Erin Magee pushes herself deeper

Erin Magee is floating face up in the ocean. Even though the closest shoreline is three miles away, her breathing is slow and controlled. As her safety diver counts down the final 10 seconds, Magee takes one deep breath, gently turns into the water and executes a flawless duck dive, her monofin the last thing to disappear as she begins her descent to 65 meters (213 feet) below the surface. Two minutes and 10 seconds later she resurfaces and goes through her recovery breathing with a smile across her face. Another routine training dive accomplished.

A sport that was once considered extreme, freediving has been enjoying a recent rise in popularity in the world of endurance sports. With no tanks, no regulators and no air other than what a diver can pack into her lungs before slipping under the water, freediving, (also known as apnea or breath-hold diving), made headlines in the 1970s with the rivalry between Frenchman Jacques Mayol and the Italian Enzo Maiorca. Their athletic battle for setting depth records was immortalized in Luc Besson's 1988 film "The Big Blue." Magee found the sport in 2006, and became one of the best females by 2009.

"It is an exploration of yourself and your relationship with the ocean," Magee said. "You have to reach deep and find a part of you that doesn't come out on a day to day basis."

Last year the 26-year-old Floridian broke Tanya Streeter's long-standing U.S. record in the constant weight discipline -- going as deep as possible while wearing a monofin -- when she reached 71 meters (233 feet) during the Deja Blue competition in Grand Cayman.

At that depth, a diver's lungs shrink to less than 1/8 their normal size making equalization of the ears and sinuses nearly impossible. Freedivers carefully train their bodies to withstand that kind of pressure while performing anaerobic exercise. In other words, these athletes learn to love lactic acid.

"Things happen to your body when you freedive that never happen during the normal course of your life," said Magee. "You push your body to what you think are your physiological limits, then you blow past them."

Over the past two years Magee has blown past freediving limits with the subtlety of a 747. After working as a scuba instructor and acting as the go-to savior of lost masks and car keys 70 feet underwater, the former college crew captain began to freedive in her spare time.

"I was diving by myself and seeing stars when I surfaced. I was pushing myself to the brink of a blackout and I was doing it alone! I'd never, ever do that now," Magee said. The cardinal rule of freediving is to have a safety buddy with you at all times. Ninety percent of blackouts happen at the surface so constant supervision is a must for freedivers.

After taking some freediving courses and nailing a 5:15 breath-hold, Magee was addicted. She ditched the tanks and became an instructor for Performance Freediving International. Within five months she entered her first competition and a year and a half later she was setting a national record. A meteoric rise like that doesn't come easily. "Everything I do is about improving my performance. The food I eat, the training I do, the amount of sleep I get -- it's all to help me go deeper."

And how deep does she think she can go? "That's the greatest thing about freediving," she said. "We still have no idea what the physical limits are for human beings undergoing apnea to depth, so really there aren't any limits at all. Freediving pushes me every day to see what my body is capable of and so far it's shown me there isn't a limit."

Magee will attempt to break her freediving record at this year's Deja Blue International Competition, which takes place May 7 to 13 in the Caribbean's Grand Cayman Island.

Want to go deep? Learn more about freediving and follow Magee's performance here.

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