Tanya Streeter may be the closest thing humans have to a mermaid. The world champion free diver can hold her breath under water for up to six minutes.
On a record-setting dive last year, Streeter moved down 525 feet on a single breath, something that only 43 years ago the U.S. Navy thought was impossible. It was the first time that a woman had surpassed a man. That was in any sport ever.
"I didn't know about it until somebody else told me about that," says Streeter of her "first." "It's nice. It brings the sport into the forefront of people's consciousness, which is what I like to do."
In Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean on July 19, she will try to break the Variable Ballast record, the only one of the four deep Freediving World Records that Streeter has not held. Should she be successful, it will represent a moment in aquatic history that may never be repeated. No man or woman has ever attempted to break all four deep Freediving World Records.
While it is not as deep as the No Limits record she broke in August 2002, (160m/525ft) defeating Loic Leferme of France, the Variable Ballast record is far more physically and mentally challenging, requiring divers to return to the surface on their own power. The current women's record stands at 90 meters with the men's at 120.
Streeter will be dropped to more than 318 feet on a 200-pound sled before powering herself back to the surface.
Only 5 feet 7 and 120 pounds, the 30-year-old diver says her talent comes from her belief in the physiology that humans share with other marine mammals.
Streeter says, "So, really, we all have a talent, a gift. It's just, as an athlete, I was interested in pursuing it at the ocean level, the environment, which we free dive in."
Streeter says with the proper training anyone can learn to free dive. "I know for a fact. I teach and I have people come to my clinic who have never even put on a mask and snorkel and they're holding their breath for two, three, sometimes four minutes and diving 30, 40, 50 feet within a weekend," Streeter says.
On a free dive, the diver plunges to a great depth and comes straight back to the surface. Decompression is not needed because the diver has not breathed any air during the dive. Amazing things happen to the body during the descent and then the ascent, and Streeter trains several hours a day to prepare her body for the physiological changes that take place.
For a 525-foot dive. Streeter explains, "Mentally I'm just focusing on what I have to do. I listen to the taps of my divers. I'm equalizing, slowing down by putting air into the lift bag. Physiologically, there are a lot of things going on. Blood shift, so the heart rate slows down. My lungs compress from as large as they'll ever be down to what's called residual volume, which is the point, which they then fill with blood."
She says the only discomfort she feels is pain in her eardrums because the pressure is intense. But she says she does not feel she is putting her life in danger, in any way.
Last year, French diver Audrey Mestre died trying to break one of Streeter's diving records. That is the first time a death has ever occurred. Streeter says that was a situation where safety rules and regulations where not followed. She notes that particular group of divers established their own rules and didn't even have a hospital on the boat.
Streeter says she follows all precautions: "I'm the world's biggest chicken."
And what she does is, she says, is not some death-defying stunt work but a very serious sport.
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