On the morning of May 11, equipped with a pair of extra-long fins and a pair of extraordinary lungs, Tanya Streeter plunged into the Caribbean off Guadeloupe. At 130 feet below, the water pressure made her chest feel as if it were caving in; passing 140 feet, the pain in her eardrums piercing, she pinched her nose and blew gently, an act she periodically repeated to relieve the pressure. Finally, at 230 feet, a depth that can crush a soda can and cause lungs to contract to one-eighth of their normal capacity, she flipped and began her ascent to the surface and the promise of oxygen.
"I felt absolutely horrible," Streeter, 28, says of that 2:28 descent, which eclipsed the women's world record for the deepest unassisted dive on a single breath by 10 feet. "At the same time, being that far underwater is a surreal, beautiful experience."
Streeter's deep immersion in free diving can be traced to her childhood in the Cayman Islands, where she recalls being known as the kid who could duck-dive for the deepest seashells. Three years ago she started pursuing free-diving records, and though she and her husband, Paul, now call Austin home, Streeter still spends roughly half the year in Grand Cayman.
In addition to a daily two-hour run or bike ride, Streeter spends three hours a day in the water, practicing dives of 100 to 130 feet or swimming laps in a pool while holding her breath for long intervals (she can float on a single breath for almost six minutes). As important as respiratory fitness is during the descent, it's equally crucial during the ascent, when the lungs start to expand and the concentration of oxygen reaching the brain sharply drops. Ascend too quickly and the body will shut off, causing what is known as shallow water blackout, which afflicts even the most skilled divers. At the '98 World Cup in Sardinia, for example, 14 of the 130 competitors had to be rescued from the water because of blackouts.
In August, Streeter will attempt to break the women's record of 426 feet in free diving's no-limits category, in which divers ride a weighted sled on the way down before ascending with the aid of an inflated air bag. "There will be more pain, but the real challenge is mental," she says. "Being at that depth is scary, even for me."