Tanya Streeter: The Interview (2003)
July 31, 2003/11 a.m. EST
Naomi: How would you describe to someone who has never been diving, the experience of being 400 feet under water?
Tanya: Even regular divers won’t have been that deep...emotional side more than the physical side. I’ve trained for and gotten used to it, but the mental side is very peaceful. Because by reaching that depth, I’ve managed to do everything, faced every challenge, gotten over all the hurdles, so I have an inner peace in knowing that. For me, personally, I have a unique bond with the ocean, so I really feel enormously lucky to have been privileged to have been able to do that. The weight, the magnitude of it, certainly doing something that nobody else may ever do. It’s not true--people will do it—but when I’m there, I’m aware that no one else ever has.
Naomi: It must be something like being the first astronaut on the moon.
Tanya: I would never blow that much sunshine up my own butt, but last year, when I got to 525 feet, no one on the face of the earth has ever been that deep. But at some point, we don’t know that at the moment you set foot on the moon you won’t evaporate or freeze or something. So, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t evaporate or freeze or turn into a fish when I went beyond where anyone had ever gone. That feeling only comes with being the first person to do something. It’s a different level of apprehension and I’ll go as far as to say fear, but just fear of the unknown.
Naomi: Can you hear or see anything at that depth?
Tanya: At 500 feet, there are no divers. But at 400 feet there were divers right there. I could hear someone say, “It’s a new world record!” but because of the mixture they are breathing, they sound like The Chipmunks. [laughs]. On all of my dives, they sing to me. They sing “Crocodile Rock.” They sound like chipmunks on acid singing "Crocodile Rock." It’s quite entertaining. I can’t see them clearly, but I can see figures and detect light.
Naomi: You’re 30 years old, is that correct? And you’ve been diving competitively since you were 25?
Naomi: You’ve lived in several places. I’m wondering where you call home these days?
Tanya: Austin, Texas.
Naomi: Do you compete in any other sports at an elite or recreational level?
Tanya: Not at an elite level, although I would love to. Just because I’ve enjoyed the challenges of this sport so much. I would love to be a better golfer. At the moment I’m crap. [laughs] It takes such a lot of focus, I have a lot of respect for Tiger Woods, in particular. I play tennis. [My husband] Paul and I are very competitive together when we play and very well-matched. I do a lot of spinning for free diving for cardio training. I’ve started enjoying being on a bike more.
I was hit by a car 5 years ago so I haven’t really ridden on the road. I live in a strong cycling town.Lance Armstrong lives just a few miles from my house. I am edging toward wanting to do more racing and road biking. I don’t even own a bike, so I’ve got a ways to go.
Naomi: Have you met him?
Tanya: I have not met Lance Armstrong, it’s a crying shame. They threw a parade for him but nothing for me. I don’t want a parade, but I wouldn’t mind watching his. All of the stories that were on the internet about my dive—and also in our hometown paper--there was always a small sidebar with what was going on with the tour de france. We were there next to each other on the page and we live nearby and yet these two Austin athletes who are making news together have never met.
Naomi: What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?
Tanya: Any e-mails or conversations that I have with people that say that challenging my self and redefining my limits has inspired them to do the same. My free diving is always about overcoming limits and learning how much more there is to me than I originally thought. I’m constantly talking about it, I hadn’t realized so many people were paying attention.
One woman wrote and said that I had encouraged her to get back on a bike—she was a triathlete who had broken both legs in a horrible accident. She was this great athlete, but she stopped competing. Her boyfriend got in touch with me. I wrote to her and then three months later this e-mail came saying that she got back on the treadmill with a cast still on one leg. Those ones reduce me to tears. I think God, it’s incredibly touching also to realize the magnitude of the opportunity I have to help others to change their lives, getting them to understand that not succeeding at your goal is not failing because of everyting you learn along the way. When I fail, it’s less scary than succeeding. If you succeed, you don’t really know your limits. You don’t know how far you can go until you finally fail at something.
Naomi: You’ve said that anyone could compete in free diving if they train properly. That it doesn’t take any special physiological attributes. But I can’t help wondering if you possess any special anatomical or genetic traits that make you especially well-suited for free diving?
Tanya: No. I’ve been poked and prodded and tested, and really there are some things like--going back to endurance sports--VO2 max. Lance Armstrong has a really high VO2 max. That’s a body’s ability to use oxygen efficiently. Some of us, they say, are genetically designed to have a VO2 max which is higher than other people’s, and there’s not much you can do about that. If you had three cyclists training at the top of their ability, each will have different limits. One of them could be a Tour de France champion, one might only ever win at a smaller level, and the other at a smaller level based on VO2 max. But that’s only one aspect of it. It doesn’t take into account the people around you or determination or other things.
I don’t know how my VO2 max compares to other athletes, and it has a big bearing on it, because it’s an endurance sport in the purest form because we are not breathing. There are other divers out there who have greater potential, but they live someplace where the water isn’t deep enough or they have other limits that prevent them—like they’re married with kids. Or they don’t have the mental ability. There are so many different aspects.
The point with many athletes in terms of our evolution competitively, it’s still relatively new. The key is balance. All the skill without opportunity is worthless, or if you’re scared, it’s worthless. What you lack in natural skill you might make up for in pure determination.
Naomi: You trained for six months for the variable ballast record dive, is that correct?
Tanya: 4 months.
Naomi: There seems to be a lot of science involved in preparing for a dive. How do you develop your training schedule? Do you consult with experts about the appropriate depths, exercises, and other methods. Or do you and your husband do it all yourselves?
Tanya: It’s just me. In the first year that I was free diving, I worked closely with someone who knew a lot about free diving. And I learned a fair amount from him. In the 4 or 5 years that followed that, I have learned much more about myself. The same training regime does not work for everyone. I have had 5 reconstructive knee surgeries, so I can’t go run ten miles a day. You have to improve your cardiovascular efficiency. That comes from endurance training. You have to tolerate high levels of lactic acid and CO2 in the system. So I know how I should train, it’s just figuring out the best way to do it that fits my body.
We may find out that I am doing more cardio and not enough other training. At this time, it’s all to do with the evolution of the sport. And I think that athletes that follow people like me in the future will make what we were doing look like were playing in the shallows.
Naomi: Did you go to college?
Tanya: Yes, the University of Brighton in England. I have a degree in public administration and French. I do speak French, but it’s not because I studied it for ten years. It’s more because I lived where i had to speak French for three months. I met my husband while I was at university.
Naomi: You broke the Variable Ballast men’s record by two meters and the women’s by 32 meters. Are there any physiological differences between men and women that allow men, in general, to dive so much deeper? Does it have to do with the strength required to swim back to the surface on your own power in this particular dive?
Tanya: The women’s record was actually 95 meters. It was incorrectly reported at 90 meters, so I only broke it by 27 meters, I guess.
It’s the discipline that is purely mental. In No Limits dives there are no physical requirements. You hold a sled down and a sled pulls you up. It’s not the size of your muscles but the size of your balls. [ laughs] I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of me. I’m not even a big woman. I’m the biggest chicken in the world. I don’t even like to go on rollercoasters. Here’s me, this person physically and mentally doing this thing that scares some of the men in the sport. It’s possible for women to surpass men becuase there’s no physical challenge.
When we were planning the Variable Ballast dive, Paul said to me, why don’t you set your sights on the men’s record? And I said are you on drugs? Pound for pound a man’s body is stronger than a woman’s. Even a man in my frame, his 120 pounds is stronger than mine. It’s physical fact. There’s just no way, I told him, so forget about that. Then during the training, it looked possible and then no one was more surprised than I was that I was able to surpass the men. I don’t think it speaks to me as much as human physiological makeup. But what I want to know is, why the hell aren’t the men going a lot deeper than they are?! If I can do it, they should be able to go so much farther.
It’s interesting to be here in the evolution of the sport. I might have just made it a lot harder for women to compete in that discipline. I instantly put the women 20 meters deeper than where they were. I always feel when a record is broken, it’s my greatest inspiration to go out and break it. Maybe it’s a woman built like me or a man who’s larger, but don’t look at it as anything other than another human. If they can do it, I can at the very least try. That’s where I find my greatest success is in trying.
I’ve just gone to 400 feet or 122 meters. The last women’s was 312 feet, I think. Are there women out there who can challenge it? My competitors, I know they can. Mentally, I don’t know. They need to think that they are in that league, really think it, but that is such a big step.
Naomi: I get the sense that maybe you could you have gone even deeper on this most recent dive?
Tanya: No…that’s not really accurate. I believe that I can. But I would need to train more. I haven’t yet reached the point where I failed. The next time I try to break the record I will fail…This time, the place, the situation--I couldn’t have gone deeper on that day. I had done it two days before in training. but that day, I was that much more tired and it was a hard dive for me. I think the way that I might evolve as an athlete, I may continue to push human potential.
Naomi: What does failure look like on a dive like that?
Tanya: I would arrive at the surface and struggle to stay conscious or go unconscious. [she says this matter-of-factly] Your body protects your essential organs…the body is amazing. The minute the face is in air, it will allow the body to take a few sips before it takes breath. And then the body naturally breaths again. If the face is in water your body won’t allow you to breathe again. That’s why you never dive alone. If someone exposes your face to the air, you’ll be okay.
Support divers would clip the lift bag to my suit and I would be at the surface in less than 60 seconds. As soon as my face is in air, I’m okay.
Black outs don’t occur at depth. Because of the partial pressure of oxygen, on the way up as the lungs return to their full size, that makes us more susceptible to blackout. There’s a concentration of oxygen at depth...so much oxygen in the blood, that you’re fine. But when you combine two things--moving and metabolizing--it reduces oxygen in blood and then you can black out.
Naomi: Did you decide before you started that your target was 122 meters? Is that why the sled stopped there? Or do you stop when you feel unable to safely go further?
Tanya: We measure the rope before I start. We put marks on the rope every 30 feet. The maximum that I increase by is 15 feet. I increase very progressively [in training]. I dive every other day. 1st day 250 feet, next day 265 feet. And then smaller increments. So that by the time I get to 285 feet, I’m not learning about 285 feet, I’m just learning the last 15 feet.
There’s a big knot at the end of the rope to stop the sled. It stops at the bottom. To have the record, I have to touch the bottom of the rope and I have to make it back to the surface conscious. The sled has to touch down. So, I was going for all or nothing. I could’ve gone for the women’s or the men’s records. I could play it safe, or just go for it. So I talked to my team members. They all believed 110% that I could do 122 meters. I took into account all the work that they’ve done. They are there and they are diving just for me and they want to be part of something really great, Where the women take a men’s record. It had never been done in any sport, and I did it twice…they deserved it. I’m glad that I did. My sponsors are ecstatic. I feel like I did something that I didn’t think I could do.
Tanya: [laughs] I’m an island girl. I listen to bob marley. [laughs] It kind of depends. Typically, I find that I go back to my reggae roots.
Naomi: Your hair is very long. It looks from the photos like you leave it loose when you dive? This makes you look very much like a mermaid, especially in your suit with fins. Do you ever feel like a mermaid?
Tanya: Not during the record, it’s tucked under the hood. Three years ago, I was going to shave my head completely. The two guys I was training with had both shaved their heads and I was so envious. My hair is about 2 feet long. It takes me so long to prepare for a dive and it still turns into a rats nest. But, I decided not to shave it. My hair is such a part of me. I am constantly referred to as the girl with the long blonde hair, it’s a very handy thing to hide behind.
Not having ever been a mermaid, I don’t know. [laughs] but I feel more like a fish. The day I actually have a mermaid tail on and shells for a bikini top I’ll know more like what it feels like.
Actually, in the early 80s, the film crew for the TV show fantasy island came down to grand cayman where I lived for a time. the stunt woman who was supposed to play a mermaid in this man’s fantasy had a stunt double to do the underwater scenes. and she was terrified. she did the topside stuff, splashing around in the surf and stuff, but the underwater swimming around, she couldn’t do. so, who did they call? my mother who is the spitting image of me, but more petite. she’s not quite the water baby, but she loved the water and was a scuba diver and she shot those scenes for 2 days. she didn’t do it free diving, it would have been too challenging. but she was topless and wearing this mermaid’s tail. she did some cuts for the camera. she had this underwater topless kiss with this actor. it’s quite funny because i was on the boat playing with the plastic seaweed and swimming in and out of the frame when I shouldn’t have been. i think i was about nine. my mother was a mermaid before me. [laughs]
Naomi: You have described your nose clip as a third arm. I wonder if you could explain that a bit more? The way you equalize pressure during a dive sounds very complicated. was it difficult to learn how to do it?
Tanya: i need to hold my nose to equalize…pressure increases and bends the ear drums. the nose clip allows me to do that and still have free hands to hold the sled and the rope. this is not attractive and it’s very uncomfortable. this is not a sexy sport. there’s snot coming out of your nose and you pee in your wet suit and you look like a drowned rat.
Naomi: Have you ever damaged your ear drums on a dive? or sustained any injury?
Tanya: No. i haven’t. touch wood, i never will. i have pushed my ear drums to the part where it hurts, but i’ve never done any damage. the compression of the lungs is a natural phenomenon. the buildup of lactic acid hurts like hell, but it goes away.
Naomi: Have you ever had anything go seriously wrong during a dive?
Tanya: no…i mean i had equipment failure doing a no limits dive. i was filming a documentary for National Geographic in NZ and i had not done that discipline of diving in 3 years and unfortunately my husband put the sled together wrong. at 250 feet the liftbag malfunctioned. i had air in it, but i couldn’t detach it from the weight. so i had to swim back to the surface. i was untrained and i was not prepared for a dive where i had to swim back. and to be completely honest, i was trying to be a smart ass, too, and there would be confusion at the surface. i arrived at the surface. i took a breath and did the thing you shouldn’t do and i started talking. i wanted to be the one to explain what happened. so i said said, “well” and blacked out. i should have kept breathing. at least i had the wherewithal to swim back to the surface. paul was meeting me at 70 meters. i made it to the surface and then it was fine, but i didn’t do enough breathing. it’s a common mistake. i was so aware of the cameras. i was being a wise ass. i wanted to be the person who explained why…and i just didn’t take enough breaths.
Naomi: You said that your lungs constrict to the size of fists on these deep dives. that’s just amazing to me. can you describe the sensation of that process happening within your chest cavity?
Tanya: It’s just diving physics and human physiology. you can compress gasses but not fluids. the weight of the water around the lungs compresses it and shrinks it down. what basically happens is the lungs are shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. residual volume is the point at which you could exhale the most. they used to think that if divers go deeper than that, the chest wall will collapse and the rib cage will implode and they will die. scientists didn’t understand that that physiological adaptation is something we share with marine mammals. they exhale before they descend…there’s a small transfer of fluid within the blood that moves through the lining of the lungs. the lungs are self-equalizing. what i feel is an increase of pressure until the fluid moves. and then i don’t feel any increasing pressure.
Tanya: I have a copy here actually. he gave a copy to me. he’s an interesting character. it’s more of a story of his life than a bible of free diving, notwhithstanding that he’s a key figure in the evolution of our sport, there are better places to look for advice about freediving and stuff. his book is investigating the more spiritual side and really the physiological and spiritual connection between dolphins and man. do i feel like a mermaid? i’m a bit more pragmatic about it than that. it’s a very expensive book. [laughs] it’s not in the budget of every free diver. and you know there are a couple of other publications out there that talk about what to do to be safe.
Naomi: Paul sent me some interesting material about the connection between humans and aquatic mammals. After reading the scientific evidence, it seems hard to deny that humans have more in common with ocean-dwelling mammals than they do with savannah dwelling mammals. Do you consider yourself an aquatic mammal?
Tanya: I consider myself an aquatic ape. elain morgan’s book, that is a summary of her theory. this is a little old woman who lives in England, but she had an interest and she did her investigation and presented her theory to the experts and they thought she’s a raving lunatic. i have long believed before i knew that theory, that our physiology and our reactions are instinctual so that had to come from somewhere. it’s hard to present to a Christian community. it’s a controversial one, and one that i’m careful to discuss in different forums. i rely on it. i believe in it.
Naomi: Mayol is perhaps the sport’s best known figure. He was certainly a pioneer. Have you been influenced by his training methods, life or philosophy?
Tanya: I think every free diver today is influenced by mayol’s training. we all took what we could from people we knew succeeded. the first person who was teaching me about free diving may well have been teaching me things that mayol had created. but i never take away from the people who came before us. they lay the ground work, even if they are using things we don’t believe in. but we investigate them and in that way we learn…there were a lot of people who were at the forefront. pushing their own human potential. who really got us all to look a lot more closely at certain things. i hope that in ten years they will say the same things about me.
Naomi: It was announced in February, just as you were beginning training for this dive, that Audrey Mestre’s death last October was the result of a problem with the sled. did the news of her death, or the cause of it, affect your training or your approach to diving in any way?
Tanya: It only made me more determined to prove it was a safe sport. now we’re talking about apes--audrey’s husband. because he was so focused on the record and so chicken to do it himself that he put his wife in a situation where if anything had happened underwater, she was 110 percent unsafe. there was no way to rescue her. no doctor on the boat. a lot fewer divers in the water. no hyper baric facilities on the boat. the island was closed for repair. they tossed everything we know about safety.
she didn’t die because there was a problem with the sled, she died because there was completely inadequate safety. she died because she spent 8 and a half minutes under water. she died because there was no safety.
how did it affect me? it made me determined for the sake of her memory and the credibility of the sport to go deep, make records and show that it’s safe. it made me appreciate the team that i have around me. how much i respect what each of them was doing. no world record is ever worth jeopardizing someone else’s safety. the rest of the free diving community holds him responsible or his wife’s death. he’s lost 10 safety divers in his career.
above all, audrey’s death cannot be compared to freediving the rest of the world over. she didn’t have a choice, she voiced that morning that she didn’t want to go, but she didn’t have that kind of power in her own situation. her husband is a monster. if that had happened on US soil he would have been strung up on criminal negligence.
Naomi: Was she a friend of yours?
Tanya: No, but we had met a few times. she was a very kind, sweet soul. she was in a completely abusive relationship. everyone had such empathy for her. it should have been him on the sled. he’s going to do it himself now. to honor his wife’s achievement, he says. but unless he does it with a faulty sled, no doctor, not enough divers and no medical facilities…
Naomi: All of your record-setting dives have been incredibly impressive. Which of your records would you say you are most proud of?
Tanya: Gosh, that’s really tough. it’s really tough. this one was so hard. i’m proud of that. but i’m very proud of last year’s because of the depth involved and it being the first time it had ever been done. but also, the very first time i did it, that was the time that my belief was the strongest that i couldn’t do it.
i am proud of the work i’ve done around the records in promoting the sport and safety in the sport. i’m also a spokesperson for the coral reef alliance and the whale and dolphin alliance. it’s not so much the dives as the way i’ve managed to use them. to always appreciate that it’s not really an achievement until you do something good with it.
Naomi: In other interviews, you’ve described the fear you’ve felt on No Limits dives. did you have any fear going into this variable ballast dive? how do you cope with your fears when you have them during a dive?
Tanya: I never had a fear of going deep. the only thing that will ever stop me is if there is disharmony amongst the team. if anybody isn’t feeling happy and comfortable and safe. everybody should be having a good time…i’m human so i have a fear of failure. not because i’ll die, but not living up to my own expectation.
Naomi: What sorts of things do you do to relax in your free time?
Tanya: [laughs] i’m a gardener. i have roses. i love cutting my own grass. i was really disappointed when i got home from this trip and the grass had just been cut. i love entertaining at home. we travel so much and have to eat out so much that i love so much to have dinner parties.
Naomi: You should invite lance Armstrong to your next one.
Tanya: Do you think he’d come?
Naomi: You’ve been active in promoting awareness about many aquatic environmental issues. what do you see as the greatest threat to our world’s oceans today?
Tanya: global warming. in particular, damage to the reefs. they thrive at an exact temperature. one or two degrees above or below that, and they will be wiped out. it’s devastating…for me to know that my future grandchildren may never see a coral reef in the way that i did…if we continue contributing to global warming in the way that we are, the temperature of the sea will rise and the great barrier reef or some of those places which sustain life on earth will die.
we get so many medicines from corals, but the whole ecosystem, the whole way that air and moisture travel--we are destroying them with global warming. the ocean is a great barometer for the way the earth is coping.
whales and dolphins are a key barometer for the state of the ocean. in protecting and promoting awareness about them, i can tell people the way that it all turns and contributes to itself. the niceties that we have--the health that we have--if we continue to destroy massive amounts of rain forests and buy huge SUVs and stuff like that. it will be disastrous. the reefs will disappear. it’s nice for me to do my thing to try and contribute.
we met when i was in college. he’s 12 years older than me. by the time i met him, he was going through a divorce. we met in a bar that i was working in to help put me through school. i was excited to see someone under 60 in my bar, he was excited to see a woman behind the bar. we each had boyfriends and girlfriends. we hung out for 8-9 months before i figured out that i liked him. from then on we’ve been together for ten years and married for 8. he is everything to me and to my career.
i keep telling him that if he could dive it would be perfect because then i wouldn’t have to do anything. [laughs] he has a vision for me that he’s very eager to promote. i am always telling him babe, i don’t want to be famous, so don’t even think about it. all i want to do is environmental films. he wants me to be the face of global tv but i’m like i don’t think so. he’s the person i need to believe in me when i can’t believe in me. he understands me better than anybody else on earth. we work together and play together 24-7. we are always together. part of the reason he’s my manager is so that we can be together. i said i’d quit, but he wanted to follow me for a while and since then i’ve had much greater success. i gave up the things i don’t do well. we succeed because he’s so patient.
Naomi: What advice would you give to other women who want to enter the male-dominated world of free diving?
Tanya: Don’t ever think that there should be a difference because of gender. gender doesn’t mean that you can’t be your best and see if your best is better than the men or not. go out and do your best and see where it is before assuming where it is. it’s hard to do. you have these mental battles with yourself.
Naomi: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Tanya: No. not at all. i like doors being opened for me. i believe that women are strong and that we shouldn’t be treated any differently than a man in any situation except in manners. i don’t think it’s demeaning to have a chair pulled out for me. i have a constant debate about whether women should compete for the same amount of money in tennis. if a woman is playing at 100% at Wimbledon, her prize should be the same as a man’s. she should be valued the same. but paul says women only play 3 sets and the men play 5. i still think that when a women goes out and gives her all, it should be valued the same as a man.
i’m a traditionalist. i believe in traditional values. i am really looking forward to the point where i get to stay home and have kids and paul goes out and earns the money. but i don’t frown upon a woman who puts her kids in day care or something. you should do what is best for you. if you want to rage against men always picking up the tab, that’s fine and that’s for you.
i don’t think i need to be a feminist to compete with the men. i just need to believe in me.
Naomi: I think free diving is a sport that most Americans are not exactly familiar with. and, if they are, they think of it as an elite sport—something only the world’s best athletes could compete in. but you have hopes of popularizing the sport. i wonder what you think are the best ways of doing that?
Tanya: I think that free diving is to scuba diving what snowboarding once was to downhill skiing. people once thought it was so extreme and so different. all it is, is another way to get down the mountain. for every one person who competes, there are hundreds and hundreds who do it for recreation. it’s a beautiful way to experience underwater…beautiful, safer, cheaper. lots of people snorkel on vacation. as soon as they take a breath and dive down, they are free diving. right up until people told me there was a sport called free diving, i thought i was snorkeling, just doing it a bit deeper. i don’t think everyone in the future will own a pair of freediving fins, but i think more people are looking to do it on vacation.
for example, if you want to go to 40feet, you can freedive a longer time than with SCUBA. with SCUBA, it’s a limited time. freediving you can go up and down all day.
Naomi: You seem like a person who is constantly setting new goals and challenging her limits. you’ve just accomplished an amazing feat. have you already set your sights on a new goal, or are you basking?
Tanya: No basking. [laughs] i don’t think it’s all that great. i didn’t save any lives or cure cancer. my biggest challenge is using my success to inspire other people. at the moment my big goal is really seeing if i’ve done enough to raise my profile, to enable me to go in the direction i want to go in doing environmental films. i don’t like doing things in halves. i don’t do it letting myself consider anything other than a success. i would like to translate my career into something larger than a world record. it’s really using it, and doing the best thing with it. i have always wanted to do something for the environment. now i have a soapbox and i can talk about the things i really care about.--ng