Underwater, He's an Extreme Success

Tom Sietas, world champion breath-holder, holds three records in "free diving," in which competitors see how long they can stay underwater.
Tom Sietas, world champion breath-holder, holds three records in "free diving," in which competitors see how long they can stay underwater. (Courtesy Of Tom Sietas)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 30, 2008

HAMBURG -- Nobody can take a deeper breath than Tom Sietas.

The 31-year-old German has blown away the competition in the nascent sport of "free diving," in which people vie to see how long they can hold their breath underwater. Thanks to a large set of lungs and advanced training techniques, Sietas has pushed the boundaries of physical endurance far beyond what was thought possible.

Doctors once assumed brain damage was certain for anyone whose respiration stopped for more than three or four minutes. And yet, on June 7, in a swimming pool in Athens, Sietas submerged himself underwater for 10 minutes and 12 seconds, shattering the world record by more than a minute.

Sietas, a lanky fellow who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 165 pounds, doesn't appear any worse for the wear. "I'm a pioneer in my sport," he said in an interview, relaxing at a cafe at this river city in northern Germany.

He's taking a short break from training these days after a busy summer. In September, he sat in a plexiglass tank of water on the stage of "Live With Regis and Kelly" in New York and vied for the record in a slightly different category, in which he was allowed to soak up pure oxygen beforehand. This time, he held his breath for 17 minutes and 19 seconds before he bobbed to the surface.

"Tom, are you okay?" a nervous Kelly Ripa asked her German guest as he opened his mouth to gulp in fresh air.

"Much better," he replied with a smirk.

In July in Hamburg, he set the world record for swimming the longest distance underwater without taking a breath: 700 feet, or almost nine lengths of the pool.

Like other extreme sports, free diving has exploded in popularity in recent years, attracting an estimated 10,000 competitors to organized events.

The sport draws on a long tradition of underwater breath-holding, including Asian pearl divers who swim to depths of 100 feet to harvest oysters and abalone. Even today, most free divers prefer to test their limits in the freedom of the ocean, instead of indoor pools.

Sietas discovered the sport in 2000 on a trip to Jamaica. He was scuba diving but was constricted from pain in his ears that got worse the deeper he went. Instructors taught him how to equalize the inner-ear pressure, a trick that worked so well he ditched his scuba tanks and began testing how deep he could go.

"I was so happy," he said. "I could go down 15 to 20 meters" -- 50 to 65 feet -- "and the whole undersea world was just so wonderful."

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