Deep peace below the surface

There is a lot the local sports scene can learn from Tanya Streeter. From determination to perseverance the world-famous free diver has many lessons to teach.

Streeter, 36, was in Cayman last week on business, taking part in a number of photoshoots and interviews. Her main focus was doing the cover story (tentatively titled ‘Cayman’s Mermaid’) for Destination Cayman, a local tourism publication.

Born and raised in Grand Cayman, Streeter’s involvement in sports dates back to her school days at St. Ignatius and Cayman Prep school.

In those days her link to the sports world was as limited as her sports day.

‘I had the sports day at school and that was it in Cayman,’ Streeter said.

‘I don’t remember much more than a egg-and-spoon race and a little running.’

Her involvement in sports actually took off in her teens while at boarding school in England (where she was at from the age of nine straight up to her university years).

Streeter points to her teen years as the time when sports became a big part of her life.

‘When I was in high school the biggest thing I was into was lacrosse. I became Vice Captain of an U21 Sussex county team when I was 15 years-old.

‘All through school I was playing squash, volleyball, tennis, swimming, track and field, netball and cricket. In fact I did a lot of squash, tennis and volleyball for Cayman as an international representative.

‘For me that was when sports became my life. I was not motivated academically but my passion on the sports field fuelled me on.’

That passion became evident with every play Streeter made. She threw herself completely into the sports world. However all of those sports would tax her young body and the result would be a long list of injuries and surgeries before her 25th birthday.

At the age of 13, Streeter had spinal fusion surgery after suffering major spinal trauma in a swimming pool accident.

Two years later she ruptured her right Anterior Cruciate Ligament playing lacrosse, broke her right tibia playing netball and tore cartilage in the same leg playing volleyball.

When she was 18 years-old she would rupture the ACL in her left leg, again from lacrosse. She would have further ACL surgeries to both legs at 21 and 23 plus a joint clean-up surgery at age 24. Her doctors told her early on she would never be a pro athlete.

However that would not keep Streeter from eventually shifting her focus to the water and finding her niche in the sport of free diving at the age of 25. As she states, getting into the sport was more by chance than a concerted effort.

‘There was no TV in my house until I was 13 so most of my time was spent in the water. The sea made me feel very protected and gave me a sense of escape and adventure.

‘I had tremendous comfort in the water. I would snorkel like everyone else except I just went deeper than most people. For me free diving just kind of happened at a time in my life when I wanted to find out what I was made of.’

As many might know the South Sound native took the profile of both Cayman and free diving to new heights over a decade ago. Streeter burst onto the scene in 1998 by breaking the several free diving world records within months of discovering the sport.

The following year she would break the men’s records and continue to be a force on the scene for the next seven years.

In addition the daughter of Jim (a dive industry pioneer) and Sandra Dailey is known for her remarkable strength as she has gone some 525 feet in the ocean water and has held her breath for as long as six minutes and 30 seconds.

With hundreds of dives under her belt Streeter retired from competitive free diving in 2006 at the tender age of 33.

Many onlookers would think the notion of going over 500 feet into the ocean water while holding one’s breath for over six minutes would be the ultimate physical challenge.

Yet for Streeter it was the emotional side of the sport that represented the biggest hurdle.

‘It was a big emotional challenge. I had a hard time reconciling between what I’ve done in the water with the individual person I am. It turned out to be very enlightening and empowering to me.

‘Free diving made me feel the same way about any endeavour in sports and life. The biggest revelation was I saw myself as being the best person I’ll ever be when I’m underwater. It is because that was when I was completely honest with myself.’

After finishing competitive free diving she turned her focus to television. She would go on to host BBC Wildlife documentaries and work as an environmental activist for several marine-oriented charities.

This year saw a return to the water, though this time in the form of ice diving. Streeter travelled to Antarctica last month as a member of a team of ice divers to test SCUBA diving regulators in the below-freezing Ross Sea.

The team and the entire project was put together by the Smithsonian Institution. The objective was to repeatedly dive a selection of regulators and evaluate their performance. On the trip Streeter became one of just 300 people to ever dive off of the McMurdo Research Station.

Streeter’s push to international recognition was a rocky and intense journey that saw her overcome injury and self-doubt.

Through all of the dives, world records and endorsement deals came along it was a sense of peace deep below the surface that kept Streeter in the sport.

‘I did a sport I loved where I felt the most protected. I felt the most at home in the sea, especially in the waters here in Cayman. Free diving challenged me the most in what I felt was a safe environment.

‘I travelled to the absolute edge of myself both physically and emotionally. I had a tremendous willingness not to back down from anything, which I got from my mom (Sandra Dailey), making me very passionate about free diving.’