Tanya Streeter Redefines Limits—Her Own and Yours

By Leah Fisher Nyfeler – September 5, 2012
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

Mermaids have captivated human imagination for centuries. All sea-faring cultures have mermaid tales—stories of beautiful women, half fish, half human, who live in the sea. While modern science has debunked the myth of the mermaid, it has also made it possible through scuba diving, snuba (a hybrid of snorkeling and scuba diving), and a variety of underwater vehicles for people to play at becoming a sort of clunky, artificial marine animal, able to inhabit the underwater world for extended lengths of time. But there have always been those who long for a more pure relationship with the sea. Some, like world-class athlete Tanya Streeter, have found such purity through the sport of freediving. But Streeter will tell you that her relationship with the sea transcends her world records—all the way to the essence of life and the way she moves through the world.

It’s important to get the hyperbole out of the way. Streeter has been called a Caribbean diving queen, blonde beauty, extreme diver, and “the world’s most perfect athlete,” just to list a few of the superlatives, all of which make the 39-year-old athlete, wife, mother, and Austin resident recoil with distaste.

“There’s a line in a film that was made about me, ‘the deepest anybody’s ever gone and survived’ or ‘lived to talk about’ or something, and it just makes me cringe,” Streeter explained. She was curled in an armchair in her south Austin home, her long, tanned legs tucked beneath her and her shoulder-length blonde hair loose about her face. What Streeter can neither deny nor cringe at is the fact that she has set numerous world records in freediving, a sport that involves diving without the aid of breathing apparatus. In fact, one of her records still stands; in 2002, Streeter dived to 525 feet (160 meters) in the No Limits Apnea category (the diver descends and ascends using her method of choice), breaking both the men’s and women’s world records. Two months later, Loïc Leferme reclaimed the men’s record with a dive of 162 meters, just six feet deeper (the current men’s No Limits Apnea record was set in 2007 by Herbert Nitsch at 214 meters, or 702 feet). But no other woman has since dived deeper than Streeter’s 525 feet, the length of more that five NBA basketball courts laid end to end and ten feet deeper than the Frost Bank Building is tall. That dive took Streeter three minutes and 26 seconds…on one breath of air.

Descending to Look Within

The easy answer to Streeter’s underwater success would be that she is a physical anomaly. It is human nature, after all, to relegate that which is not understood to the vague area that lies beyond the accepted capacity. Streeter strongly disagrees with this position. “I still don’t believe that I’m physically and physiologically any different,” she stated. What she does believe is that her mind and her approach to freediving are different from others.“I was so happy that this article is for the ‘Mind/Body’ issue,” Streeter said in her polished British accent, ever so slightly dampered by 12 years of living in Austin. “Freediving is nothing if it isn’t about the relationship between the mind and the body.”Streeter attributes much of her success in freediving to her unique relationship to the sea afforded by a childhood in Grand Cayman. “I love the ocean,” she explained. “I literally grew up in the sea. I know that I’m the best diver I’m going to be, I’m the best woman, the best Tanya, the best athlete, the best individual I’m ever going to be when I’m in the water. Because I’m the most honest with myself there, oddly, and that comes from a comfort level that I have in that environment, which comes from growing up in that environment.” When Streeter and her brother fished, she often got bored and jumped out of the boat to chase after fish. There was no TV or selection of extracurricular activities to distract the children. The sea was quite literally their playground. Later, when her parents divorced and things became “not so fun,” the sea served as Streeter’s refuge as well.“The sea was my safe place. And it was my playground and my safe place as a kid and, as an adult, it was my proving ground,” Streeter reminisced. “I started to dive because somebody said I should try and I’d be good at it…but I also didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, and I don’t think I knew who I wanted to be, and so I went to the sea just to have the question answered.” This mindset, this questing aspect to both her sport and her beloved ocean, began to shape Streeter’s life.

Streeter began freediving in her 20s, training under noted diver Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras, and records fell by the wayside. Because of the natural way she had been introduced to the sport, she had never realized her talent for deep diving and had assumed her comfort in the water to be easily achieved by others. She began to train, learning specific techniques to extend her ability to hold her breath and working to strengthen her body against underwater pressure.

“I think I’ve said it 100 times,” Streeter said with a wry smile, “what suddenly made me better at freediving was moving to Austin, oddly, where there is no water [deep enough to train]. I had to do gym training and I had to do weight training because it was the only training I could do. I HATED it. I went to the gym this morning and I’ve learned to love it ten years later. But back then, when I made that shift…I guess what came with maturity was being able to be headstrong with those things I didn’t like because I understood the equation of ‘hard work equals results.’” Streeter’s hard work paid off in the form of world records and sponsorships. She set her sights on the No Limits Apnea record. However, the sport began to take its toll on her, both mentally and physically.

“I had done a No Limits dive before to 375 feet, and that was early on,” Streeter remembered. “That was hard, but then to tell everybody that I was going to go not just into the unknown of myself but into the true unknown of human potential, that was hard for anybody who cares about me to deal with.” She gently chuckled that her mother had friends all over the world lighting candles for her safety when she announced the new record attempt. Combining the realization of the hardship on her loved ones with the “dancing monkey” nature of freediving as business (“I lost some of the magic with that”), Streeter came to an important internal decision: “The No Limits dive was going to be a great big thing, this great big thing for freediving, for women in sports, and for sports in general. And then I was going to retire.” What Streeter did not foresee was the impact that her experience at the bottom of the ocean would have on her life.

Make Your Mind Your Weapon, Not Your Weakness

While one might think that Streeter’s absolute comfort in the sea might cause her to be cavalier in her approach to dives, nothing could be further from the truth. Her respect for the sea included a healthy dose of fear: “It’s immensely powerful and unknown, and every time I dived, I dived into an unknown part of myself.” While Streeter had seen other divers make “offerings” (tossing coins, saying prayers) for safe returns, her bargain with the sea was much more intimate. “I sat by myself in the front of the boat and listened to Bob Marley and I zoned out,” she explained, “and it was more of an internal conversation—‘If you just watch my back now, I’ll watch your back later.’ And that was it.”

Aside from Streeter’s mental preparation, her husband Paul had assembled a highly trained crew of safety personnel for the dive. Divers from all over the world—Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Turks and Caicos—made up the deep sea team. Not just any scuba diver could assist: “It’s one thing to go that deep and that’s your only job, to go down and come back up. There’s a lot involved in technical diving to those depths. It’s the difference between being a passenger on the plane and flying the plane.” The crew and Streeter worked together to prepare for more than five weeks, starting with shallow dives and gradually working deeper. This allowed the team to get to know each other and practice the routines of the dive over and over. Streeter emphasized that each member of the crew had the ability to call off the dive, and she recalled one instance involving an inquisitive 12-foot oceanic whitetip shark bumping his nose into the dive line. “They eat first and figure out later that they shouldn’t have eaten that,” Streeter said, “I polled all of the crew. Everybody had the same degree of control; if anyone had said, ‘I don’t want to do it today,’ then okay, but one by one, ‘Nope, you’re good.’” Streeter laughed and said, “Of course, I’m the only one that’s wearing a silver diving suit and looks like a giant bait fish.” In another instance, the boat captain did call off a dive; a tropical storm was coming in and, while the team had assessed and felt conditions were good (they were all actually in the water, preparing to descend), the boat captain noticed that the wind and high seas had caused cracks in the fiberglass of the boat where the sled arm was attached. Had the arm come crashing down, lives could have been lost. Calling off that dive “took the biggest set of balls,” Streeter said with admiration.

Even with expert knowledge and careful planning, things can go wrong and her official No Limits dive started poorly. In February 2012, Streeter gave a TEDxAustin talk where, for the first time, she revealed all that had happened during that record-setting dive. The first issue was that Streeter actually blacked out while doing her preparatory breathing. While this wasn’t clear to the more casual spectators, the safety crew, her husband, and the judges certainly knew. Streeter had to assess the impact on her, not the least of which was the mental upheaval of a poor start to an important dive. She opted to proceed. Her next hurdle was at the bottom of the rope, at maximum depth, when narcosis set in and she was unable to process a simple task: releasing the pin to activate the lift bag to carry her to the surface. The safety diver, stationed about 75 feet above in the clear water of the Caribbean, had started his descent to Streeter and had pulled out the secondary lift bag. But in those seconds, Streeter had found her mental focus and it came from a surprising place. In that short time, “the only thought I had was that [the end] was going to be sad. And I was at peace with it, and that peace scared me into thinking, ‘Ok, you’re done down here. You can’t be that comfortable down here. I understand that I’m human and it’s not going to serve me or the sport to be that comfortable with dying down here.’” Streeter recalled with a grim focus that, after surfacing, the minute she was able to reach her husband, she told him, “I’m done. I never want to do another one again.”

Racing Around the Track without a Helmet

The Streeters kept this resolve to themselves and were in the process of tying up loose ends when about six weeks later, Audrey Mestre announced that she was attempting to break the No Limits record. The freediving community is a small one, and Mestre and Streeter knew one another, as Mestre was married to Ferreras, Streeter’s former coach. Streeter was immediately concerned—not that her record would be broken but that she felt Mestre was being pressured to perform a dive she didn’t want to do under unfavorable circumstances without the proper regard for her safety. The attempt ended horrifically, with safety divers plunging from the boat to retrieve the unconscious Mestre after almost nine minutes underwater. Her death had a strong impact on Streeter. “There were just too many parallels that both shook me and gave me a sense of peace for her death,” Streeter recalled with controlled emotion. “I just didn’t panic so I don’t think she would’ve, and the nature of blackout is that you don’t see it coming. There’s no panic to it—it’s just like falling asleep,” she explained. “So I derived a good deal of peace from knowing that there was probably never a time where she would have fought and panicked and thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to die’ …She was probably very happy down there, that she was finding her own sense of peace….But it shook me to the core that I shared that in common with somebody who died—and somebody who died trying to break my record.”

There was also anger for Streeter in dealing with the accident; Mestre’s death had delivered a blow to freediving. “I’ve spent my whole career being very protective of the sport. I hated being referred to as a superhero or as being any different from anybody else or a freak of nature,” Streeter vehemently stated. “It’s a legitimate sport, not a stunt, and I hate all the salaciousness that goes with the way freediving is often times presented. So to me, a death in the sport is so damaging and Audrey’s death, due to poor safety, was just horrible for the image of the sport.” As a result, Streeter put off her retirement, resolving to dive again within a year in order to show that freediving could be done safely. Streeter’s 400-foot Variable Ballast dive on August 4, 2003, was the first attempt by a woman at a freediving record since Mestre’s death in October of 2002.

But what of the risk in making another attempt? Educated at a prominent girls’ school in the UK, Streeter is extremely thoughtful in her responses. She parsed the definition of “risk”: “I don’t minimize the risk. Don’t forget, I woke up every morning with a huge safety team who reassured me, who we’d handpicked. And we studied safety and put procedures in place that hadn’t been used before. We looked at what the rules called for and quadrupled it. We did everything to make it safe. So I didn’t believe that what I was doing was risky. You take all of that and put it against the backdrop of my relationship with the sea so, no, I don’t believe there was a risk to what I was doing.”

Streeter explained further with this analogy. “If I were to get in my car and go race around a NASCAR track in the opposite direction with those drivers while not wearing my seatbelt or my helmet, if I were to do the equivalent of that while freediving, then I would be taking risks. But I wasn’t. I had my helmet and my seatbelt and a whole bunch of other stuff.” Had Mestre utilized the same safety procedures, Streeter posited, she would still be alive today. “What Audrey was doing was racing around the track without her helmet and her seatbelt,” Streeter said.

A Redefined Relationship with the Sea

Streeter officially retired in 2006 and a few years later welcomed the birth of her daughter, Tilly, who’s almost 4 years old. The Streeters are doting parents; the day of the AFM photo shoot, Paul preserved the Saturday morning pancake ritual at home while Streeter posed, and then the family reunited around a neighbor’s pool. Mother and daughter swam and played; Tilly is, as Streeter said, “a complete water baby” who swims comfortably and is able to dive to ten feet to retrieve objects from the bottom of the pool. Her comfort around water speaks to the Streeters’ parenting philosophy: “Paul and I believe there are three ways to learn and to teach: you tell somebody, you show somebody, and you do it yourself. You hear it, you watch it, and you do it. We’ve never been afraid to let her do things herself.” If her daughter came to her with the desire to be a freediver, Streeter would feel fine about it, “though I’d tell her that her daddy has to manage her so she has a chance at making some money,” she laughed.

This methodology of telling, showing, and doing reflects how becoming a mother changed Streeter’s relationship with the ocean. Before Tilly’s birth, she’d begun to take a look at what freediving meant for her. “There were periods where I’d go, ‘What is the point? So she can hold her breath,’” Streeter said. “I did not discover a cure for cancer. Let’s keep this in perspective.” What was the purpose behind her ability to dive to great depths? After the new records in 2004, Paul encouraged her to look into a TV career, which Streeter described as “a sort of moving forward in life.” It took some mental fortitude to overcome insecurities that Streeter had about being on camera: “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, God, this is just so scary.’ And I’ve got a devil on one shoulder—‘It’s way too scary!’—and an angel on the other shoulder—‘You’re going to love it!’ And so we pounded a lot of pavement and banged on a lot of doors to basically put ideas in front of commissioning editors and agents.” Despite Streeter’s stature in sport, her articulateness, and camera-friendly physique, she remembers that “I heard lots of ‘no’ and when I was 28 or 29, I heard, ‘Oh, there’s lots of blonde 30-something presenters out there.’ And that just hurt because I wasn’t even 30; it was a bit harsh.”

Eventually, some TV opportunities arose through the BBC in the form of a series of films about encountering marine animals around the world. The series put her face and graceful swimming form in front of a wide Sunday night audience, featuring her in the type of family-friendly documentaries the BBC reserved for the timeslot between dinner and children’s bedtime. Filming forced her to face a different set of challenges. At the end of the first day on location in Belize, she found herself emailing Paul, writing, “We’ve made a big mistake. I suck at this. This is too hard.” The cumbersome underwater equipment and the show’s scripted nature had thrown her off. So Streeter did what she’d always done when things weren’t going well; she grabbed her mask and went snorkeling. “I swam to the reef and I had a good cry and I came back to the boat and called Paul, who reminded me, ‘You’ve got to find a way; we’re committed.’ And that’s the thing—when I’m committed, I’m good and I’ll figure it out.” Streeter assessed her capabilities and redefined her limits. “I flipped my mental switch, something like I do when I’m diving, and I said, ‘OK. No more breathing underwater, no more scripts. Let’s make this not quite so hard for me.’ And we figured it out.”

While Streeter will modestly demur when asked if fans recognize her, Paul smiled to say that she is, indeed, recognized by many, mostly when they are in the UK. “I got used to being Mr. Tanya Streeter,” he said. “The truth is, she doesn’t see it as much as the people who are with her do. But people on the street or in the shops will say, ‘That’s Tanya Streeter.’” That star quality, though something Streeter doesn’t particularly relish or seek out, has lead to the role that she believes gives purpose to her freediving accomplishments.

The State of the Ocean as Legacy

Being a celebrity wasn’t as palatable to Streeter as getting her hands dirty tackling marine environmental issues (“I wanted to be that crazy girl who put herself between the harpoon and the whale”), but she began to see the good her celebrity could bring. “I talked to organizers and they said, ‘We’ve got thousands of people to go and pick up stuff off the beach. What we need is somebody to say it’s cool to pick up the stuff on the beach.’ So I get it now,” she stated. “I understand that that has a value to it and I’ve made a career and a living out of it.”

As many parents can attest, the birth of a child changes everything and this was true for Streeter. Getting pregnant was difficult and then Streeter suffered from severe post-partum depression. Her attitude toward the environmental issues she’d championed even shifted. “Because I have a daughter, a legacy, you really start to understand a legacy and your own mortality. Everything is put into perspective when you have a child,” she explained.

Streeter became involved with the Plastic Oceans Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in the UK devoted to “significantly reduc[ing] plastic pollution in the environment by supporting and funding targeted solutions.” She is a patron of the foundation, which means that Streeter acts as a spokesperson and representative. She is also involved in a major documentary of the same name, which Streeter describes as “a cinematic release similar to ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and ‘The Cove’” which should be coming out in 2013. Streeter feels that the scope of the Plastic Oceans film is greater than what people typically associate with marine ecology. “It’s the human health issue,” she revealed. “I really feel like that’s what all the diving was for. In many ways, it’s led me to be responsible about the way I raise my own child. If that’s the only impact I have, then thank God I dived to the bottom of the sea to get it because she’s an angel. I get this extra soapbox because of my diving to be involved in a film like this and to get the message out to other people.”

A key point for Streeter is that “disposable” products are made of an indestructible material. She shook her head: “I remember the color of the paper that I read that fact on; it was that high impact for me. I thought about all those single-use things that we expect and it’s hard. But it’s almost harder to accept the impact and the contribution that we’re already making than it is to make the changes.” The goal is not to do away with plastics but to get people all over the world to be conscious of the choices they can make in products and to reduce the amount of materials dumped through that changed behavior. And Streeter practices what she preaches. She carefully removed plastic products from the backgrounds of the photo shoot locations and regaled the photo crew with several stories, one involving plastic cutlery at a home barbecue, which illustrated how “really annoying I can be” with that message.

Is Your Body Strongest or is Your Mind

In addition to the Plastic Oceans movie, Streeter is also currently working on a film with ESPN about Audrey Mestre, and the topic brings Streeter back to contemplating the deeper issues of freediving. She and the producers had hoped that her women’s No Limits Apnea record would be broken before the documentary was finished as a way to add closure to the story. That hasn’t happened and Streeter is disappointed. “I want that chapter of my life done. I want to see somebody safely and successfully break the record so that the rest of us aren’t looked at as anything other than what we are—just athletes in a sport, trading the podium now and then,” she declared. “We’re not defying death at all. To me, that’s the best end of the story and, on a personal level, would give me the greatest satisfaction. I don’t want the world record.”

As Streeter sees it, the more people who break the record, the more separation the sport will derive from the “stunt” status that the media grants with each death. The longer the record stands, the easier it is to surmise that Streeter is, in fact, different. There are so many factors that go into taking on a world record—funding, skill, desire—but paramount in Streeter’s mind is realizing capabilities. “You have to strike the balance between pushing yourself and realizing your limitations. My catchphrase, ‘redefining limits,’ was born of this idea that that is the very first thing you have to do­—accepting that you have limits to what you are capable of doing is the very first thing you have to do.”

Streeter strongly believes that her abilities are no different from anyone else’s: “I’d never have said that I’m any different…it didn’t serve me as an athlete, because, to me, if I was different than everybody else, then I was only ever as good as the difference. Again, it gives me chills because it’s very real. To have no difference means that I have the whole of human nature’s potential to be ‘as good as.’ To know that this part of me is different is to believe that all I have is this part. I still don’t believe that I’m physically and physiologically any different but I guess that, mentally, I am.”

For Streeter, competition involved a constant questioning: Is your body stronger or is your mind stronger? She expounded: “I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the better you get at a sport—or anything you set out to achieve—the doubt grows at the same sort of rate that your skill level grows. Certainly, the way I was wired, as much as I believed in myself, right behind it was my disbelief in myself. And, ultimately, in the end, because of the nature of my sport being to defy instinct, and to defy the instinct to survive—which goes across genders, across ages, across everything—because of that, it had to be mind over body.”

The No Limits record must fall because its standing flies in the face of Streeter’s belief that by “taking your mind out of the equation at all, you get to tap into what I guestimate is 30 percent of our physical ability that we just don’t know that we have.” She recounted a story she saw on the news about a war veteran who’d lost both his legs and was recovering in a wheelchair. His 2-year-old daughter asked him to play on the floor. “He said, ‘Oh, I can’t. Daddy can’t get on the floor.’ And she turned and said to someone, ‘My daddy can’t do anything.’ And it was like this (Streeter snapped her fingers). Now he’s done an Ironman and climbed Mount Everest and done all that stuff…but the point is, we do these things that really push us to the edge of ourselves, physically and, therefore, mentally, when we need to have a better understanding of ourselves or we need to prove something to ourselves.” It’s certainly true for Streeter, who revealed that, “when I pushed myself, it was always at a time where I was having some kind of personal crisis. It’s not something I’ve talked about a lot but it’s true. It’s always been about getting strength and understanding myself, about accepting myself. And pushing yourself really hard is just a really good way to do that.

“I don’t know if 525 feet is my limit. It may well be but until I try to beat it and fail, I won’t know. If I repeatedly try and don’t make the depth, then at some point I will be forced to accept that 525 is my limit.

“My story is so simple. I just wanted to see if I could do it.”



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