All he wanted to do was breathe. A taste of air would have been like the sun on his face for a thousand years. But at that moment breathing was the last thing he could do. He heard the voice of his diving instructor, calm and supportive, pushing him toward his goal.
“You’re almost to the surface,” said the instructor reassuringly. “Relax and stay calm.”
He began a countdown. 15…14…13…
But Jimmy “DeMoN” Ho couldn’t hear him. The words blurred and dissolved into thin air. The very air he craved.
As the countdown stretched for an eternity, Ho struggled. His body convulsed. His toes curled. His diaphragm ached. He pursed his lips and puffed out his cheeks. This was hell.
“You’re almost there,” the instructor urged. “You’re about to break through.” Ho’s faced turned beet red. There was one way out, and he wasn’t going to make it. Then the air trapped in his lungs for nearly two minutes came bursting forth with a violent, primal gush. His exasperated exhalation was wrapped in a frustrated scream. He didn’t make it to the surface. He had failed.
He sat up on the palm-tree-print carpet in a small air-conditioned conference room of the Royal Kona Resort in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, as his chest heaved. Better his failures happen here than the following day in the 100-foot-deep bay armed only with a wetsuit, snorkel and a determination to survive.
This was Ho’s introduction to freediving. For five days in early August, the DOTA 2 pro video gamer joined seven action sports athletes for a training camp in Hawaii designed to throw athletes out of their comfort zone with the goal of sharpening their focus, determination and mental acuity.
All of Ho’s classmates successfully completed the practice drill, but he wore a look of frustration. It had been a tough stretch for Ho. At the DOTA 2 Championships in July, his team finished 9th, earning only $50,000, compared to the $500,000 they would have earned if they finished one place higher. His confidence had taken a beating, and now—at the very camp where he was looking to rebuild it by pushing his limits—he was flailing again.
It was a primal reaction; he was afraid of what his vast new oceanic nemesis had in store. But that’s why he was here. “It’s about facing your fear and conquering it,” says Ho. “You can’t let fear win.”
The Red Bull High Performance Camp, in its second year, is run by 46-year-old former Canadian diving pro–turned–instructor Kirk Krack.
This year’s talented group has amassed nearly 30 X Games and Olympic medals among them and included Travis Pastrana, Ironman Matt Poole, and freeskiers Dara Howell and Bobby Brown.
“Our goal is to teach athletes how to manage stress, whether it’s real or imagined,” Krack says. “A leaky mask is real; sharks closing in on you is imagined—yet both create stress.”
What Ho was in for he could not know.
Like a lot of kids, Ho had a casual interest in video games - Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario Kart were typical after-school pastimes. He’s the second of five siblings; his parents Ronald, a mechanical engineer, and Lisa, who works in a nail salon, encouraged him to get involved in sports.
“But honestly I sucked,” says Ho. “My parents forced me and my brother to play soccer, but I didn’t enjoy it.”
Then in 2003, when he was 13, his brother introduced him to the WarCraft 3 custom mod Defense of the Ancients.
His skill level increased steadily over several years, and he began attracting interest from sponsors who would supply him with headsets, keyboards and other equipment. The fledgling eSports industry was beginning to take shape, and Ho managed to pull in a couple hundred dollars a month.
With his cherubic face and quiet demeanor, the soft-spoken 24-year-old introvert could still be mistaken for a high school student today. But those are days he’d like to forget. His time at Ayala High School in Chino Hills, Calif., was littered with poor grades, suspensions and angst—he was bullied.
DotA, an online multiplayer war game, became his salvation. He would play it 14 hours a day. After a year of almost complete isolation, Ho emerged. He had made incredible strides in DotA, attracting the attention of fans and sponsors worldwide with his late-night displays of brilliance, but his health and relationships had been severely compromised.
“Some of my friends actually thought I was dead,” Ho says. The ones who reconnected with the teenager saw a ghost. He was pale and gaunt. At 5-foot-8 he barely topped 100 pounds.
He recommitted himself to the gym and started working out four times a week. With a renewed work ethic, he packed on 30 pounds of muscle.
And this physical confidence led to eSports achievements. The 2011 arrival of DOTA 2 was announced with a $1.6 million tournament. “My dad thought it was bullshit,” Ho says. But as a member of the team Meet Your Makers, he finished fifth. When he showed his father a bank statement for $16,000, his share of the loot, Ronald beamed. He saw it as a sign of maturity when his son began paying his own car insurance and cell phone bills.
Now Ho has learned to budget his time between gaming and training. He gets up at 8 a.m. on weekdays and practices DOTA until 1 o’clock. He’ll sneak in a quick nap before hitting his local 24-Hour Fitness for a two-hour session starting at 4 p.m. Before heading home he’ll stop at the grocery store to get food to prepare. Normally, he’ll jump on online streaming service Twitch at 10 p.m. to show his DOTA practice sessions. He’ll garner as many as 8,000 viewers—who will beg for marathon sessions late into the night.
Dealing with the whims of the ocean, however, was a different matter. In daily four-hour classroom sessions at the camp in Hawaii, the athletes studied the physiological changes depth has on the body.
But Ho was lost. He had trouble mastering his snorkel and was preoccupied with the embarrassment he would feel if he called out to Krack to save him from drowning. Krack had trouble getting Ho to let go of the flotation device. Ho began to have a panic attack and couldn’t control his heart rate, essential elements to a smooth dive.
“It was bad,” Krack says. “We all felt horrible for him.” The incessant chop of waves wasn’t helping. Ho gagged on the salty water. He headed back to the ship and didn’t attempt a dive. And vomiting on the boat didn’t exactly help his confidence either. At dinner that night the rest of the campers laughed as they recounted triumphs from the day’s outing. “Everyone was having so much fun,” Ho says. “Why wasn’t I having fun?”
He went back to his room and threw up again, then went to sleep, the ache in his belly exceeded only by the one in his heart. Then something happened: The rest of the campers rallied around him.
On the last day of camp the water was so blue it glowed. It was paradise. In this place fear did not belong. Ho knew it. He was the first camper to put on his wetsuit and get in the water. He set a goal of 20 feet. His head disappeared below the surface and re-emerged nearly 40 seconds later. He hit 26 feet. He pumped his fist; his confidence soared. Pastrana shouted encouragement as he bobbed in the water. The support was contagious.
“Way to go, Jimmy!” boomed Poole.
By day’s end he would reach a depth of 70 feet.
Back on the boat he exhaled, safe in the knowledge that he had vanquished the fear and doubt to the deepest depths of the blue abyss. The sensation was like none he’d ever had before. He stared ahead, his lips forming a nearly imperceptible smile. This was his moment.
And all he wanted to do was breathe.