© Paul Calver
Christal Clashing fell in love with the ocean whilst growing up in Antigua and quickly found she had a talent for swimming. At the age of 14, she represented Antigua at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Fourteen years later, she swapped swimming for rowing and made history as part of the first all-black rowing team to cross the Atlantic. Since then, Christal, who is a water coach, adventurer and writer, has switched her focus to freediving and hopes to set a national record.
In her twenties, Christal was diagnosed with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), a severely debilitating form of premenstrual syndrome which affects 2-10% of women. In this interview, we cover Christal’s rowing and freediving but check back next week to read about her journey to Olympic swimmer and learn more about her experience living with PMDD.
In 2018/19 you were part of the first all-black team to row the Atlantic Ocean. What inspired you to take part?
In the summer and autumn of 2018, I needed something that signified that depression and PMDD weren’t going to define my life. The Antiguan government put a call out for rowers for the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Row, so I threw my hat in the ring and joined the training for the team. It started off as 15 or so women and whittled down to the final four of us that ended up rowing under the name Team Antigua Island Girls. With none of us having any rowing experience, it meant nine months of fairly intense training. That gave me the time I needed to prove to myself that I could stick with my medication and talking therapy to help me manage the rigours of not only training but the row itself.
What I didn’t expect was for the row to take on the cultural significance that it did. It was only a few months into the row training that we were told by our coach that we would be the first all-black team, male or female, to row the Atlantic. For me, that was significant because we were going to be crossing part of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade route that our ancestors had crossed by force centuries ago. It felt like a journey of symbolic healing to take on the row in a similar route, as a voluntary endeavour that celebrated our blackness, our Caribbean-ness and our collective spirits of adventure.
You had nine months to train – what did this involve?
Training included being at the gym up to six days a week for a minimum of 2 hours. Each month we had long rows ranging from 8 hours to 4 days, along with weekly 4-hour rows. We also had training courses to complete through the Royal Yachting Association (RYA). Then there was the logistics and planning to still do, even with a project management team in place. We also had regular school visits to encourage support, and meetings with sponsors, so the whole thing was like having a part-time job. We also ended up going to the UK a month ahead of the row to train with our refitted boat and get some row technique training from Olympic rower Guin Batten.
What were the biggest mental and physical challenges of your 47-day ocean crossing?
For me, mentally, it was staying awake during the night shifts. It wasn’t that I was physically tired, it was just that once the darkness hit, my brain was like, ‘sleep time’. I had to resort to downing raw granules of coffee just before each two-hour rowing shift to keep me awake. The challenge with falling asleep was that my oars would then bang against my teammate’s oars, thus interrupting their stroke and causing unnecessary vibrations down their arms. Done enough times it can really affect their stroke and overall physical capacity. So, that was one of my biggest challenges.
Physically, my biggest challenge was trying to regain my technique after week three of our 7-week journey. I was doing really well with the rowing technique in the first 3 weeks or so, and then I lost it. No matter what I did after that, I couldn’t get back to the technique that gave me the powerful strokes that I had in the beginning. And because none of us on the team were rowers before, no matter what advice my teammates tried to give me, I just wasn’t as effective as I was before. That was frustrating because I wanted to really do my part in the team well, but at the end of the day, you can only do the best you can do with the knowledge available to you at a given time.
After your row, you took up freediving. You’re aiming for a national record, is that right?
Yes, I’m aiming to set a national freediving record for Antigua and Barbuda. So far, there hasn’t been any record set for Antiguan women, and I very much would like to be the first to do so. While technically almost any depth will do, I will be working on hitting a personal best to set the record. Hopefully, with an established record, it will encourage others to work towards breaking it and thus grow the interest in freediving in Antigua and Barbuda.
What does your freediving training involve?
For me, training comes in potentially six parts:
#1. Open water depth training
This is my favourite part of training. This is when I actually go for deep dives in the ocean. My sessions involve a 3-dive warm-up between 10-15 metres, followed by 3-4 deep dives that are at least 25m. I do this with my dive buddy. If we haven’t dived for a while or are with new divers, we would also practice our rescue dives so that we are fresh with how to handle emergencies.
#2. Dynamic beach/pool training
This is the training I do least because I don’t always have someone to buddy me. This involves finning along the bottom of the pool or beach to see how long and how far you can fin without the impact of ever-increasing depth pressure. The focus is on improving finning technique and body position. Since divable days in Antigua are hard during winter and spring, this is the most ideal in-water training. Right now, the beach is what I have, but it’s hard to measure distance and know where I’m going while I’m underwater. The pool would be more ideal but Antigua has very limited public pool options, and whatever is available is prioritised for the swim clubs on the island.
This is my favourite land training exercise. For me, this involves lying on a yoga mat, wearing my nose clip (which is optional), and simulating the actions of my dive. This starts with just relaxing as if I were sleeping. Then I count to 30 before I visualise myself going through the routine of my dive. I visualise the blue of the water, the feel of the line in my hands, and I count the number of pulls I need to do. I visualise my body position and myself relaxing anywhere in my body that’s feeling particularly tense. The great thing about visualisations is that you can practice your dives as many times as you’d like without putting your body under duress.
#4. Breath work
I use a freedive app to do a Wonka table that my dive buddy often does. This involves holding your breath and when you begin to feel chest contractions due to lower oxygen levels, you begin to time how long you can go before taking a breath. The key is to try to stay as relaxed as possible during the contractions.
I’m pretty bad at stretching on my own, so I do my best stretching with my boyfriend, who’s a wakeboarder. Stretching can be general body stretching or dive specific. With dive-specific stretching, I work the thoracic area with empty lungs and alternate that with the same stretches on full lungs. That then gets my rib cage and thoracic area nice and mobile. I do have to be careful not to overstretch on those types of stretches, especially on the days that I do open water deep-dive training.
#6. Cross-training for general strength and fitness
Right now, this is a combination of strength training 3-4 times a week with a personal trainer over Google Meet. My mom joins in on these sessions with me and sometimes we even join my sister’s virtual sessions so it becomes a whole family affair. Other than that, I can be found mountain biking and the occasional downwind paddle with my dive buddy or out improving my surfing with my boyfriend. I like doing much of my training with other people. Although I’m an introvert by nature, spending time with one or two other people makes the whole outdoors and exercise experience more enjoyable for me.
How much of freediving is mental?
One of the things I love most about freediving is how exertion and accomplishing your goals work. It’s not like other sports or activities I’ve done, where I’m constantly pushing myself to make progress. I find that freediving is more an exercise in acceptance of the state of your body and mind on a given day or given moment. It involves setting an intention then immediately letting go of that ambition so you can focus on and experience the sensations of diving down.
My best dives have been doing what I know I needed to do, like the ritual process of equalising pre-dive, duck diving, and counting my first 17 strokes. After those 17 pulls down the line, I’m in freefall and I just feel the pull of gravity from the earth’s core gently but efficiently taking me down. My only jobs at that point are to keep equalising and stay as relaxed as possible in my body and my mind.
I struggle with an anxious mind quite often, so keeping my mind under control while diving is a treat and boost of confidence every time I go deep. It means that while at sea, and especially under the surface and deep within it, I’ve managed to overcome the limitations I had on land. It’s a great and beautiful thing. I’m still working on translating the mental process of focus and relaxation to real life on land, but I’m grateful I’m able to master my mind more when I’m in and under the water.
What limitations do you have in reaching deeper freediving depths?
When I’m going deep, my current limitation is my equalisation rather than my breath-hold. I still have enough air to go down and back up when I reach my equalisation limit. It means that my body needs to acclimatise to that depth and I’m still to learn more advanced equalisation techniques. When I’ve reached a limit to my equalisation, I turn around and make my way back up the line.
I also really enjoy that feeling of resurfacing. You can literally feel the pressure changing, getting lighter and it almost feels like a cleansing in the making. I tend to be met by my dive buddy about 10 meters from the surface, and once I clear the surface of the water, I hold onto the diving rig and get in about 4 deep recovery breaths before talking. You can always tell when I’ve had a good dive. Even during my recovery breaths, there’s a grin on my face. Then it’s high fives and fist bumps all around.
What are your favourite items of kit for your water adventures?
My GoPro (I have a Hero 5 and Session), my iPhone so I can download those photos, my Prana 1.5mm wetsuit (it’s the only wetsuit I personally own, so I literally use it for everything, from surfing to SCUBA to freediving), and my 20-litre dry bags. Since the row, I’ve managed to collect a few of them and they are essential to carry everything with me. A (sometimes waterproof) notebook to write down any thoughts that come to mind. It’s very rare that I actually use it, but it makes me feel better that it’s there just in case I need to use it.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
As a team member of Team Onyx (adventure racing team), we’re collectively sponsored by Arc’teryx, Alpacka Raft, Bedrock Sandals, Nuun Hydration, Light & Motion, Giant and Cuore, but outside of that adventure racing team, I have no personal sponsors. It’s something that I’d like to have changed. I particularly would love to have sponsors for my water adventures, and that is something I’m working on with the help of Team Onyx.
Check back next week for part two of Christal’s interview. In the meantime, follow Christal via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/christalclashing and via her website: www.christalclashing.com. You can also follow Team Antigua Island Girls on Facebook at www.facebook.com/teamantiguaislandgirls.