living what is our social shame, a generation where home is insecure and constantly on the move: regularly packing up to shift from one often unsuitable house-share to another, periodically back in her childhood bedroom, or living short-term in her granny’s before the house is sold. But this isn’t a misery fest: much of it is amusing; all of it is self-aware.
Just as she vividly describes the pleasures of freediving, she describes what it’s like to have depression, with an openness and honesty about the cycle of medications, hospital admissions and cockeyed misdiagnosis. “The second half of my 20s were the bad, blurry years. I cycled through denial, wild, impetuous decisions, highly charged anxiety and long bouts of crippling depression,” as the mask slipped. “The word depression isn’t big enough to describe it. I’m not just feeling a bit sad — I’m feeling SadAngryGuiltyAshamedEmbarrassedEmptyHopelessListlessTiredParanoidApatheticSensitive.” Conscious that her supportive family and friends walked on eggshells, she felt angry that they couldn’t reach her.
While others settled down, Walsh took off on a long adventure in South America. On the island of Utila in Honduras, she discovered a sport she’d never heard of, and that was it, she was hooked.
Freediving offered her mental discipline and structure.
The rest of us see danger, but she’s no thrill-seeking underwater cowboy. For her, freediving involves calmness, control, power, softness and freedom. There’s elaborate messaging to keep safe and rules minimise risk, cardinal among them being Never Dive Alone.
You use skills and judgment, she tells me. “‘Not today’ is the most powerful phrase, not to be able to be goaded” into going down when the conditions aren’t right. “I’m pretty picky who I dive with. I’m a ‘fraidy cat.” She uses a technique with her nose to equalise the pressure in her ears and has learned to conserve energy and use her precious oxygen efficiently. Her body is trained to trigger the physiological responses that humans share with dolphins, whales and seals.
Blackouts are a risk, as are hypoxic fits (full-body convulsions due to low oxygen). The hardest chapter to write, she says, was about competing in the World Championships, which involved a blackout but also the elation of her first white card and setting a national record, all surrounded by the love and pride of family and friends.
Amid all this, she found love in the water too, freediving in Dahab in Eqypt. Boudy is calm, consistent, steady, “not romantic!” she says. But he made one big romantic gesture, applying for a job in Ireland and moving from Epypt when there was just a glimmer. They had a most unusual courtship, unexpectedly thrown together sharing a flat in Ireland during Covid lockdown. In a meeting of cultures they’ve found commonality in a shared focus on community and family. After finishing her book they married last year.
She’s been recovering from long-Covid. Who knows what’s coming? “I certainly hope freediving will be part of my future. I would like to have children.” She’s been doing wellness, breathing and motivational talks and workshops, which grew out of her Instagram @clairewalshlife.
There’s a calmness and a great openness in her book, and in her presence. But, she says, “I call it the man behind the curtain”, in a Wizard of Oz reference. “I like to lift the curtain. He’s just a small man behind the curtain. I may appear to be confident and forthcoming, but behind that curtain there’s a lot of self-doubt, a lot of spiralling thoughts.” Writing the book helped her reflect on her life. “A lot comes back to breathing.”
Underwater, you don’t hear anything. The mantra, for the diver just surfaced, and seemingly for the person too, is: Breathe. Mask. Signal. “I’m okay.”
- Under Water by Claire Walsh is published by Gill Books on March 9th. Clairewalshlife.com