‘I don’t want to die down there’



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"There's a moment when your lungs compress. There's so much water on top of you that you just sink. Gravity pulls you down. You don't have to move, you just let the water take you. You don't have to do anything, just relax. That's my favourite part of free diving; that's when I'm happiest."

A couple of weeks ago during a training session in the waters of Soufriere, Dominica Sofia Gomez set a new free-diving personal best: a depth of 97 meters.

Ninety-seven meters - 318 feet - below the surface of the water; no breathing apparatus, no back up or support - just some goggles, a pair of flippers and the belief she could turn around and get back before her body gave up.

The water-loving woman has made a splash in the free-diving world. Picture: @sofigomezu (Instagram)
One hundred metres below the ocean without any sort of safety net ... alone, no air ... to the casual onlooker whose depth range is the bottom of a 1.8m pool - it's terrifying.

But for the growing number who like super star of the sport Gomez can’t resist the lure of what was famously referred to in the Luc Besson 1988 movie as The Big Blue, it's a fragile reality you must respect - because your life depends on it.

"The sea is really powerful and if you go in the water with an ego or without being humble you realise that the sea is the one that is in charge," Gomez tells nine.com.au.

And no matter how busy you are in real life, and by her own admission on dry land, the 26-year-old Columbian is always in a rush - you have to respect this one simple fact ... you're a guest down there.

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"When I go in the water I change a lot. I go in super patient, I'm at peace; I feel freedom under the water," she says.

"The most beautiful part about that is you know freedom is not forever because you have to go and breathe again."

And that's a focus you can never let go of.

"Sometimes I sing to myself on the way, but I also repeat a mantra about how the water makes me feel: 'You're present, you're here, you're now, you are Sofia',"she says.

"The most important thing is to keep calm and try to focus a lot and not think, it's like meditation.

The diver has been to depths that would terrify most people. Picture: @sofigomezu (Instagram)
"These things to keep conscious are really important."

They are in fact the difference between life and death - and there have been deaths.

In 2013, 21-year-old US diver Nicholas Mevoli collapsed 30 seconds after surfacing from a 72m dive in the Bahamas without fins and never recovered. In 2002, French freediving star Audrey Mestre died attempting a world record off the coast of the Dominican Republic.

But those tragedies in a sport which treads such a fine watery line between life and death are not at the back of Gomez's mind.

"I don't want to die doing this, if I thought I would I wouldn't be doing it," she says.

"That's my goal, not dying. So, it's never in the back of my mind.

"I always go in the water knowing if I go down I can come back up."

The Colombian makes free diving look so easy but is something which takes great skill. Picture: @sofigomezu (Instagram)
But there was one moment.

"I was trying to do a really deep dive in a discipline called free immersion, which is when you go down pulling on a rope, and you have to grab a tag on a plate at the bottom," she says.

"I grabbed my tag, and I lost it. And if you don't come up with a tag, the dive is not valid.

"So I reached down again to grab it. And in that moment, I felt, in literally five seconds, my focus was gone, I was like, 'I am super deep'.

"When you're under water, time is long. When I was doing this it felt like an eternity, but it was like five seconds. I was like, 'I'm not going to make it'.

"I panicked. I started pulling as fast as I could.

"Looking back I didn't have to. But I was literally like, 'I am not going to make it'.

"I had to go 60 metres alone before I found my safety divers. I just kept thinking, 'I am not going to make it'.

"And I blacked out when I reached the surface."

I feel uncomfortable in my seat. Listening to this story, projecting myself 80-odd metres below the ocean - so far away from a chance of life with things going wrong - it touches a fear deep down inside me I prefer would be left that way.

But it is also heightened by the fact the star of the sport sitting in front of me who has set over 20 national and three world records - the latest the bi-fins constant weight record of 86m - is tiny, just 162cm.

To judge her by her height is a mistake. A big one.

Her story of near disaster, also touches upon one more rule for those participating - or even thinking about taking part in this sport: you should never reach your limit on the way down.

"If you feel like you are reaching your limit going down, it's because you are doing something extremely wrong. And you should really turn around," Gomez says.

Gomez admits she's a guest in the ocean. Picture: @sofigomezu (Instagram)
"You can start to feel the symptoms of a black out; start to experience tunnel vision, or you start feeling that the dive is getting really easy.

"But you shouldn’t feel like that as you are going down."

One mistake is all it takes down there.

Now she can laugh about that day when she dropped the flag.

"It was a really funny black out," she says. "Because normally you don’t know that you black out; I was out for five seconds. But the first thing I said was, 'But I have a tag', because I was disqualified, they gave me the red card and I was like 'But I have a tag!'.

The Colombian woman can't resist the lure of the deep ocean. Picture: @sofigomezu (Instagram)
"The rules of free-diving are such you have to prove to the judges that you're OK."

That might seem blaze, but that couldn't be further from the truth.

It's born out of the sort of confidence training everyday - with her coach and partner Jonathan Sunnex - gives you.

"I always go into the water knowing that what I'm about to do I can do it," Gomez says.

"When you have a target dive, you train for that. And you set the line for that depth.

Dominica Sofia Gomez has set a new free-diving personal best. Picture: @sofigomezu (Instagram)
"And you try to go that deep, if you feel like you can't go that deep and you've lost the air to equalise, you just turn around and go back up."

She also stretches every day to make sure her body is flexible enough to cope with the pressure.

"I'm in the water almost every day," she says.

"But when we are doing deep diving we train only five days a week, because we need to give the body time to rest."

Ninety seven metres below sea level is perhaps an even odder place for Gomez to find herself given she was born in the Columbian mountain town of Pereira.

But as a four-year-old visiting her grandmother on the Caribbean Sea coastal town of Santa Marta the ocean cast its spell on her.

Five years later some mates invited her and her sister to lessons at the local pool, which is where she spotted synchronised swimming.

Gomez, 26, said she feels at peace under the water. Picture: @sofigomezu (Instagram)
A year after that, Gomez took up fin swimming ultimately - as her talent developed- moving cities to compete for Bogota, then Medellin.

"Then at one of those fin sessions our trainer asked us to go as far as we could underwater in the pool and I did 100m with bi-fins, which was big because I had never done free diving before," she says.

"I was like, 'Oh this is really cool'.

"My trainer said, 'Sofia there is a competition in two weeks, you want to go?

"In my first competition I set a national record out of nowhere and everybody was like, 'Who's this girl?'."

It was an easy step from the pool to the ocean.

"In 2013 I went to Santa Marta one weekend and I did 40 metres straight away," Gomez says.

Gomez is relatively new to the free-diving sport but that hasn't stopped her hitting new records. Picture: @sofigomezu (Instagram)
"Which is not really responsible because you shouldn’t go that deep on the first time you dive because you can hurt yourself.

"But back then I didn’t know and also I knew I could hold my breath so I didn't really care about anything else.

"I was like, 'I want to go to the bottom and grab some sand from the bottom', so that's what I did.

Gomez said she's humble and knows it's the sea that's in charge. Picture: @sofigomezu (Instagram)
"Two months after that first weekend I went to my first ocean competition.

"It started like fun and games but now it's my life."

Not quite the life her parents expected having watched her graduate with the civil engineering degree they paid for - but one they now totally support.

Such is Gomez's profile for a sport no one in Columbia knew they were any good at until she arrived, she has even graced the cover of Playboy.

But where does this all stop. How deep can she go?

Well, right now she's aiming to go past three figures.

"I want to go to 100 metres, but I don't want to think 100 metres is my limit. I just want to think about it as a stepping stone," she says.

"But I know I can go deeper than that."

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