At first glance Alain Richioud from the French city of Lyon looks just like anyone else, but he has a rare talent for apnea, which means holding your breath.
Last May at the French free diving championships he won the static apnea competition by remaining under water without breathing for seven minutes and 15 seconds.
The current world champion, Stephan Mifsud, remained underwater for 11 minutes and 35 seconds.
Alain, who started free diving seven years ago with a small club in Lyon explained static apnea: “Dynamic apnea is controlling physical effort and with static apnea it’s about relaxation. It’s a real sport, and I was a rugby player, but I like this sport. You learn a lot about yourself anyway. I don’t know if it’s apnea which lets you learn or the work that goes alongside it, notably sophrology which is the mental work we do to overcome obstacles. So it does involve introspection, even if you’re not looking for that, it’s what you discover as you go along. You learn about yourself.”
Next November, Alain will be part of the French national team competing in the European Apnea Championships in Turkey.
So should this be considered an extreme sport? We asked former world-champion Umberto Pelizzari, whose records occupy a whole page in the sport’s history books.
Umberto Pelizzari told euronews: “In apnea, you don’t breathe, that’s why we are led to believe that apnea is something for supermen, for people who want to go beyond their limits. It’s a sport where the mental factor is very important, which is what makes us think this. Anyone can take part. You’re limited by the impossibility of compensating as you dive. The pressure of the water pushes the eardrum inwards. You have to take the air from the lungs and move it towards the eardrums to push them back into their normal position.”
Apnea involves various disciplines: static apnea like Alain practices, and dynamic apnea with or without flippers. Free divers know that the most fascinating discipline is diving into open water.
Only 20 years ago, it was believed that humans could not dive deeper than around 50 metres, because it was thought that the water pressure would collapse the lungs. But now we know that is not the case, because off a phenomenon called blood shift.
Blood plasma fills up blood vessels in the lung and reduces residual volume. Without this adaptation, the human lung would shrink and wrap into its walls, causing permanent damage, at depths greater than 30 metres.
Over the years, and with increasingly sophisticated training methods, humans are diving deeper and deeper. Are there still limits?
Umberto Pelizzari explained: “Doctors have changed their attitudes towards apnea and they now recognise that humans can adapt to certain situations. Today medical researchers estimate that humans could probably dive as deep as 300 metres in view of their physiology.”
In mammals, including humans, we know that immersion in water slows the heart rate. For Pelizzari, at 100 metres underwater, seven,eight or 10 beats a minute have been registered.
So one day could humans really dive like dolphins?
Umberto Pelizzari doesn’t think so: “No, we’re built for breathing and living on dry land, not for swimming and breathing under water. We will never be like dolphins, but we can develop more, we can increase our capacity to evolve in the water and benefit even more from the wonderful sensations of apnea.”