Is freediving an equal opportunity sport? Is participation different for men and women? What about the way freediving women are perceived on social media, or how they are represented?
We wondered about these questions, but cannot answer them from our own experience. Hence, we decided to ask five women in freediving: Jeanine Grasmeijer, Valentine Thomas, Sara Campbell, Tanya Streeter, and Radziah Radzi.
This read will take you about 10 – 15 minutes.
First things first: introductions
Is freediving an equal opportunity sport?
Jeanine: It is definitely an equal opportunity sport in the Netherlands. If anything women are encouraged to take part in freediving. Why we don’t have half as many female athletes as male, I don’t know. It’s not like soccer, which is still considered a very masculine sport. This can be a pretty big barrier for girls to start and/or continue, society basically discourages them from it. But freediving is both: Very masculine because of it’s extreme nature and very feminine in it’s gracefulness and spirituality. So it fits both parties.
But since you ask, I’ll whine a bit. As in most sports men will always be better, when you look at the numbers. They always go deeper, further and longer. So their performances will always be seen as the ultimate performance, the maximum of human capability. It’s only when a woman exceeds a man’s performance that she rises to his level. As was the case with Natalia Molchanova (all hail the Queen!)
I’ve heard say that women should physically be able to reach the same depths as men and that it’s a matter of training. I don’t believe this. It’s a mental sport yes, but 20% is still physical. As far as I know there are no physical sports where women’s world records consistently equal or exceed men’s. Men and women are built different. So I believe women should sooner be seen as exceptional in their own right. This is for all sports, not just freediving.
Valentine: I am more into spearfishing than into ‘pure’ freediving, but I think it is. The women in my freediving classes sometimes have a bigger mental barrier, but once they go past that they are amazing!
Sara Campbell: Absolutely! Mainly because it’s not a professional sport yet so it’s open to everyone to get involved and do their best. As and when (and if) it becomes more professional, with government subsidies and more serious and broader sponsorship offers, then we might see things change. But for now, each athlete creates his or her own opportunities and can embrace equally all the the sport and the ocean has to offer.
However, I do recognize that for people living in Europe, or away from opportunities for regular, quality depth training, it can be challenging and frustrating. To have depth training limited to a few short weeks a year, and still be relaxed with a goal of improving a PB or competing at a big event, such as the worlds, is almost asking the impossible. But this applies to all freedivers, not just women.
Radziah: I think it is equal opportunity for men and women. Actually, if we look into competitive freediving, our late freediving queen Natalia has held world records that were higher than the contemporaneous men’s records! Perhaps, because it is such a mental sport, maybe women have the upper hand haha! Just kidding ;)… In Malaysia, some of the women’s national records are higher than the men’s.
Unfortunately, because it is a sport without much sponsorship, it is not equal opportunity for people in different countries. Naturally, if you live in a richer country with access to deep and warm water you will have much more opportunity than if you live in a landlocked developing country. Unless you can pay for international airfare, competition fees, and the cost of training you won’t be able to compete on the same level.
Tanya: I do believe freediving is an equal opportunity sport! The playing field is pretty level!
Are there (or have there been) any barriers for your participation in the sport?
Jeanine Grasmeijer: Not when it comes to gender inequality. The barriers I’ve faced were either financial or personal.
Tanya Streeter: There have been no barriers for me, but I did retire from competition before having children, by choice.
Sara Campbell: Living in Dahab I never experienced any barriers for participation. The limitations of the sport as it is right now in terms of sponsorship, creates barriers for athletes to open up opportunities for more time training depth. I think however, that this year has seen a break-through of that paradigm – the invention of the Dive-Eye underwater camera at the worlds will hopefully break the vicious circle that athletes have found themselves in; it is not possibly to convince big serious sponsors to get involved either at the event or personal level, until there is serious, mainstream coverage for them to realize return on their investment. The Dive-Eye will hopefully be the break in that cycle that athletes and event organizers have been waiting for.
Valentine Thomas: My brain haha. Freediving is such a mental sport and sometimes my mind plays tricks on me, it tells me to go back up and that I’m out of air when I’m not. I used to suffer from a lot of anxiety when I was younger, so this sport helped me overcome that. When you manage to let go, it is the best feeling in the world. The second barrier has been my ego. There is a competitive side of this sport and sometimes it makes you forget about what is truly important. We tend to forget that it is essentially a team sport!
Radziah Radzi: No, there have not been any barrier so far for me to participate in the sport either competitively or just for leisure.
But there are some challenges for me as a female Muslim freediver.
I consciously choose to sacrifice performance to adhere to my religion. It is not just about the headcover, but also about wearing a loose outfit rather than a snugly fitting wetsuit. I still wear a wetsuit but I do cover it with a rashguard, tennis skirt and long pants. Of course this is a personal choice, and everyone should decide for themselves. To other Muslim freediving women I just want to share these:
- If you choose to wear draggy clothes outside your wetsuit, realize and embrace the fact that you are losing performance (only slightly).
- Come to terms with the sacrifice you choose to make to adhere to our faith. If you don’t glide as far per stroke as someone not wearing a loose-fitting rashguard, it’s okay, and you can try to compensate another way to swim the same distance.
What do you think of the way women who freedive are represented (or the way you represent yourself) on social media?
Jeanine Grasmeijer: People choose how they present themselves in photos and on social media, it’s in their own hands. Someone once told me: ‘If you want followers as a girl, you need to show some skin’. This is a fact and you can use it to your advantage. There is no doubt in my mind that the most popular freediving women on social media are very fit and feminine and not afraid to show it. But it’s certainly not specific for freediving and it’s not the only way. You can also be funny, inspirational, motivational, educational, etc. Either way, I think anyone who has the courage to put himself out into the superficial world of social media and inspire people, is amazing.
Valentine Thomas: A lot of women in freediving are naturally sexy and fit. I think it is admirable to be comfortable with your body and who you are. That doesn’t mean posting pictures of you bending over, it just means that you acknowledge you can be a sexy woman. I believe confidence is sexy. Some men like to complain that women get more popularity just because they show bikini pictures. The reality is that it is still a men’s world, and women are at a disadvantage for a lot of things in society, so I don’t think using our looks to empower ourselves is a bad thing. And in the end, we should all get together and have each other’s back.
As a woman, a lot of people accused me of posing with fish that weren’t mine. I did this once when I started out, on my second time spearfishing. Initially I just didn’t think it mattered, but I quickly realized that if you are a woman, you have to achieve double if you want credibility. But I don’t want to sound pessimistic. In the end it was all the bad talk that pushed me to do a freediving course and made me push my limits as a diver.
Sara Campbell: I think it’s great to see more and more women approaching and breaking through the 100m ‘glass ceiling’. Many of them are doing really well with self-promotion, but it varies according to their own expertise, contacts and drive and desire. Ideally, with sponsorship, each athlete could employ a social media/brand manager to handle their online presence to really promote themselves and maximize opportunities for both promotion and earning, through public speaking and media appearances. Currently, it’s ad hoc, according to the individual athlete’s own abilities, budget and feelings.
As for my personal marketing, I’ve moved away from promoting myself as an athlete and am now working to promote my teachings, my school, Discover Your Depths, and my online training program ‘Yoga for Freediving‘. As I’m now working in the sport, I have a dedicated social media manager, as well as graphic designer, website manager etc. But this is beyond the reach of most athletes, and some coaches. It’s tough, I struggled, and still do. And of course the more popular the sport comes, the busier the market and the harder each of us has to work to be seen and heard. Big diving results, such as national and world records are invaluable for both men and women when it comes to promotion because the world and the media loves to benchmark us, but of course they are not the be all and end all when it comes to the greater experience of the sport – that is something between the athlete/diver and the ocean itself.
Tanya Streeter: I think the freediving world is currently full of women representing themselves and the sport responsibly. And I think they bring a softer approach to a fiercely competitive sport, which is great.
Radziah Radzi: I think that the women in freediving are represented well, fairly and with respect of their capabilities as athletes. If we compare how men and women are represented in social media, we can’t deny the fact that women’s physical beauty, attractiveness, and sex appeal do play a role in their “popularity”. However, for the athletes, I don’t think this overshadows their freediving ability, after all they are all well performing freedivers and deserve the recognition.
I do remember a recent post about a female freediver breaking a National Record for Static (I don’t remember her nationality though). Her post appeared in the AIDA International FB page. So, naturally people congratulated her. However, one guy thought it was funny to comment something along these lines: “You know she is good gf/wife material as she can keep her mouth shut for that long”. Of course a lot of people expressed their distaste (guys included). It was very distasteful, and comments like these belittle her fantastic performance for no reason.
There are certain recurring themes in social media. Some female freedivers identify themselves as mermaids, spearfishing women, underwater models, freediving instructors or experts, freediver yogis, vegan/vegetarian/clean eating freedivers, while other freedivers just share their activities; training or excursions on social media. I do not have any issue with this. What I do have an issue with is posts of over exposing butt and cleavage shots. I think some of the social media accounts that have these posts are run by men, but even so the women are legit female freedivers, and maybe they do spearfish too. Unfortunately, most of the photos just show them wearing sexy bikinis, and holding a big fish in a seductive pose! Sometimes they do have underwater shots while wearing a very sexy bikini and holding a spearfishing gun but many times these are shots from (the) “behind”. It could just be my culture, or maybe I am too old-school, but I don’t find those are tasteful photos. Though maybe they do dress that way while spearfishing and maybe they are really proud of the big fish they caught, but I can’t help but cringe while thinking of how those photos are viewed by men. And I think it only portrays female spearfishers as seductive and sexy, not as great spearfishers. Not everybody does this of course. I think these shots are mostly on spearfishing social media accounts for or by men, which I unfollow instantly.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Jeanine Grasmeijer: Yes! I do. There is something that I noticed during the AIDA Depth World Championships in Roatan: The men and women’s performances were separated and what a difference it made. Because they were separate the women’s competition was much more exciting. A 90-m dive for a man may not mean a medal while that could be gold for a woman This is what I was talking about before. Competing at the same time as men doesn’t do justice to the performances of women.I think separating the men’s and women’s dives should be standard procedure, after all, they don’t dive for the same medals.
Radziah Radzi: I just would like to share something about the experiences I had as a Muslim freediver. I need to plan a little different from other divers. For example, changing attire is something that needs to be planned for someone who can’t show any skin. I have gone, fully prepared in my wetsuit, from hotel room to dive spot and vice versa to avoid showing any skin.
When I went to Adam Stern’s DeepWeek training in Bali we sometimes had a classroom session in the dive centre before the dive, so I would wear my wetsuit in the classroom session. “Are you not hot?”, is a normal question. I wear just a 1.5 mm wetsuit and I don’t have any problems with heat but I do need to plan ahead of time to avoid changing trouble.
There can also be a bit of social awkwardness because different cultures mix. For example, I try to adhere to the rule of not touching men that are not of blood relation to me. I struggle between choosing not to be rude versus strictly adhering to that rule.
Some people from western countries are not aware about this and they will offer a hug or shake hands. I sometimes accept the hand shake but I will try not to hug. Every now and then someone won’t give me a choice though, and I am too slow to say “urm.. sorry I can’t hug you” haha.
On another note, some Muslim female freedivers from abroad have also asked me for advice, on how do I freedive while protecting my aurat (female muslims’ parts that have to be guarded from non-family males’ eyes). They ask questions like what kind of head cover I use, how do I keep it on while freediving and doing water activities and what are good swimming attires for Muslimah (female Muslim). This makes me feel that I have a purpose that even while I’m not a big performer, athlete or instructor, I can still contribute.
Join in on the conversation with the comments below!