Fast Confession - diver Gabriela Grézlová: If I see a shark, I'll wish it wouldn't swim away

On the world record, shark diving and a strict diet.
20.Jan 2021
 
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Gabriela Grézlová was a world record holder in free diving in the discipline of static apnea. She managed to hold her breath for 8 minutes and 33 seconds. During the race, underwater she tries not to think about anything, when she is at her worst, she rekindles her memories of watching the dolphins. In preparation for the World Championships, she lost fifteen kilos thanks to a specific diet. But what she loves the most is scuba diving. As a reward, she travels to the Mexican Cenotes - flooded caves, where she likes to dive most.

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In 2015, you made the world record in free diving in the discipline of static apnea - what should I imagine under this term?

You can imagine a "corpse" floating on the surface, in a wet suit, upside down, not breathing and the time is measured of how long it can hold its breath without moving. It's basically the least popular discipline of all the freediving racing disciplines.

Why is it the least popular?

Because it's the hardest. It's especially mentally demanding, because when you swim, you feel like you are doing something, that you are at least moving. But when you're not doing anything, it's so hard not to give up. A lot of people don't like that discipline. When diaphragmatic contractions begin, which is a natural reaction of the body that tells a person to "breathe in", during swimming it's much easier to ignore, because you can concentrate on kicking you legs, but when lying still, it's much harder to mentally handle these not entirely pleasant feelings.

Is scuba diving something that you can make a living with on a professional level?

Certainly not as a sport. There are terribly few individuals who live only off performance freediving. And these people have sponsors. It's about someone letting you train for free and live by the sea, or they provide you equipment. It's not about us having amazing prize money. Except for one race in the Emirates, which is not an official competition. Only one of the local sheikhs, who is a huge freediving enthusiast, invented such a terrible discipline where you actually hold your breath while you are 5 meters underwater, holding onto a rope and wearing only a swimsuit. So, on one hand, there is the thermal discomfort, on other hand, you don't have safety (rescue divers) or coaches, and that feeling of safety is not there at all. But you can't make a living off it, perhaps only if you do courses at the same time, sell equipment, arrange trips - which is currently in a hard decline.

When you broke the world record, you lasted underwater for 8 minutes and 33 seconds, how long did you need to prepare for it?

About 3.5 months. 6 days a week, 3 workouts a day. You get up in the morning and try to hold your breath for as long as possible. Simply on land, in your bed. This is how I started the day, sort of my morning maximum. I have a day job, so I always took so-called exhalations during my lunch break. That's when you exhale the maximum and try to last as long as possible, repeat several times. It's extremely annoying, but effective, it takes less than 10 minutes. Then you have lunch, work, come home in the evening, have dinner and do about an hour of some stretching exercises, especially on the chest, but also the rest of the body, and controlled relaxation. Then I did a dry workout, the so-called CO2 table - a simple program on the computer told me when to breathe and when to hold my breath. My training was aimed at getting used to a high amount of carbon dioxide in the blood, so I wouldn't go into a hypoxia (a condition where you have low levels of oxygen in your blood). You start at lower breath holding times, gradually increasing your times.

Gabriela Grézlová
Gabriela Grézlová • Source: archiv Gabriely Grézlové

Your diet is probably also important for your training...

I had a fairly strict diet, advised by my friend Branko Petrovic, who had an amazing time of 12 minutes, 11 seconds. Everyone wondered how I could stand it. It was about eating foods that, if possible, don't speed up, or directly slow down one's metabolism and don't burden the digestion too much, so I could forget about black or green teas and coffee. No alcohol, red meat, only white fish, no mushrooms, uncooked vegetables, no dairy products, only a gluten-free diet. Well, I really had to cut down on a lot of stuff.

I can't imagine working in a such mode. You must have been exhausted.

It doesn't seem like it would, but the body gets used to a lot of things. In addition, I used vitamins and nutritional supplements, because I wouldn't be able to get enough vitamins and minerals from the diet in the amount that the body needs. But I had surprisingly enough energy. This was not a problem, rather it was a problem that I lost a lot of weight and I was cold all the time. I still have bad thermoregulation.

Byt Malá Strana Magenta 31m
Byt Malá Strana Magenta 31m, Praha 1

How much weight did you lose?

15 kilos (i.e. weighing 60 kg at a height of 186 cm, normally I weigh 75 kg).

And how will such a diet affect the final time? Was it worth it?

The whole record time is a combination of a few little things at once. Both stretching and the diet, then I also have relatively large lungs, holding my breath and the right supplementation of vitamins and minerals will increase the red blood cell count... All these things put together form a puzzle, but I'm not able to say in percentage what was most important. But not everyone does such preparation. There are also people who didn't limit themselves in this way and also had quite nice results. But those were mostly men.

Which part is the most demanding underwater? Mentally and physically.

The beginning underwater is very pleasant. You inhale, turn, swing to the surface. It's great. But the pleasant part lasted about 2.5 to 3 minutes for me. Afterwards, the body starts to tell you that the level of carbon dioxide is increasing, that you should inhale. The diaphragm "kicks" you in the lungs at that moment, it's a natural process and perfectly fine. Based on receptors that respond to higher levels of CO2, the brain instructs the respiratory muscle - the diaphragm - the diaphragm contracts upwards, as if "kicking" into the lungs. When the first contraction comes, I already know how long I will last. I know I'm able to be at it for over five minutes. Around the fifth minute, however, there is always a mad crisis, the diaphragmatic contractions are strong and come in quick succession. One tries to ignore it, but for example in training in the water (I went to the pool with the coach a few times just before the race to make sure everything was working as it should) I always ended around the fifth minute. Because it was already unpleasant and I thought it was worthless if I wasn't participating in a race.

Gabriela Grézlová
Gabriela Grézlová • Source: archiv Gabriely Grézlové

What are you thinking about for so long without breathing? What's on your mind?

When I was in dry training, I used autogenous training. The point is that you consciously relax the muscles of your whole body and at the same time relax your mind. Let's say, you tell yourself that you have a heavy right hand. And you make your body believe it so much that you can feel it getting heavy. I'd do this for my whole body this way. So in general I'm trying to tell myself that I have a really heavy body and a light head, and my mind and thoughts are drifting somewhere far away.

So you're not thinking about things like what to eat after the race?

During the race itself, not at all. More like when a crisis arises, I remember the dolphins I observed in the same position upside down once in Africa. I am able to visualize this and it helps me at a stage when I am not feeling well. Around six minutes, one has to start being careful of hypoxia and focus on communicating with my coach. We have arranged signals, the coach has a list of exact signals that tell him what to do with me. I'm sort of a dictator in this. I don't need to hear that I have to relax, I want to know what's my time.

How does this communication work when you are underwater?

I hear it all underwater. If I show it, just a small signal with my index finger, he knows he has to tell me the time. We have an agreement on that. In higher times, he is already paying attention to whether I listen and react as I should. He gives me tasks, like I play the piano with my hands or show a middle finger and so on. In the final phase, I focus only on whether I am doing and hearing what I need to. And when to get out. I'm getting out on his command, it's his responsibility to pull me out at the right moment - not too soon, and not too late. A good coach is very important.

Is it possible, after diving into the water, to immediately know whether you'll get a good result or not?

One should not attach such importance to it. For instance, when I was at the European Championship in 2014, the contraction started for me incredibly soon there, in the first two minutes or so. That's when I was thinking, what am I doing here, it's gonna be a mess. And in the end, I set a world record (with a time of 7:45), so I guess one shouldn't stick to a specific result or number, because in my opinion, it limits you terribly. It's more about not giving up in advance. Of course, if you ruin the preparation before the start, and on top of that you don't have time to take a deep breath, there is no point in pushing it. I also once "succeeded" in that.

In 2017, your record was broken by the Austrian Veronika Dittes with a time of 8:53... Did that motivate you?

I wanted to set a record of over nine minutes in 2017 and then quit, that was my plan. However, about two months before the championship, I received a message, that a friend who was supposed to go there as well, died during training in the pool. In the first moment, I thought that I would just immediately quit the race and the whole freediving business. For a while, I wasn't able to train at all. Then I decided that I would go there and that I would win a medal for him - and it was already clear to me that unfortunately it wouldn't be gold - I couldn't concentrate on training at all, it was mentally very difficult. In the end, I won silver and was relieved I made it.

Have you tried any specific breathing exercises?

I started with yoga, I was on a course in breathing techniques, but I'm pretty punk in this matter, and most importantly I can't properly count. So those exhale-inhale intervals with counting the seconds, I'm instantly lost in it. It's not for me at all. I always just lie down and more or less just do some breathing exercises. But to focus on whether I was breathing into my stomach or somewhere else, I never really cared about that.

Gabriela Grézlová
Gabriela Grézlová • Source: archiv Gabriely Grézlové

How is it going with diving nowadays for you? Are you still doing it?

I don't do freediving anymore. If we are somewhere by the sea and I can't dive with the device, then I'll take a snorkel or sometimes not even that. For me, scuba diving has always been my favorite. But we often go diving with my friends too. Last week I was on a dive in the Vltava after a long time. Under normal circumstances, when everything is open, I am in the water almost every weekend.

Do you have a favorite place for diving?

I like the Hraničná shaft, where I haven't been for a year now and I'm really looking forward to coming back again. Or there are also a lot of beautiful flooded quarries where you can dive. There are many beautiful granite quarries in Pardubice and Vysočina. As for abroad, I definitely fell in love with Mexico. Beautiful flooded caves with stalactites, clear and warm water. That's really great for someone who's used to dark cold water, it's like a reward.

Have you ever dived with the sharks?

I have, and not just once, it was wonderful. If you follow some rules on how to interact with them, it's quite safe. Of course, it's still a wild animal that can be unpredictable. But if I don't bother them in any way (I don't really touch animals underwater and I don't make underwater scooters out of sharks at all), then either they won't notice me or I'll disturb them with the exhaled bubbles. When I meet them underwater, I always wish they wouldn'ta swim away from me too quickly.

Gabriela, thank you for the interview.

Fast confession:

What method do you most often use to practice your breath?

Yoga. I started doing yoga during the quarantine.

What was the first thing that came to mind after breaking the world record in free diving in 2015?

That I can go even further.

What were you thinking underwater?

At first, of nothing and then of dolphins.

Favorite place to dive / you have dived at?

There are an awful lot of them. I also dive with the device and ideally the most beautiful are the Cenotes in Mexico.

What do you like to indulge in when you are alone?

When I'm not working, it's probably an herbal bath.

Your year 2020 in one sentence.

It was hell, but again, it wasn't that bad.

What are your expectations from this year?

It will be hell, but hopefully it will be a little better.

The most beautiful moment of this year's Christmas?

My little niece when she was destroying the tree.

Who is your favorite athlete?

Věra Čáslavská. Today, however, clearly the best is Ester.

What is it that someone can make you most happy with?

When we can meet and talk.

Three qualities that characterize you.

Hypercritical, meticulous beast.

A fashion trend that didn't appeal to you at all.

I'm not a fan of tattoos.

How much time do you spend in the bathroom in the morning?

When I'm working from home, a relatively short time.

What would your dream vacation look like?

Galapagos on a boat, diving, sharks and so on.
The interviewee asks the interviewer:

What was your year 2020 like?

A little messy and thankfully it was spent working.
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