Alessia Zecchini loves the sea and its depths. However, today, the mistral is too cold and stormy for training in the churning waters of the Mediterranean by Cap Ferrat. Yet, it is not too cold to learn more about her passion. This young woman from Rome ranks among the best free-divers in the world – and in 2018 she is looking to beat the world record for diving while holding her breath.
I also used to be a freediver and, thanks to this shared passion, a special atmosphere there was immediately during our conversation on the beach of the Côte d‘Azur. Alessia clearly remembers the day that changed her life: “I have been diving since the age of six, and in order to receive my swimming certificate, I had to dive in a 25-meter pool. And it just clicked.”
It was the beginning of what became her great passion. Every summer, she drove to the seaside with her parents and spent many hours in the water, practising equalization techniques. It was all just for fun at first but then, when she was 13 years old, she heard about a freediving course; she registered for it and began to realize her dream. Where does this passion come from? “Freediving is a fascinating way to be in intimate contact with nature while getting to know the deepest parts of oneself.” To Alessia, this form of diving does not just mean holding her breath. Courage, a clear mind and an awareness of risks must work together. This means understanding your own body, knowing how it works best and controlling your muscles. It also means mastering your fears and guiding your thoughts to create a parallel world of silence and concentration. Freediving is, above all, a battle with yourself. Knowing your own limits and trying to push through them and overcome them and to win.
- Place of birth
- Date of birth
- June 30, 1992
- Professional freediver
- 173 cm
- 104 m Constant Weight (AIDA)
250 m Dynamic With Fins (CMAS)
2013 – the first world record
Although just 18 years old at the time, Alessia had ambitious goals. She was training every day, covering many kilometers both in and under water, completing training sessions – and her discipline paid off. In 2009, she qualified for the Italian championships, and in 2011 she came second and was selected for the national team in 2012. Freediving is practised internationally as a competitive sport with a recognized set of rules. In 2013, Alessia used the guide rope to pull herself down to a depth of 81 meters without using ballast or fins and thereby set a new world record in the free immersion discipline recognized by the international diving association CMAS. How would you explain this form of freediving? “I leave the surface of the water as soon as I have breathed in as much air as possible using the buccal pumping technique.” Then Alessia descends to the depths, becoming very calm. While the light gradually disappears and it grows darker around her, she also slows down her heartbeat. As the temperature of the water sinks, her level of concentration rises. There is no room for fear, it gives way to courage. Any doubts have to stay above water.
Freediving teaches you that you can achieve and control everything with your thoughts.
It is all down to concentration
It is hard work training for a new world record. Alessia trains at the same spot for over a month, always diving deeper, over and over again. A rope serves as a guide, and on it, deep underwater, is a small tag attached as proof of the world record. Just like in October 2017, when, off the Long Island coast of the Bahamas, Alessia dived to a depth of 104 meters lasting three minutes thirty seconds, setting a new world record in the constant weight apnea discipline – a depth dive at constant weight and using fins. When asked about her secret for success, she answers: “It’s all down to concentration. The years of training have enabled me to reach a mental state free from fear and stress. It really helps to visualize the dive shortly beforehand. I visualize the hyperventilation, the dive, how I reach the tag and the ascent back up. I even visualize the feeling of joy and the applause of those present when I return to the surface. If no difficulties come up, then the whole thing happens in reality just as I had imagined it.” I ask her again about fear and courage. Many people find it difficult to believe that a person is capable of doing such a thing. “Maybe it’s because I started diving at such an early age, but I really don’t feel any fear or other feelings of uneasiness. Quite the opposite, in fact!” Is this courage or recklessness? There is a fine line between the two: courage is needed to master a daring feat. Recklessness is when you’re not properly prepared.
Looking for warm water
The location is, of course, also important for freediving. “My favorite location? Wherever it’s warm, of course! For example, I’m often in Daheb in Egypt. I get on well with the locals, the coral reef is fantastic and the Blue Hole is the ideal training place for me. I have just come back from the Maldives, where there are also optimal conditions for my discipline: warm water – even deep down, few hard temperature transitions, a diverse underwater world to observe, fish and even sharks, clear water and special lighting conditions. Until a few years ago, I trained principally in the Mediterranean which enabled me to compete everywhere. Then I discovered the warm waters of the tropics, and competing in the Mediterranean became increasingly difficult.”
A real rush
I ask her about her most emotional diving experience. It must surely have been when she broke the 104 meter mark a few months earlier, reaching the tag, despite the numbness which occurs at these depths. The rush you get – due partly to pressure and partly to nitrogen in your tissue – is something you never forget. “Yes, my exhilaration and emotions were unforgettable. Because I also knew that I had beaten my Japanese rival by one meter and set a new world record!”
It’s all down to concentration. The years of training have enabled me to reach a mental state free from fear and stress.
We haven’t yet spoken about the equipment. How important is it? “It is very important indeed to be properly equipped. The fins, mask, snorkel and safety line must be reliable, comfortable and high-performance – without compromise. I exclusively use the equipment of a manufacturer who is also my sponsor. I am very happy with it.”
Alessia also tells me that free immersion is currently her favorite discipline, diving without a mask and fins, with only a nose clip and a safety line fixed between the waist and the guide rope. The diver pulls him or herself on the guide rope during the descent and again during the ascent and is otherwise completely free. To date, the record is 92 meters and Alessia already managed to reach 90 meters during training last summer. When I ask her what depths or distances she wants to reach in both this and other freediving disciplines, she tactically does not answer, preferring to look out over the sea. After all, her rivals don’t need to know too much.