People sometimes say that a baby’s first experiences define the rest of its life. Take Estrella Navarro. Her swimming-coach father Carlos Navarro got her into the water before she could walk, setting her on the path that would result in Mexican freediving records and a championship crown. Like a real-life Aquaman (if Aquaman was a Latin beauty with come-hither eyes), the marine biologist from La Paz can hold her breath for several minutes while regularly diving to depths of more than 164 feet, thanks to breathing techniques developed over years of practice.
But it’s self-confidence that Navarro identifies as the primary attribute underpinning her rare skill set. Without it, Navarro would never have found herself so deep under the water. And it’s become a bit of a guiding light for her: Have complete faith in your potential and success will naturally follow.
Step by step
Navarro’s water confidence began as early as it gets. When she was only a few months old, she began swimming in a pool. “I started freediving when I was a baby,” she says. “My dad took me into the water when I was really little, and I learned to swim before I could walk. Babies start swimming naturally, so that was how it all began.”
Before she could talk, Navarro could already hold her breath like a pro, thanks to her father, who encouraged a little friendly competition with her older brother. “Even then, she could hold her breath for over three minutes,” he says proudly.
Fast-forward a couple of decades of swimming experience later and Navarro encountered another man who would become crucial in her career as a future freediving champion. “Five years ago, when I was 25, I met Aharon Solomons, one of the best freediving coaches in the world,” she says. Solomons held the key to the next level for Navarro. “I was just minding my own business when Aharon saw me in the water,” she remembers. He told her that, with her swimming style and ear-clearing abilities—a diver must be able to equalize the pressure that builds inside his or her ears while underwater—she could become the national champion in no time. “I thought it was weird that he had suddenly approached me and said that,” she says. “But I responded by asking, ‘When do we start?’ ‘Tomorrow,’ he replied.”
In this case, Navarro’s confidence in her ability to freedive came from her absolute faith in her coach. She had attended a course run by Solomons while at university and accepted that if he showed such confidence in her potential, she could, too. She just needed to follow his lead. “I already knew of Aharon’s reputation,” she says. “And I had always wanted to compete. When he told me that I could become a national champion, I totally believed him. I was thrilled.”
The results soon spoke for themselves. “Just as he predicted, only three months later I broke the national record,” she says. Navarro followed up by becoming the first Mexican woman to win a medal at the world championships of freediving—the AIDA Individual Depth World Championships—taking bronze in the Constant Weight, No Fins (CNF) category, competing against 150 other freedivers.
“On that occasion, I descended 164 feet and back up swimming breaststroke,” she says. To date, Navarro has broken the national freediving record 21 times, and won two international medals. She credits Solomons’ confidence in her, which proved infectious and allowed her to push her limits. But it wasn’t easy.
A leap deep into the darkness
First, Navarro had to learn how her body worked, inside and out. “Before I was taught freediving relaxation techniques, I could hold my breath for three minutes and 20 seconds,” she says. “Aharon showed me how to breathe so that I consumed oxygen more efficiently. That’s the key. Breathing is the intersection between the body, mind and emotions. By using it to relax, I was able to optimize my oxygen consumption. Then I managed to hold my breath for four minutes.” Now Navarro had the potential to win. It was time to put her newfound belief to the test.
Navarro soon learned progression goes hand in hand with risk. To improve, she had to take a literal leap into the unknown. “I was very scared,” she says. “In freediving you really have to develop your mental strength. You go deeper and deeper underwater and it gets darker and darker, until you find yourself in the shadows.” But gradually, Navarro turned the murky depths into her playground. “Most of the time, I feel fear at the surface,” she says, “but when I relax and submerge my face, the fear disappears. Now I’m more comfortable in the water than out of it.”
For the uninitiated, feeling at home at depths of 196 feet without breathing apparatus seems improbable at best. But it makes perfect sense to Navarro. “It’s physical and psychological,” she says. “There’s more freedom of movement down there. When you’re in contact with the water, your mammalian diving reflexes are triggered. All the muscles in your body immediately relax; even my back gives way, and since there’s no gravity, I can move in any direction. I’m totally weightless. It’s like flying.”
To reach a level of freedom in the water that most of us will never be able to understand, the freediver trains five days every week, in the sea, in swimming pools and on land as well. She also meditates every day. “In competitive freediving,” she says, “you have to calm your mind in order to have as few thoughts as possible, so you use less oxygen.” Faith that she could achieve her freediving goals meant Navarro developed real physical and mental control in the water. She became a master of the shadows that once scared her.
Free your mind from fear
“Being told as a child that you can do things, that you can achieve something, allowed me to reprogram my mind to get there,” she says. “It’s really important for coaches to communicate that to their students. You might have the same technique as the other competitors, but if you don’t believe you can win, forget it. That’s what makes the difference.” For Navarro, it took the faith from both her father and Solomons to wake her up to what she was capable of. “They helped me to believe in what I was going to achieve. Confidence is everything. When coaching others, it’s the first thing I work on: preparing the mind. When a person believes in you, when they say you can do it, new doors open for you.” And when the mind believes, the body will follow.