KAILUA-KONA — Imagine holding your breath for nearly three minutes, all while diving to ocean depths that force the body to battle increased lactic acid buildup, hypoxia and nearly nine atmospheres of pressure.
On Sunday, Kona’s Shelby “Shell” Eisenberg managed to overcome all these conditions on the way to a USA Women’s National Freediving record, while also hoping to inspire more women to take up the sport in the U.S.
Competing on the final day of the Deja Blue International Competition in the Grand Cayman, Eisenberg dove on a single breath to a depth of 85 meters (279 feet), completing the dive in 2 minutes and 51 seconds. Though the time matters very little — except for those who like breathing — it is the depth that mattered most, which broke the previous record by one meter.
“I was hoping to set the record much earlier in the week, and tried a couple of times, but I was able to get one last opportunity in on the final day of competition,” Eisenberg said. “I am really excited about it. It is a huge accomplishment and something I have been working on for two years.”
Eisenberg reached 82 meters earlier in the competition, but she was slower than she wanted to be and became a little “fuzzy-headed” at the end of the dive. That distance did not count after she receive some support when surfacing in a time of 2:57.
“I have had times where I did over three minutes without incident, but several things can factor into how much oxygen is consumed during the breath hold. Sleep, eating right and the current are all factors,” Eisenberg said. “I worked hard on speeding up after that unsuccessful attempt.”
Eisenberg broke the record in the discipline of “constant weight,” shedding six seconds off her time. In constant weight, athletes follow a safety line down and any weight the athlete wears must remain on throughout the dive. Athletes usually propel themselves down the line with a monofin — a fin which resembles a mermaid tail.
Eisenberg’s record broke the previous mark of 84 meters, set by U.S. swimmer Ashley Chapman off the Dutch Caribbean Island of Bonaire on Sept. 6, 2016.
“Ashley is an amazing diver and person. She has not only been a coach and an instructor of mine, but she has also been a co-worker,” Eisenberg said. “She is well known for her no-fins diving and holds three world records in no-fins. She has a wealth of knowledge and she inspires me.”
After the record breaking performance, Eisenberg and Chapman had a chance to talk, with the focus being on the bright future of women’s freediving.
“Both of us just agreed that there was something about this record that can start to inspire women to freedive in the U.S.,” Eisenberg said. “In previous years there has not been a lot of enthusiasm in the sport. Hopefully this will help inspire a strong U.S. women’s team.”
Eisenberg had a gradual transition into freediving and it all started when she moved to Hawaii in 2009. While attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Eisenberg, like most newcomers to the islands, found herself drawn to the ocean nearly every day.
She became obsessed with the marine life and she wanted to dive deeper and longer to enjoy the ocean more.
She casually started to freedive but became more serious about it when she started doing underwater photography, which led her to taking a course with Performance Freediving International in 2012.
“I went from an average 40-foot diver to going over 100 feet in a couple of days,” Eisenberg said. “I then started teaching freediving full time and got into the competitive side of the sport in 2014.”
The competitions allowed Eisenberg to do dives at different depths in a controlled, safe environment.
Eisenberg first excelled in the pool discipline of the sport, breaking two U.S. national records at 125 meters and 132 meters. In the pool discipline, athletes swim a pool for distance on a single breath.
In 2016, she competed in the Deja Blue, which Eisenberg said is considered the Ironman of freediving. In that competition, she reached 72 meters, but felt she still had a lot more in the tank.
“I did not feel tired and I felt like I could hold my breath longer,” Eisenberg said. “I had so much energy, I just needed another 50 feet and 30 seconds of breath hold. Going for the record would mostly be about adapting to the added pressure.”
Two years later, she would break the record, and with her 85 meter dive, Eisenberg is now ranked as one of the top 20 deepest women in history.
“Shell is one of the brightest stars in USA Freediving right now and she’s put herself in position, through a lot of hard work and discipline, to achieve a lot more in our sport,” said John Hullverson, President of USA Freediving. “Shell’s 85 meter dive was incredible on so many levels.”
Eisenberg lives and trains in Kona. She teaches freediving through Performance Freediving International and is an artist, specializing in paintings and drawings focusing on marine life.
“There is a really good community here for freediving and we are starting to enter the best time of the year for it with calm, glassy, warm seas,” Eisenberg said. “I have a lot of momentum right now. I want to take two weeks off then pick up training by the end of May or beginning of June with hopes of breaking my own record by the end of the summer.”
As for her ultimate goal, Eisenberg hopes to reach 300 feet (91.44 meters), but says she is still at least a year away from that.
USA Freediving competes under the Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée (AIDA), the sports international governing body.