Brian Burk
Brian Burk

May 27. 3 mins


Photo by Alex St-Jean

This is the story of Iru and Ana. When I sat down with these two ladies I wasn’t sure what to expect. What ensued was a beautiful tale of passion and success. It is yet another tale of travel, adventure and determination. More proof that hard work pays off. More evidence that it’s okay to follow your dreams despite all the naysayers watching from afar attempting to distract you with negative input.

Iru is Ana’s freediving coach. Ana is a part-time athlete and the first female from Panama to compete in an international freediving competition. While this is impressive enough as it is, let’s rewind a bit to the beginning of the journey, and that starts with Iru.

Early Hardships

Iru is from Caracas, Venezuela, born into a fishing family. She lived on the coast, the ocean always in her soul. In 1999, what is know as the Vargas Tragedy struck Venezuela and changed the shape of the entire country. She was one of thousands that lost their homes to a massive mudslide killing tens of thousands of people, crippling the infrastructure of the nation. Her family started from scratch and her private schooling became a distant memory. “We started from zero,” as she puts it bluntly.

Discovery of Freediving

She spent much of her free time watching the scuba divers walking past her grandmother’s restaurant—the restaurant was also destroyed in the tragedy but was rebuilt. She yearned to join them in their exploration of the sea, but it was far too expensive for her family after the Vargas Tragedy so it remained a dream.
As a young adult, Iru found herself in university studying business management. She was doing what she was supposed to do—what she thought was right. In 2002 she found a much more affordable means to observe the underwater world: freediving. She started training with the men’s national team and never quite looked back from there.

In 2005 she attended her first international competition in Nice, France and became the youngest athlete on the top ten list of female freedivers in the world. She became a freediving instructor in 2007 working part-time to fulfill her passion for the sport.

A Life Transition

Sure, she did finish her degree. She even got a proper job, already a success in her own right, but she knew that office life was not for her. So, like any dream chaser, she quit her job in 2011 as a project manager and became a full-time freediving professional.

This did not come without comments from the peanut gallery. Many thought it was a mistake and she was happy to prove them wrong. Armed with her strong reputation and multitude of sponsorships, she did quite well as a professional freediver in Venezuela.

The Move to Panama

In 2015, due to civil unrest in the country, she decided to leave Venezuela and pursue a life elsewhere. As fate would have it, pushing Iru and Ana together, Iru’s sister lived in Panama.
Panama at the time was a country with absolutely no history in freediving as a sport. The only form of freediving there was dominated by male fishermen who scoffed at the idea that a woman might follow suit beneath the waves. It was practically unknown there as a sport, and it was certainly not something that women participated in. So Iru did what was necessary—she bested the men at their own game and earned their respect.

Though she found herself in Panama City with no money and no freedivers, she did not give up. Eventually, through persistence and seizing opportunities, she was able to gain trust and began making forward momentum. She created Panama Freediving Club and used social media, namely her instagram account, to promote freediving in the country.

Iru, Meet Ana

Last year, while perusing away at Instagram photos on her phone, Ana saw a post from Iru advertising an upcoming trip to San Blas Islands. At the time, Ana was going through some personal turmoil and welcomed the change. Like Iru, she had always loved the ocean, but she had never tried to freedive. She decided to roll the dice and get in touch with Iru.

From the start, she felt very comfortable around Iru and it inspired confidence in Ana so she ventured to the islands for the first time. She got out of the office and the high heels and into some fins and the ocean. While she was understandably a touch nervous, she quickly fell in love with the sport and it became a way to alleviate stress and anxiety from her life.

Panama’s First International Comp and Future Endeavors

She joined Iru’s school and began frequenting the pool sessions. Even though she still works as an executive for the largest department store in Panama and is a single mother to a 14 year-old son, she wakes up at 5 a.m. to train.

Iru was so inspired by the dedication of Ana that she decided to be not only an instructor, but also her coach. 2018 marks Iru’s first year as an official freediving coach. I don’t think it will be her last. Ana is now one of two freedivers from Panama that are the first to compete in an international competition—The Caribbean Cup, which is held on Roatan, Honduras.

Iru is no stranger to the event. She came to Roatan back in 2013 for the very first Caribbean Cup. Not only did she compete, she won the female cup. Somewhere between teaching and winning championships, she also fell in love with motivating and inspiring people. This is a goal that she has since accomplished and is expanding upon.

Unfortunately in the competition this year the weather became inclement on the final day and it forced the closure of the event. Ana was unable to complete her dives that day and thus did not place. However, she’s proud to be the first female freediver to represent Panama in international competition and plans to continue her freediving hobby. She aims to carry on practicing and competing all over the world.

Iru plans to carry on motivating others through her own story and through freediving. She put Panama on the map of the freediving world and proved that freediving is a sport for women as well as men. Now there are many women taking up the sport in Panama. Putting one fin in front of the other, she plots her course and aims to eventually be a consultant to executives by changing their perspectives and treating their stress with freediving. I find no reason to doubt her.

Photo by Santiago Estrada


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