Water -whether it be in the ocean or a pool – is Mandy Sumner’s happy place. It’s where she’s accomplished physical goals, learned the importance of safe practices and found a peaceful environment to quiet the stress of the outside world.
“I’ve always loved the water. I find it super-healing. Even putting your feet in the water if you’re having a bad day makes you feel better,” she said.
Mandy, who grew up in North Berwick, was swimming before she could walk. She joined a swim team at age 5, as soon as she was old enough, and competed through high school. Her parents, who were casual fans of the sport, and not competitive swimmers, began taking Mandy and her brother swimming in a pool at a young age.
“My brother and I just really took to it, and it became our life,” she said.
She spent so much of her time practicing and competing at swim meets that when she started college in 1997, she decided she needed a break and played soccer at the University of Southern Maine.
You can’t keep a fish out of water, and in 2009 she moved to Hawaii, where Mandy met the water sport which would become her new passion – free diving.
Free diving is a form of underwater diving during which the diver relies on holding their breath instead of a breathing apparatus. She tried it on a lark and was immediately hooked.
“I didn’t even know it was a competitive sport actually, when I started,” she said.
In 2014, Mandy was sailing with some friends, one of which was a free dive instructor, and they moored near wreck where she had previously been scuba diving. Having no experience free diving, she wanted to give it at try and see how far she could go. Her friend gave her a few pointers and lent her his dive watch. She went down into the water in a bathing suit and old fins.
“I went down, and it felt normal and natural, and I went down to the top of the wreck. I stood on it, and pushed off and came back up,” she said.
Her friends thought she would probably make it 20 or 30 feet, and couldn’t believe when she told them she went to the top of the submerged boat, which was about 100 feet down. Her friend the diving instructor looked at the dive watch, which confirmed the distance, and suggested she take some courses on free diving.
“It became an instant passion,” she said. “It just took ahold of my life. Everything that I did, I just breathed, ate, slept free diving, and I just wanted more depth, because that one was so easy.”
She took classes and quickly made her mark in the sport and absorbing all she could by watching other participants in competitions. She said that she was training while she was competing, sometimes going into contests to try depths she wasn’t sure she could do, but always keeping safe and knowing when to turn around.
Just a year after she began the sport, Mandy was the first American free diver to earn a gold medal at the 2015 Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA) Depth World Championships in Cyprus with a 58 meter (190 foot) dive.
While training in Hawaii, Mandy had the opportunity to swim near dolphins and even played the “leaf game” with them. In the leaf game, a diver lets go of a leaf under water, and a dolphin picks it up with their nose or fin, swims around and drops it and waits for the diver to pick it up again
One of the skills Many learned as a free diver was how to hold her breath. She said she was able to hold her breath for five minutes 30 seconds during a static competition in a pool, which she found ore difficult than holding her breath on a dive, when she had something to focus on.
“It’s really hard for me because your brain just goes everywhere, and it’s harder for your body to relax,” she said.
Students have come to Mandy thinking they can’t hold their breath past 30 seconds, but after getting them to relax and teaching them skills, many have surprised themselves with being able to hold their breath for two minutes.
“It’s training yourself to realize that you do have enough oxygen in your body to survive longer than 30 seconds,” she said.
It’s easier to hold your breath in the water than on dry land because of the body’s mammalian diving reflex. This causes reactions in your body such as a lowered heart rate, the release of red blood cells from the spleen and redirecting blood to vital organs to conserve oxygen.
“It’s really cool, what your body does to protect itself,” she said.
These days, Mandy works remotely as a GIS specialist, splitting her time between Hawaii and her hometown of Sanford, Maine, where she swims at the local YMCA pool – the same pool she swam in as a child. She’s not competing anymore, but she’s keeping in shape and is still involved in the sport, lending her skills as a coach or a safety diver at competitions.
She plans to travel to Norway this winter to participate in a new sport she’s picked up – ice diving. In ice diving, divers wear wetsuits designed for colder waters and are tethered.
Mandy has learned that safety is important, and never goes out in the water alone -whether its diving or an open water swim. She’s also learned it’s critical to be in the right mind set, especially when free diving. You can’t get frustrated, she said, and you have to be one with yourself.
“It’s you and just you under the water. You can’t really hide from your emotions in free diving. If you are stressed out, and your brain is telling you that morning ‘Why are you going diving,’ and you go anyway, it’s not going to work,” she said. “You really have to feel what’s within you and center yourself. Like I said, you can’t hide. If you’re having a bad day, yeah, you can go in the water, but if you try to go deep, your body’s just not going to let you do it.”
Mandy said free diving can be healing. She said it helped her reduce depression and has heard of many cases where people say it has helped them battle addiction.
“I like the silence, and I like being down there with myself and fish, and anything else you see down there. It’s a different world, and you’re doing it under your own power,” said Mandy.