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‘How holding my breath taught me to live’: Irish freediver Claire Walsh
Image / Self / Real-life Stories

Nanna Kreutzmann

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‘How holding my breath taught me to live’: Irish freediver Claire Walsh

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by Shayna Sappington
03rd Jul 2023
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An expert at embracing the impossible, Claire Walsh was the first female to represent Ireland at the Freediving World Championships in 2019 and now, is an eight time national record holder. Here, she opens up about her struggle with depression and how sport helped her find joy again.

“In 2015, I was in the Galápagos Islands on a boat trip, and one of the crew members, a local, got into the water and kicked down – he was beautiful. He was a really big guy and, funnily enough, he was kind of clumsy moving around the boat; he couldn’t negotiate the slippy surface of the floor. 

“But watching him in the water was like a dance. There was so much below me – turtles, penguins and sea life, but I was glued to him. I think what drew me in was his perceived sense of autonomy in the water. It was just him using his own ability, his own body, underwater. It was mind-blowing for me.”

Daan Verhoeven

Kildare native and freediver Claire Walsh is describing her first encounter with freediving. Surprisingly enough, the sport wasn’t something she had been practising from a young age; her introduction to it was on a tour through Central and South America when she was in her early 30s.

Four months later, she took her first freediving class. And just a few years later, she holds multiple national records and is an accomplished author, sharing her professional and personal journeys, both of which have been very much intertwined due to the sport’s incredible mental aspect.

So what exactly is freediving? 

“It is the competitive sport of holding your breath underwater,” explains Claire. In fact, it’s one of the most challenging sports in the world.

Divided into different disciplines, it’s measured in either time, distance or depth. Time is usually done in a swimming pool. This involves laying facedown on the surface of the water with your airway submerged and typically, this will be your longest breath hold, says Claire.

“Distance is also in the pool – think back to your childhood when you tried to hold your breath and swim from one end of the pool to the other – this is a crude beginning to freediving in the pool.

“The real showstopper, as far as I’m concerned, is depth. So, in the depth disciplines, you start at the surface of the water, then descend down to whatever depth you’re striving for and back up, all in one breath.”

The depth disciplines are where Claire has broken national records. Her deepest competition dive was 50 metres, free immersion, where you pull yourself down a rope.

Photo, left, by Janna el Borno

Why this sport?

“Freediving redefined my relationship with myself. In my book, I share about my journey, which is very much signposted by mental illness.”  

Her book is entitled Under Water: How Holding My Breath Taught Me To Live, and it explores how this challenging sport helped her navigate depression. 

Claire had always been a strong swimmer, taking classes from a young age, but when it came to choosing her field of study, she set aside swimming to focus on drama, discovering a real fondness for it. She worked as a puppeteer and movement director for years, but in between gigs, she struggled with her mental health, feeling lost and playing the ever so dangerous comparison game many of us so easily partake in.

This is when she dropped everything for a ticket to South America, trading her conventional commuter life between Kildare and Dublin for one of adventure and tropical sea dives.

“I’m often asked, ‘What is your why?’ I was pretty shocked to learn that my ‘why’ was often mental health and fighting against the stereotype of depression being negative or weak. I realised so much of what I did and all the challenges that I undertook were done to prove to other people, or more so myself, that I was positive and strong. 

“When it came to freediving, it made me reexamine that and it empowered me with the resilience that I never knew I was capable of. And once you know that strength is there, it totally changes how you view things on land.”

However, Claire clarifies, the sport was not in any way a quick fix to her mental illness – there’s no such thing, really – but rather, through finding her passion and building those habits over time, along with working on herself and leaning on loved ones, she was given the tools she needed to start on the path towards recovery.

Being in the moment

One of these habits is mental training, because as physical as freediving is, it is equal parts mental focus. 

“In 2016, I went back to the island I had first learned freediving on (Útila, an island off Honduras). I had prepared for that trip, training in the gym and in the pool in the lead-up. I felt great because physically, I was ready. 

“But when I got out there, I didn’t do very well in the water. Although I was physically ready, I wasn’t prepared mentally. So I think that was the first eye-opener, that for freediving you have to bring those two aspects along in tandem. Otherwise, you’re not going to get very far.”

You have to be in the moment, forgetting scatterbrained thoughts or worrying about your surroundings (which can use up precious oxygen). “Freediving has been my greatest teacher in being in the moment,” explains Claire. 

“There’s a little mantra, which I’ve stolen from a really elite freediver, William Trubridge. In his book, he describes starting a dive by saying; ‘This moment, this moment, this moment’. It’s just one small unit of time, and then the next. That is something that I’ve tried to use a lot more because it’s really hard to keep the brain focused without it going off on its own. For me, that negative momentum can build too fast.”

Photo, right, by Janna el Borno

Embracing the next challenge

Having recently published her book in May, I asked Claire what’s next for her, to which she replied, “Living in those moments and working on myself.”

“I had a really crazy year, a full-on wild, exciting year – I got married, I was writing a book and lots of other things. So now, my challenge is coming back to this moment, and practising this when things are calm so that when they aren’t, I can switch into that fully charged.”

Mark Tilley

This summer, Claire has a TED talk on July 1 and is running breath workshops throughout July and August. “The important part for me is unless I create this space, a little bit of balance, and fill the tank that I drew so much out of in the last year, there’s no room for creativity. Creativity doesn’t come about in the state of absolute burnout.

“While I’m in this phase of sleep, eating well, exercising, and spending time outside – I have no doubt that some really exciting things will follow. I have absolute faith that if you work on pillars of wellness, the next exciting adventure will present itself. ”

In partnership with Defender, we are embracing the impossible, beginning with the inspiring story of Irish freediver Claire Walsh. To learn more about Defender, visit landrover.ie.

‘Under Water’ is published by Gill Books. Available now in bookshops and on audio. For more information follow @clairewalshlife or check out clairewalshlife.com.

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