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Syafidatul Azua Shafii is all about pushing limits. Her first freedive was a mere seven metres in the waters off Malaysia’s Tioman Island. Azua, as she is affectionately known, had followed her friend, already a freediver at the time, who wanted to reach 40 metres. That was five years ago. Today, the 32-year-old is a freediving champion with multiple records to her name in Malaysia and Southeast Asia.

Photo © Daan Verhoeven

Photo © Daan Verhoeven

Officially, Azua has recorded being able to hold her breath underwater for four minutes and 48 seconds, a national record. In training, she clocked five minutes and 16 seconds. Other national records that she holds are longest pool dynamic with fins at 153 metres and deepest constant weight at 50 metres. She recently dove 60 metres to win second place at the Asian Freediving Cup in the Philippines

Freediving is when one does not use breathing apparatus such as scuba gear but depends on the ability to hold one’s breath until resurfacing. Proper training is needed to curb the possibility of blackouts due to insufficient oxygen and hypoxic fits, which is the loss of motor control in the body.

“The first time I did it, it was only seven metres because it was too risky without proper training. I didn't want to endanger myself. I held my breath for about one minute. There was, of course, the fear of dying,” she says. “Then, I decided to do it the right way, so I attended a course. After that, it became something like an addiction. It went from what if I can hold my breath for three minutes, to four, then five.”

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Azua, who never had formal training in swimming, says it was her father who taught her to swim, adding that holidays and weekend getaways revolved around going to waterfalls or the swimming pool. “If we were going to stay in a hotel, we always checked to make sure there was a swimming pool,” she says. “I used to ride on my father's back while he swam. It made me think of those people who rode on the backs of orcas.”

Photo © Pepe Arcos

Photo © Pepe Arcos

The road to being a champion in freediving has not been easy. Azua puts in the hours at the pool, with a training regime that lasts between two and four hours in the morning, three times a week. She also hits the gym and does yoga to ensure her body remains flexible. Running helps her build endurance, while weight training helps her make use of her muscles effectively.

When it comes to her diet, she keeps it healthy and ensures she does not have a large breakfast or dairy products, especially during competitions. Her routine prior to a competition is to do breathing and visualisation exercises. She then packs up her dive equipment and is ready to go. “The only days I have 'off' are Tuesdays and Thursdays,” she says of her routine that includes training others.

Besides competing in various competitions, Azua has made it her mission to ensure that others who want to freedive do it safely. To this end, she has started her own dive training school, Apnea Odyssey, and is a certified SSI instructor. For now, she trains those in the beginner and intermediate levels. “I really enjoy teaching and making people realise that they can do more,” she says.

Photo © Pepe Arcos

Photo © Pepe Arcos

One memorable experience that she had was when a 60-year-old retired headmistress signed up for her course. “She told me all she wanted to do was get to the bottom of the swimming pool and pose with the 'peace' sign,” she recalls. “I told her she could do so much more than that and took her to the 3.6-metre mark. She did it. She said she hadn't imagined she could do it and thanked me for it.”

Azua estimates she has taught about 200 students in two-and-a-half years. Holding classes in the greater Kuala Lumpur area, and in the states of Johor, Kedah, Penang and Terengganu, also means locals do not need to travel to far-off places like Phuket or Indonesia to take up the course.

One of Azua's dreams is to one day start a freediving centre and make Malaysia a destination for the sport. “It will take some planning,” she says, adding that she plans to continue taking part in events to break more records. “I want to become an entrepreneur and help create jobs for others. I also want to focus on training others to become instructors.”

Photo © Daan Verhoeven

Photo © Daan Verhoeven

Azua says the sport is growing in Malaysia, with some people taking up freediving for the fun of it while others just want the chance to play “mermaid” as they get to wear a monofin, which is akin to a mermaid's tail. In actual fact, a monofin helps the diver be more efficient besides enabling them to swim a greater distance.

Previously the president of Aida Malaysia (the official freediving association that sanctions all freediving records), she is currently safety and training officer.

Having a Master's in Environmental Management from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Azua also wants to do more for environmental conservation. She was the ambassador for the My Fin, My Life campaign with WWF, Shark Savers, WildAid and SSI last year. The campaign discouraged people from consuming shark's fins.

Azua bakes in her free time and can boast of making cheese cakes and pavlovas. Never one to care much about makeup (the rare times are when she heads out with friends) and how she looks, Azua laughs, saying she sometimes looks like the Lion King when she comes out of the pool. She rarely wears dresses, preferring her sporty attire. However, now that she is ambassador for scuba diving equipment maker Mares, Azua figures she has to be more responsible in how she projects herself.

Azua laughs as she relates how she has taken the sea less travelled in life. While her mother preferred for her to settle down and have an office job, Azua instead decided on pursuing what her heart desired. “She had no idea what I was doing. That I was holding breath under water. Then she saw the video. And she asked me, ‘You do that?’ Now, she understands and accepts,” Azua says, adding that her water-loving father died 10 years ago and did not get a chance to witness her pursuit of freediving.