Hold Your Breath: Freediving Founder Jeremy Stephan Dives Deep Into His Sport

Words Alexandria Baker

Beneath the ocean’s surface, a whole new dimension opens up to those who would dare to brave the depths. While many adventurers have taken the plunge with the help of scuba gear — bolstered by oxygen tanks — only a rare few souls know what it’s like to merge naturally with the aquatic world, freediving as they hold their breath and sink slowly to the ocean floor.

Jeremy Stephan is one such soul. The founder of the United States Freediving Federation (USFF) first experienced the sport while on a transformative trip to Greece. After immersing himself in the international community of freedivers, Stephan founded the USFF in 2018.

Since then, he’s been on a mission to raise the profile of freediving as a competitive sport, with the ultimate goal of bringing the sport to the Olympics. But for Stephan, freediving is about much more than the physical feat of diving below the surface.

Freediving is a window to an underwater world that few have truly experienced, according to Stephan. Without cumbersome scuba gear, divers can move much more freely through the water, interacting with marine life without scaring them off, and discovering a new meditative state through the simple act of holding one’s breath. 

What’s more, Stephan says that freedivers are more conscious of the environmental impact humans have on the ocean. With many freedivers volunteering to retrieve ghost nets and participating in  beach clean-ups, this tight-knit community is doing their part to conserve the precious world in which they immerse themselves.

We caught up with Stephan to dive headfirst into the therapeutic benefits of freediving, as well as what beginners need to know before getting their feet wet with this incredible sport.

How and why did you first start free diving, and what first drew you to the activity?

I was sailing through the Greek islands, and the boat captain I had hired was talking about different islands. At the next island that we were going to come to, he said he was going to go spear-fishing. He asked me if I wanted to go. I’m not one to kill things by my own hand. So I told him no, I didn’t want to go because of that. He said, “You know, you don’t have to actually have to. Go out with me and go freediving.” I hadn’t thought about freediving since 1988, because there was a movie by Luc Besson, called The Big Blue. It’s the movie from which most freedivers today attribute part of their desire to want to learn to freedive.

It’s kind of a cult film in this space. It’s kind of the basis for a lot of freedivers today throughout Europe. The captain reminded me of the film and he said, “Well, we’re actually one island away in Greece from the island where they shot the first half of the movie.” It’s the island of Amorgos. He’s like, “Look, we would sail there. But given that you have only a short trip, the island is just too far.” I ended up with the full sailing trip, got back to Athens, and then I booked the next flight to Mykonos to get the ferry over to Amorgos. And I basically went over and I found the only free diving instructor on the island.

When I went to the island and met Sol, she was this gentle person who was very natural and connected. She’s very much about emotion and energy. She was my first instructor. And when Sol took me out diving the first time, I came up out of the water and I just started crying. There was something kind of internal and connected and emotional and energetic — all these things together. I felt in myself this rush of rebirth, where I had just gone down to like 45, 60 feet. I came up to the surface and was like, “Oh my God, I’m home.”

I felt something inside, it was an amazing experience. So that was that. But what has retained me, or kept me in this world and wanting to introduce it to others? 

Awe-inspiring feeling and emotion. I felt much more connected to that sea and ocean environment. Now I knew I could go down, experience this, and be with the marine life. It’s a whole other dimension of the world that not many people experience; definitely not many people are doing it with breath-hold. I’m not using scuba tanks. Scuba for me now is more like an analog experience in a digital world. I don’t want to have 40 pounds of weight on me to where I can’t even move. I can’t go through crevices or see marine life because I’m scaring them off with bubbles and all this stuff. It’s the emotion, the experience, the connectedness to all of these bundled into one thing.

I was on the island for two weeks, and then I flew back to Los Angeles. I live off the beach in Venice and I was out the sand one day, and I thought, I need to go back. Within a few days, I booked a new ticket, flew back to Greece, went back to Amorgos, and spent the whole month of October continuing to progress through that whole dimension and new experience with Sol. That’s what helped me to kind of lock it in and come back. I felt that people needed to do this. 

Why did you decide to found the US Freediving Federation?

I ended up meeting some freedivers on Amorgos and leaving with some of them to Kas, Turkey. A couple of weeks later they were having the 2017 European Freediving Championships. So I went to this competition to meet all these divers. I met well over 150 to 200 divers from all around the world, and I was the only American at this event. Albeit, it was the European championships. But I still was the only American at the event — there were no American freedivers that were just there to watch the event, to be part of the community. 

I felt like I wanted to be a part of this. It was the community aspect of it. It was the people that you met. When I came back to the U.S., I found an organization here and became a member, but never heard from them. 

As a result of that, I was like, you guys do what you’re going to do. I’m going to start my own organization and I’m going to do it differently. I started it because I felt the void personally and and organizationally. I also felt like this is something that more people here in the U.S. should be aware of and experience at least once in their life. 

When I created the US Freediving Federation, not only did I need to become a 501(c)(3), and process that paperwork, but the US Freediving Federation falls under global organization of CMAS. It’s a French organization, started by Jacques Cousteau in 1959. In English, it’s the World Underwater Federation. This organization was established by him and five charter countries as sort of the United Nations for the undersea world. It set safety standards and guidelines for scuba and other underwater activities.

They have a board based out of Rome, but every country around the world can create an organization like the US Freediving Federation, and become a member of CMAS. But CMAS is also official and authorized by Sport Accord and the International Olympic Committee. So effectively, that means if freediving becomes an Olympic sport in the future, then my organization would become the national governing body for freediving in the United States. This organization would be akin to USA Swimming, or USA Snowboarding. This is why I also chose to start the organization under CMAS — to be able to have that runway to be a part of the Olympic community. 

What are the therapeutic benefits of freediving beyond the physical exercise?

For me, I’m not out in the ocean as much as I want to be.  I’m not swimming in the water Instead, I’m swimming laps every other day in the pool, doing yoga on the other days. I’m keeping myself in some sort of condition, so that when I do go out into the sea, I’m there. I’m swimming a mile-and-a-half every other day so I can go into the water environment and hold my own, or dive down. I take a lot of laps so I can have strong legs to dive down to whatever depth I want to go. There has to be some sort of health part of it. 

You also have to trust that you are going to be taken care of in the universe. The first time you go under water, you’re like, “I can’t do that because I can’t hold my breath for more than 30 seconds.” People live in the world of ideas and they create blockages for themselves and prevent themselves from moving forward. Once you go down 10 feet and you stay for 10 seconds, the first time you come back up you realize it was no big deal. Every time you go in, you go a little bit deeper. You actually see a number and a depth and the amount of time. It’s a path of self-progression. Trust in yourself, and you can go further in life and in water. They’re not mutually exclusive — they’re mutually connected. If there are blockages in your day-to-day life, they will not allow you to progress and go further.

You know you’re going for depth in free diving. You go into a meditative state when you’re dropping down vertically, headfirst. You’re exerting some energy at first. The first third is where you have to kick through positive buoyancy. Then you hit neutral buoyancy. You’re breaking this threshold, because the next stage that comes after that is negative buoyancy. And negative buoyancy is when all of a sudden your body just drops to the bottom. To allow yourself to drop to a depth, you have to shut everything off. You have to stop thinking. You have to stop moving. 

You have to have some hydrodynamics of your body itself, so there is some self awareness. But in a way, you’re shutting your brain off. You have to settle your mind and come into focus. And quite frankly, I have never been more in a state of bliss or nirvana. When you are freediving and dropping to a depth, you just shut your eyes and you accept. You have to become more open and just let it be. So there’s really like these these health benefits, community benefits to it, and meditative and mental benefits. As you start to peel away the layers, it’s just amazing. 

Do you have any advice you would offer to beginning freedivers?

Take a take a course. Find a qualified, certified instructor and take an intro program. This will pay off in spades in making sure you have a safe, comfortable environment to allow yourself to accept this and do something that is not really natural. A lot of people immediately think that freediving is is harmful and scary and you can die. Well, it’s no it’s no riskier than flying down black diamonds on the side of a mountain or, base jumping, or racecar driving or anything of that sort. But all of those things have a basis of safety and practices and protocols that need to be put in place. People need to learn those things to be safe and be comfortable and understand how to help each other in the event that something were to happen. 

How how can we make free diving more accessible to people?

So in freediving, there’s open-water and there’s indoor. There’s a whole world of indoor freediving. It’s not about depth vertically — it’s about distance horizontally. It’s about how far you can go dynamically underwater, with a fin or without a fin. How many laps? How many meters? It’s a whole other realm of freediving. Unfortunately, in the United States the majority of indoor pools — because of their policy or lack of education or active awareness — don’t allow any sort of breath-hold practice or training, even though lifeguards are supposed to train for these types of things. The mere fact that you’re in the water doing anything poses a certain level of risk. 

We have to have more awareness, understanding, and education. If pools had a safe environment and set-up, and they allowed the sport to have training or practicing in indoor pools, it could be the gateway to actually helping to expand the outdoor aspect of freediving. Because what happens if you live in Arizona and you want to be a freediver? How do you actually continue to participate and practice the sport? You could do it at the pool, or at a lake near you. Most freedivers live in coastal states because they have access to open water.

Where is your favorite place to free to freedive?

Number one is Hawaii. It’s a bay called Honaunau Bay, outside of Kona. it’s top for me because of the environment, the reef, and the community of freedivers that are there every Sunday. They get together, go diving for three hours, and then they come out to have a potluck brunch. They call it church. Secondly, Turkey is amazing. The community there, the water conditions, it’s amazing. Malta is absolutely fantastic because of the depths and the rock formations. Finally, Egypt. I think those are my four. There are a lot of other places around the world, like the Philippines and Bali, where I’ve never been, so they could be even better. 

To keep up with the latest freediving news and events, be sure to follow USFF on Instagram.

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