A chat with Julie Russell gives new meaning to the term “in-depth conversation.” In October, the 31-year-old Scottsdale woman learned about freediving — diving while holding one’s breath — in Las Vegas.
By February, she plunged headfirst into the extreme sport by taking courses in Kona, Hawaii.
Russell, a Colorado native who has lived in Scottsdale for two years, said her new passion was a natural progression after several years as a scuba diver and instructor in Cozumel, Mexico.
“I was just inspired to do it,” said Russell, a selfproclaimed daredevil whose best time for holding her breath is 4 minutes 15 seconds. “I just wanted to learn the ropes.”
Russell learns quickly. In her second freedive and first competition, she was first among women in the Performance Freediving Invitational last month on Grand Cayman Island.
She reached her goal depth of 127.95 feet in her event. Competitors state their goal, dive and must bring back a tag set on the announced mark. Russell earned 115.5 points, second overall at the meet for men and women.
Not bad for a relative newcomer.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” said Russell, an aquatics instructor at AquaSafe Swim School in Scottsdale and assistant manager at the city’s Aqua Fitness location.
“At the end of it, they told me I won and it was ‘Oh, really?’ “
Russell, the youngest of seven children, calls herself the most adventurous sibling. She admits her latest activity is a difficult discipline; one practice method involves floating facedown and holding her breath as long as she can.
Russell, who trains by swimming, running, weightlifting and practicing yoga, said what happens during the dive is what really floats her boat.
“Visibility is about 100 feet,” she said.
“In Hawaii, I heard whales singing while I was underwater. I saw dolphins and a turtle on my deepest dive. When I got up I was told those whales were about 100 yards away. That’s breathtaking.”
Russell understands and accepts the inherent danger in freediving; the sport has had fatalities.
“There’s an emphasis on safety in freediving,” she said. “There are (emergency medical technicians) and doctors there. You have support around you the last 30 feet or so. If something happens, you’re in the best possible hands.”
Russell said her parents and friends also understand the pitfalls, but know her sense of adventure even more.
“Nothing surprises them,” she said. “They are concerned, but supportive. It’s a risk, totally, but being in that moment is an intense feeling. It’s a definite rush. You come up and realize the depth you got to and it’s a pretty awesome feeling.”
Russell will compete again in September in Hawaii, where she hopes to qualify for Team USA, which will vie for the International Association for Development of Apnea world championships in November in Egypt.
She’s also taking aim at the U.S. women’s record, 137.995 feet, and world record, 180.446 feet.
“I want to do this as long as I’m physically capable of doing it,” Russell said.
“I know it sounds really crazy. You could wind up with no oxygen going to your head and suffer brain damage. But I have no fear. I just get out there and go for it.”