'I'm supposed to be here': Edmontonian breaks national freediving records

Sheena McNally, 35, of Edmonton, has broken national freediving records and has set a goal of breaking another record in Cyprus in October.

Sheena McNally is one of the top 10 female freedivers in the world for the free immersion and bi-fin technique

Sheena McNally makes her way up from a freedive during the Blue Element 2018 competition in Dominica where she came third place. (Daan Verhoeven)

When Sheena McNally was 82 metres below sea level — the deepest ever free immersion dive by a Canadian woman — she felt like the ocean in Roatan, Honduras was giving her a gentle, warm hug.

Deep in the depths of the dark blue water, McNally said she looked up at the light above and felt calm.

"I'm supposed to be here," the 35-year-old freediver from Edmonton says she remembers thinking while participating in the Caribbean Cup 2019 in August where she set a national record for freediving and came second for free immersion along 70 other freedivers from around the world.

Freediving is breath-hold diving, McNally says.

"No tanks, no scuba apparatus, no back-up oxygen... Just you, your lungs, and the air you take from the surface, descending to depths that might, at first, seem a little crazy."

Caribbean Cup 2019 is a competition open to an entire international community of freedivers, according to the competition's website.

Each day of competition, the athletes are free to choose the discipline in which they want to compete, and in McNally's case, she's an expert in free immersion — a technique also known as FIM where free divers dive underwater without the use of propulsion equipment, and only by pulling on the rope during descent and ascent.

"It's one of the hardest techniques," McNally told the CBC on Friday.

Sheena McNally makes her way up from an 82-metre free immersion dive on August 2, where she also set a national record for that technique. (Alex St-Jean)

Born and raised in Edmonton to two computer programmers, McNally has competed in three international freediving competitions so far. 

The national record she set in 2019 for free immersion was four metres more than the 78-metre national record she also set for free immersion in November 2018 at the Blue Element competition in Dominica, where she came third place overall among female competitors.

In May 2018, McNally set another record when she dove 77 metres deep in Honduras and came first place overall among females. This was McNally's first freediving competition, and where she set her first national record from the 74-metre national record set by another Canadian diver.

"I was super excited. It was quite a longstanding record...there hadn't really been any females training depth for Canada for several years."

In her latest competition in Dominica, McNally also set the national record of 78 metres for the constant weight with Bi-Fins freediving technique in which the diver wears fins and kicks down to depth and back up without the help of a descent line.

"This dive also puts me within the top 10 women in the world in this discipline," McNally told the CBC.

While descending down, McNally can travel one metre per second and can hold her breath for a total of six minutes.

From communications to record-breaking freediving

Four years ago, McNally was just working a desk job in communications but her love for the water started at a young age. 

"My parents forced us to go into swimming lessons. It was the one thing they made us do but I ended up really quite liking it," she said.

Her wanderlust led her to different parts of the world but it was when she quit her job in 2015, packed her bags and flew to Honduras, she discovered her love for freediving.

"I was super scared," McNally said when she began her beginners class.

On Aug. 3, 2019, Sheena McNally broke the national record for free immersion at the Blue Element competition in Dominica - freediving 78 metres below sea level. (Laura Babahekian)

"I was thinking, 'well that's not for me' but I was curious so [I] tried it and then the very first morning in the water I got completely addicted."

She was the only freediver in the course that day and made it 12 metres down to the surprise of her instructor, McNally said. 

Since then, McNally has been making international waves in the freediving community.

Freediving support in Canada 'lacking'

"The sport is growing like crazy around the globe, but sadly, it remains a little bit unknown within Canada," McNally said. 

"Athletes from other countries with comparable or even lesser results than myself are hailed as sports heroes, and are given funding, sponsorship, and recognition by their governments and national associations."

"While there is a not-for-profit association within Canada that works to promote the sport, athlete development and recognition for freedivers is lacking."

McNally says she wants people to see that freediving is a beautiful, interesting, safe, and amazing sport.

"I would like people to know what it is, that there are education and training options for them both within and outside of Canada, and that Canada is being represented at an extremely high level internationally." 

McNally says her next competition is in October in Cyprus.

Her freediving goal is 90 metres for that competition, and if completed, she may just become one of the best freedivers in the world.