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Into the Blue
Malaysia’s first female competitive freediver Azua Shafii is on a mission to grow the country’s freediving scene.
When Azua Shafii first tried freediving, she was instantly hooked. The freedom she felt underwater and her eagerness to pursue the sport competitively pushed her to choose it as a career over a scholarship to do her PhD. Today, she holds several national records in the sport and even has her own freediving centre.
Born in Muar, Johor, Azua has always been the outdoorsy type, thanks to a childhood of camping and hiking trips. After moving to Penang and Kuala Lumpur, she started joining marathons and trail runs, which she believes brought out her competitive side. Her love for nature translated into a degree in environmental biology; she even wanted to become a teacher until she started freediving in 2010.
Azua Shafii, Malaysia’s first female competitive freediver.
Freediving is an extreme sport that relies on a person’s ability to hold their breath and dive without any breathing apparatus, but Azua says it’s more than just breath-holding –freediving forces you to understand and control your body’s natural rhythm. Being able to slow down your heart rate is essential, and one must be relaxed, focused, and have maturity in thinking to do well – adrenaline doesn’t help very much in this sport.
A longtime scuba diver, Azua was first introduced to freediving by her friend and fellow Malaysian freediving record holder Azam Hamid. Initially dismissing it as a “crazy activity”, she decided to give it a try – and never looked back.
At the time, the sport was virtually unheard of in Malaysia, which inspired Azua to pursue it further. “[I thought] ‘What if I pursue this until I become an instructor and started teaching in Malaysia? Then I can start growing the number of freedivers!’ That was part of the original idea, and somehow it kept growing,” she says.
The opportunity to become Malaysia’s first female competitive freediver was too good to pass up, and after just three years of training, Azua took part in the One Breath Jamboree 2013 competition in Bali, Indonesia. She placed fourth in her category.
Since then, Azua has participated in several international freediving competitions in Greece, Indonesia, and Thailand. In 2016, she also organised the first South East Asian Team Freediving Pool Championship in Penang, and later opened Apnea Odyssey – a freediving centre in Ara Damansara. She’s also the safety and training officer of AIDA Malaysia (a non-profit freediving organisation that sanctions all free-diving records), and a certified Scuba Schools International (SSI) master instructor.
Credit: Kohei Ueno
“I feel grateful that I had the chance to be one of the first Malaysians to explore competitive freediving,” Azua says. Her personal and national records include 5 minutes 16 seconds for breath holding, 153m for longest swim with fins, and diving to a depth of 61m in the constant weight discipline.
But Azua doesn’t let these records get to her head. “Not many people were doing it [freediving], so in the end all my personal records became national records in Malaysia,” she says. One of her goals is to increase the number of competitive freedivers in Malaysia, particularly among women, as she doesn’t want to be the only female dominating the sport.
Credit: Kohei Ueno
And it may take some time to get there, but things are slowly picking up. Through Apnea Odyssey’s beginner and advanced courses, plus PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) launching its freediving programme in 2015, Azua says the local freediving scene is growing and gaining more recognition, even among the older crowd. Her Apnea Odyssey classes attract a surprising number of participants in their 40s and 50s.
In another encouraging sign, there are now more freedivers competing locally and internationally, setting records along the way. Azua names Azam Hamid, Paul Sack, Teoh Kim Seng and Lee Wei Lin as some of the freedivers to watch.
Azua competing in the Free Immersion (FIM) discipline at the Asian Freediving Cup 2017 in the Philippines. In FIM, the freediver dives underwater and resurfaces by pulling on the rope, without any propulsion device (fins). Credit: Kohei Ueno
“We don’t just make small records,” she says, “we have started to set big records, and everyone has begun to say, ‘be careful with Malaysia’!”
While she continues to train hard to beat her own records, she reiterates that she doesn’t want to do this alone. “I want to see more ladies from Malaysia doing this together with me!”
By Stacy Liu
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi