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‘Professional mermaid’ wins inaugural SA freediving competition

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South African-Israeli freediving athlete, Thalia Sklair, says it was a surprise but a great feeling to be the best female freediver at the first official AIDA (International Association for the Development of Apnea) South African National Championships in Cape Town last month.

This 37-year-old King David Linksfield and University of the Witwatersrand alumnus was the best female athlete overall, and took first place for the static apnea discipline in this points-based competition. “Although I did the best in one discipline, I wasn’t first in the others, but because it’s an overall calculation, the points added up to best overall,” she says.

This achievement was even more special for Sklair, who claimed the Israeli national record for women’s static apnea last year in an official national record attempt, as the AIDA South African Championships was her first official competition. South African and international athletes took part in four disciplines in which they hold their breath for time and distance.

In the time discipline, called static apnea, Sklair came first with a time of just less than six minutes. That’s impressive, given that the average human can reportedly hold their breath for 30 seconds to two minutes, and that’s not even underwater.

The no-fins discipline, in which you swim without any added equipment, resulted in Sklair holding her breath while swimming 65m. Sklair, ranked third in Israel for women’s dynamic apnea, accumulated 100m in the bifins discipline, and 117m in the dynamic discipline.

There were 21 students on a judging course running concurrently with the freediving competition. “Because it was the launch of AIDA South Africa, a judge came from overseas to train a bunch of judges so that we can host our own competitions in South Africa or anywhere around the world,” Sklair says. “The South African Freediving Federation had been running competitions, but it’s not internationally recognised. So, they brought a judge from overseas who is from AIDA so that we can have official results in the rankings.”

Sklair participated in this tournament through the little freediving community she has been training with in Johannesburg. She says freediving is quite a small sport in South Africa, but it’s on the verge of exploding.

The last time she was in Israel, Sklair registered to compete under the Israel flag so that she could make a national record attempt, which she attained successfully in Eilat.

She will continue to represent Israel as “it fits with me, and I feel like my loyalties lie there. I was born in South Africa, and I went to Israel for the first time when I wasn’t even a year old. My mom is Israeli, and that whole side of the family is there. I’ve been going to Israel pretty much every year, once or twice a year, so it really is my second home.

“Last year, I was there for three months, and in November, literally two and a half weeks after the war broke out, I was supposed to go back from Croatia, but decided to come back to South Africa and then make my way back to Israel, probably in June.”

After that, she may go back to working on a boat, as she did last year. “Or I might stay in Israel from June to October.”

Wherever she goes, she makes sure she can train there. “When I left Croatia last year, my plan was to be in a place that I could have a network and facilities to train, because you can’t train on your own for some kinds of freediving because you’re holding your breath in the water, and you always want to have your buddy with you in case something happens. So, instead of Israel, I came back here and met some of the Johannesburg freedivers whom I didn’t know before.”

She trains six days a week, and usually does a two-hour walk on her recovery day. Training involves gym, strength, and endurance work as well as dynamic and static apnea training in the pool. “I swim and dive underwater to train [freediving at] lengths of various distances and times. The sessions are generally 90 minutes to two hours. Twice a week, I do static apnea. Every day, I do stretching of the lungs and the thoracic area. I also do equalisation to train the muscles around the ears, jaw, and throat to be able to equalise ears at depth.”

She’s South Africa’s first professional mermaid, swimming with a mermaid costume for shows and functions. “I decided to start modelling underwater just to make the first silicon tail in South Africa. I hadn’t started diving. I was still in Johannesburg, and we created a piece with a competitive freediving monofin inside the tail. It ended up weighing about 50kg, so little did I know, I was actually getting good strength training for free diving while using the monofin, which set me up to have the right strength and mobility underwater. Then, when I moved to Durban, I did an apnea course with Natalie Rudman, the South African record holder for depth for some of the disciplines. I learned to hold my breath, got addicted to that feeling, and slowly started moving more into the sport side of things than modelling and performance.

“I started apnea in 2019, learning to hold my breath. But I’ve been in professional freediving training since only last year. I’m a little bit of a nomad, so as long as I have the facilities and someone to train with, it’s good. The heated pools in the gyms are my training grounds at the moment.”

Sklair wears a wetsuit, a thinner one for the dynamic disciplines. “You want to be as light and to create the least resistance possible,” she says.

Her goal is to compete for Israel in the AIDA World Championships in June 2024 in Kaunas, Lithuania, her first world championships. “It will be an absolute honour to represent Israel among the best in the world,” she says.

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