Tanya Streeter: How Can Breath Help Us Understand Our Limits And Our Potential? In 2002, freediver Tanya Streeter completed a record-breaking dive of 525 feet—in one breath. She reflects on the obstacles she faced, and the experience of pushing her body and lungs to the limit.

Tanya Streeter: How Can Breath Help Us Understand Our Limits And Our Potential?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and today on the show, the power of breath.

TANYA STREETER: It's all about the breath. Everything that I'm doing from - gosh, from the time I open my eyes that morning is really focused on my breathing.

ZOMORODI: This is Tanya Streeter. She's a world champion freediver, which basically means taking in as much air as possible into her lungs and then going down, down, down into a body of water as deep as possible.

STREETER: The thing about freedivers is that we're very tuned into our breath, and it's at the forefront of whether or not we're going to be able to achieve this sport.

ZOMORODI: So a few minutes before a big dive, Tanya's main job is to breathe.

STREETER: Because the idea is to supersaturate my entire system with oxygen. And we can achieve that by these long, slow inhales and long, slow exhales. So if you were listening, all you would hear would be me like, (inhaling, exhaling). I'm going to put myself to sleep if I don't stop (laughter).

ZOMORODI: It's so relaxing.


ZOMORODI: It's so relaxing.

STREETER: My fingertips are tingling right now. I got to...


STREETER: ...Shake it off. Yes, I find it - yeah. It's the miracle of our human physiology is what it is. It is not unique to just me.

ZOMORODI: Freedivers are aware of their every breath, but until recently, most of us didn't think much about the air we take in and breathe out. Now, though, breath is on our minds for lots of reasons.


AILSA CHANG: Respiratory viruses can be transmitted from one person to another through the air.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) I can't breathe. I can't breathe.


DAVID GREENE: Fires burning up and down the West Coast are causing poor air quality and choking some communities.

ZOMORODI: And as we become more aware of our breath, we become more aware of its power. And so today on the show, ideas and stories about air and breathing - and back to freediver Tanya Streeter and the moment when one wrong breath changed her life.

STREETER: My mind was either going to be my weapon or my weakness. And so if I stopped and quit then, that was going to be my mind.

ZOMORODI: In 2002, Tanya had been freediving for several years and had broken a few records. But she wanted to break the world record for women and men by diving to 525 feet in a category called no limits.

STREETER: No limits is where you hold on to this glorified bit of aluminum framework and zip down a rope to your target depth because there's a lot of weight in it. And then you have to inflate a lift bag to bring you back up again. And there's an entire safety team that are put together to make sure this is done safely, not just for me but also for them.

So we had very, very well-trained and experienced mixed gas divers going to be doing my safety all the way down almost to the bottom of the rope. It's actually incredibly dangerous for scuba divers to go as deep as I was going because, believe it or not, they are not as designed to go down there as I am. Scuba equipment is basically life support on your back. Now, my life support is my body, and my physiology is designed to do this. So my physiological blueprint allows me to dive. And they rely on their dive gear, but I need them. I need them for my safety. I need them for the rules under the governing body of the sport.

ZOMORODI: OK. So wait. Before we get back to 2002, I have to ask, how different is your physiology? Like, if you breathed into a spirometer, how much greater would your lung capacity be compared to someone - I don't know - like me, who just likes to go swimming once in a while?

STREETER: So the average person of my size and shape, when they take a deep breath to exhale into that spirometer to do their lung capacity test, would kind of go like this (inhaling, exhaling). And that's all they would get. Now, as a trained free diver and somebody who's, you know, really trying to blow the lid off that spirometer, I would take a breath that sounds like this (inhaling, exhaling). And that's called packing, and that is something that only experienced free divers should be doing because there are some inherent risks associated with it. But what it does for a free diver is it is a way of sucking more air volume into your lungs and expanding them as much as possible.

ZOMORODI: Now back to 2002 and Tanya's attempt to break the world record.

STREETER: I was basically as ready as I ever was going to be.

ZOMORODI: So Tanya's there with her team in position.

STREETER: At 10 minutes before go time, I mounted on my sled, and the safety divers are waiting in the water.

ZOMORODI: And at T-minus seven minutes, her safety divers begin their descent.

STREETER: It's all very, very carefully timed.

ZOMORODI: Then with two minutes to go, it's just Tanya and her husband left at the surface.

STREETER: So I've done the long, slow inhales and the long, slow exhales. I have put as much oxygen into my blood and my tissue as possible. And the long, slow exhale has reduced the amount of CO2 in my system as much as possible. And so now, I'm on my last breath. And I take it as long and slow, as deep as I can, using the muscles in my abdomen and my ribcage. And then I pack. And I hear the timer call out zero, and I'm still packing.

But in the case of this particular dive, I actually overpacked. I did what I trained not to do. And I just blacked out. Now, it's important to note that my airway was above water. And your body is an amazing thing. The second you blackout, it relaxes. And so as I exhaled, the pressure was released on my heart.

STREETER: It began to beat properly almost immediately, sending oxygenated blood to the brain, and I regained consciousness. And this took maybe three seconds. And I kind of lifted up my head, and I looked at the judge, and I said, I overpacked. Can I go again?

And he gave it some thought and said I could. And so I took a deep breath. I listened to the timer counting down. And I knew I had to go right there and then. And I packed a couple times, and my dive began.


ZOMORODI: Were you worried that you hadn't breathed in enough air at that point?

STREETER: I knew I hadn't breathed in enough air. I think I left with about 80% of my capacity, tops, when I had proven time and time again that I needed 100% of my capacity to get to 525 feet. So with 80% of my capacity, I thought, the best I can do is try.

So I got to about 350 feet or so, and it became difficult to equalize - to clear my ears against the mounting pressure around me. But I managed to equalize a little bit. And I thought, well, time to, you know, put my money where my mouth is and just try. So I release the brake on my sled. And I slowly began to do the next 200 feet. And they were slow, slow, slow - way too slow. Because if you spend too much time at depth, nitrogen dissolves into your blood, and it has a narcotic effect.

ZOMORODI: Tanya Streeter picks up her story from the TED stage.


STREETER: At 525 feet, I was hit by narcosis. And I couldn't think straight. I knew that I had three simple steps to get me out of there and back to the surface - one, put my hand on the lift bag; two, open the valve and dump air into the lift bag; three, pull the pin - one, two, three.

But in my haze of narcosis, I remembered that I had wanted to blow a kiss to the sea - my crazy thank you for letting me go down there. I did three steps, but my third was the kiss, and I forgot to pull the pin. And for a few very tense and terrifying moments, I was there alone, frozen at 525 feet. The narcosis just gripped me more and more, and I fumbled with my sled, trying to get it to work. And then, I had a very powerful, clear thought. This is going to be sad.


STREETER: I was thinking about all of the people that were waiting for me at the surface. This is going to be sad. It was powerful enough that it jolted me back to reality, and I remembered to pull the pin. It was an incredibly quick ride back to the surface, but it was a new world record.


ZOMORODI: I mean, it's a wild story, Tanya. You pushed yourself, your lungs, your body to the absolute limit. Everything went wrong...


ZOMORODI: ...And yet you still broke the world record. And I guess I'm trying to wrap my head around whether this moment was a triumph for you or was it actually deeply traumatizing? Have you come to reconcile that experience in your mind?

STREETER: Well, it was a decade before I spoke of this dive publicly because it was hard for me to accept that I had pushed as hard as I had - that that line between pushing hard and pushing too hard had become blurred. Because I was the one who was always saying, free diving is safe, you just have to follow the rules. Free diving is safe, you just have to be smart. And, you know, this, I think, was one of the times where I took a risk that wasn't necessary, but I took it because everybody else was trying their hardest. And so I thought I should, too.

But I think that as a human, as a woman, as a man, as a child, as an adult, you have limits. And it isn't until you take the proverbial and the literal deep breath and dive in that you will find out where your limits really are.

ZOMORODI: That's former world champion freediver Tanya Streeter. You can hear her full TED Talk at TED.npr.org.

On the show today, ideas about the power of breath. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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