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How A Champion Freediver Overcomes Fear

Hanli Prinsloo's I Am Water Foundation introduces underprivileged children to the ocean and teaches them how to love it. 

Hanli Prinsloo freediving with a whale shark (c) Peter Marshall

It’s 9am on a craggy beach in Turkey, and I’m preparing to snorkel with champion freediver Hanli Prinsloo.  

With her warm South African accent, always on the verge of a belly laugh, Prinsloo shows us her ultra-efficient method of mask-cleaning (by licking it) and instructs us to channel our “inner dolphins”.  

But something is wrong: one member of our group, a woman in her 60s, is panicking. Prinsloo takes her aside and coaxes her to dive to the seabed. The woman finally succeeds and is elated. 

I discover later that the woman had a desperate fear of water since her husband drowned. “I told her, I’m sorry to hear that, but this is not going to happen to you. This is not your story,” says Prinsloo.   

Prinsloo knows a thing or two about conquering fears. During her time as a competitive freediver she broke 11 South African records, swimming to 65m on a single breath held for six minutes. She regularly dives with sharksgreat whites and tiger sharks among othersand speaks to audiences of thousands. But fear once nearly killed her.  

She was diving for a record in a fjord in Sweden, the country that first introduced her to freediving as a graduate. She relates: “I always dive with my eyes closed, for focus and to conserve oxygen, but I have a rope to guide me that I’m tethered to. So, I was running my hands over the rope, pulling myself down to 60m. When I got to the bottom of the rope, I opened my eyes to take the tag. To prove in competitions you’ve been at depth, the bottom of the rope is usually lit by a torch so you can see to grab the tag. But it was pitch black, I couldn’t see a thing. And I literally thought, I’ve gone blind. Then my next thought was, I don’t want to live blind. I made the decision there that I didn’t want to swim back up. I started undoing my lanyard from the rope. And I thought, I’m just going to let go.” 

In her disoriented state, Prinsloo had a flashback of a relative who was blind but enjoyed a good life with a guide dog. “So, I thought, okay I’ll be that person who has a special bond with a seeing eye dog.” She clicked her lanyard back on and made her way to the surface. She took off her mask, and the organiser looked over the side of the boat and said: “Was it dark down there, because we forgot to change the batteries in the torch?” 

Hanli Prinsloo (c) Charlie Dailey

That Prinsloo almost killed herself because of human error taught her a powerful lesson about fear. “We don’t have to believe everything we think. Mostly, we think that we are our thoughts but often our thoughts are completely wrong, irrational, and based on fear, ignorance and insecurity. 

“In any given moment, we have an opportunity to pick a story that will dictate our life, and I picked the worst one. People often say, look inwards, just feel your feelings, but sometimes you need to step out and look at the facts.” 

This has become a theme in much of Prinsloo’s teaching. We are talking in the sun, sharing a poke bowl (Prinsloo picking at the vegetables because she doesn’t eat fish, they are her friends) at a bi-annual wellness summit on Turkey’s Aegean Coast, called Harvest Kaplankaya, organised by property advisers Athena Advisers. Prinsloo is a speaker here and has just taught a breathwork masterclass to some 70 odd attendees, lying in the shade of an olive grove.  

One of those rare people who radiates love, warmth, and absolutely zero BS, Prinsloo fondly recalls her days growing up on a horse farm in Johannesburg. Her parents weren’t rich but occasionally they packed up their beaten-up VW camper van, bundled Hanli and her sister Marieke to bed in the back and drove overnight to the nearest beach. As the kids woke at dawn, they would see the sun rising over the sea.  

“I always loved being under the water and my sister and I would dream of being mermaids,” she recalls. 

Now Prinsloo focuses much of her time on her foundation, I Am Water, which introduces underprivileged children from Cape Town to the ocean and teaches them how to love it.  

Globally, there are at least four-billion people who cant swim more than half the world population. According to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 372,000 annual drowning deaths worldwide every year. 

Together with her boyfriend and business partner Peter Marshall, Prinsloo was able to engage the forces of 40 local lifeguards in Cape Town and train them to take small groups of underserved 11-year-olds on to the beach for a two-day workshop. Around 90 percent of the kids are non-swimmers, dogged by “generations of fear inside them about the sea”, says Prinsloo. “Anyone you speak to in South Africa knows someone who knows someone who has drowned,” she explains. With masks, snorkels and wetsuits they learn breathwork, explore the rockpools and then learn to swim with the help of flotation devices. They learn about the beauty of ocean animals and why we need to protect them.  

By the end of the two days they are not only confident in the water but are connected to nature. “It’s my passion, bridging the journey from fear to love for the ocean,” says Prinsloo. So far, it has worked with 3,000 children.  

The I Am Water Foundation teaches children how to love the ocean

The foundation survives partly on donations but Prinsloo also maintains it through another source: teaching people to freedive with whales, sharks and manta rays in stunning locations.  

Through I Am Water: Ocean Travel visitors can swim with dolphins in Mozambique, humpback whales in the South Pacific, whale sharks in Madagascar and sea lions in Mexico. The company provides bespoke experiences for private groups and families, organised in high luxury or more modest surrounds.  

Money from this will allow her to scale up the foundation to free more children from the bonds of their parents’ fears of the sea, she says. “The planet needs whole humans who are not just living for themselves,” says Prinsloo. “And I enjoy walking that path with people.” 

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This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Health Issue, December 2019. To subscribe contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.