A Balbriggan woman who holds an Irish record in the fast-growing sport of freediving, has backed plans for a tidal swimming pool in the town.
The Department of Rural and Community Development recently announced funding of €50,000 for a feasibility study for the facility.
Nina McGowan is one of the world’s leading exponents of freediving, which involves competitors diving deep under water without breathing equipment – and will compete in the masters’ category in the world championships in Turkey next month.
“Nina is short for Marinina. My mam Mavis named me after a sea fairy who drives ‘white horses’ to the beach on the wind, it is from an Italian folk song,” said visual artist Nina, who added that freediving informs her work.
“Our home was the original Harbour House, which has been recently demolished. We would get seaweed stuck to our railings; we were that close to the water.”
“My dad, John McGowan, ran the Cardy Marina Club (a scuba dive training centre, also known as the Mariners’ Club) across the road, and there was a tiny swimming pool in there that I would swim in on most days. The pool was covered by a dancefloor in the 1990s. The Rig nightclub was built there, but I saw the pool again last February when the floor was pulled up.
“As a child, I loved to watch the sea crashing against the back of the harbour wall and turn the beach white with foam. The harbour was my playground. Growing up there was magical. I would dearly love to see Balbriggan develop as a hub for coastal sports, it is the perfect location.
“I was delighted to hear there is a feasibility study around a tidal swimming pool for Balbriggan. A safe place to swim, change, and most importantly, take a hot shower afterwards, could activate our beach all-year-round. Add in a sauna, seaweed baths and a coffee shop with a view of the harbour, and I think people would flock to Balbriggan.”
A former pupil at Loreto, Balbriggan, Nina trained for the school swim team at Gormanston College pool. Currently, there are no public pools in the area, something she describes as a real shame.
“At the age of four, I wanted to go dive and find the Titanic. I was raging when it was found in 1985. My dad was a scuba diver in the 1960s, and I trained in scuba first, but freediving is a very different sport, it has more in common with meditation and yoga.”
Freedivers are linked to a rope with depth markers connected to a buoy on the surface. Without using breathing equipment, divers attempt to reach as low a depth as possible.
Nina, who travels to Turkey to compete in the World Championships between October 4-11, has freedived to a depth of 52 metres and can hold her breath for around three-and-a-half minutes.
She holds the Irish competitive record of 34 metres in the category of ‘No Fins’ and this will be her focus for the World Championships.
Moves are underway to have freediving recognised as an Olympic event.
“I started freediving when I was 47, but age is not a major factor as it is not an adrenaline-based sport, it is more of a mental challenge and anyone can do it. It really is a joyous activity.
“When you are down under the water there is nothing but silence, and you can lose yourself in a moment of awe. These moments are fleeting, but they stay with you.
“It is important to support activities like these. They connect us deeply to nature, and in the process create advocates for the natural world. It is vital to find ways to encourage people to get into the sea.”
A scuba divemaster for 20 years and Bikram yoga practitioner, Nina says freediving allows the mind and body to connect with rarely used processes.
“You engage with an ancient software in the human body called the Mammalian Dive Reflex, a cluster of physiological changes the body undertakes to help preserve life under water.
“The human body is incredible. Scuba diving is all to do with technology, but freediving is very much about getting back to our relationship with the sea and exploring how our bodies are built to engage with it.”
Nina is particularly keen for women of all ages to consider the benefits of activities like freediving.
“The further we move away from the idea that sport is only for a small cohort of male elites, the better for everyone.”