Meet a Real-Life Lara Croft: Kimi Werner, Freediver and Spearfisher
First in a regular series, RCL adventure correspondent Kinga Philipps chats with the U.S. champion.
Meet a Real-Life Lara Croft: What can hold its breath for almost five minutes, bite the brain of an octopus to kill it instantly and shoot a fish weighing considerably more than itself?
A petite brunette who could be as equally at home gracing the pages of Sports Illustrated, if she cared about that sort of thing, which she doesn’t, as she is running barefoot through the sand to go freediving.
Kimi Werner grew up off the grid, with the land and the ocean of Hawaii as not only her playground, but also her sustenance. Most of us are a few degrees removed from that lifestyle. We might gravitate toward organic, free range, wild caught food, but we peruse it on the shelves of Whole Foods rather than embodying the hunter or huntress within. For Kimi, “free range” means it was swimming in the ocean a moment ago. “Wild caught’ means she speared it herself.
Kimi has the distinction of being the United States National Spearfishing Champion and a certified culinary chef. The two are spiritually intertwined for her. Right after winning the championship she quit spearfishing because her fervor for it waned. Killing for the point of competition or sport didn’t inspire her. Freediving did. Experiencing the ocean for the purpose of being engulfed in its magical abyss did. As she developed her culinary skills, the spearfishing made sense again. Kimi believes in having a connection to your food, one that most of us lost a long time ago when supermarket isles replaced family farms. She takes only what she can eat and share with her family and friends … on a back porch under a palm tree.
This mermaid with the heart of a lion isn’t one to be tamed by the modern world or leave it up to others to experience the hidden corners of our globe. If the average person is content with the tip of the iceberg, Kimi wants to see the rest.
If you want your heart to pound and your mouth to water follow her social media.
She has traversed the globe freediving under the ice in Antarctica, swimming with great white sharks, exploring underwater caves on a single breath and making fish tacos that would make Tuesdays eager with anticipation.
Passion is a powerful driving force for people. How did yours develop and mold who you are and what you do?
Kimi Werner: Passion is everything. I’ve tried to mold myself to fit other career paths before and I swear I gave it my all but without real passion, I’d always fall short somehow. Life would feel redundant and dull and I’d often be going through the motions feeling like a second rate version of myself, dragging my feet a bit with every step. The moment diving came back into my life, a fire was lit inside of me. I no longer felt like an empty shell. I had passion in everything I did, no matter what it was, because I had found something that made me so damn happy. It increases the quality of everything. Doing whatever it took to follow and feed that passion created a new path for me where every moment and every effort felt validated and important to what I loved.
What was the process of learning to dive and spearfish like for you? Your dad was your mentor? Were you scared at first?
KW: When I was 5 years old my dad started letting me tag along with him when he went spearfishing. I didn’t actually spear any fish but I got to be in that world with him and watch him get us our food. I’d feel very small and very scared sometimes but as long as I could see my dad, I felt safe.
Do you remember your first dive or your first challenging dive? What was that accomplishment like?
KW: My first challenging dive was the first time my mentors took me out. I wanted to learn from them so badly so I tried so hard that day. They pointed to an octopus that was at 38 feet and told me to go get it. I had never gone that deep before. But I was determined. I made it to the bottom and found the octopus. I started to tickle it out of its hole but couldn’t get it out. It became quite the struggle. Finally, I pulled it out and had it in my hands. I don’t know how long it took me, but I realized in that moment that I was out of air. I immediately felt two strong hands on me and it was my mentor, Kalei, who rushed me to the surface with the octopus still in my hand. I was so happy that I had gotten it. The first thing he said was “You’re crazy!” But he never stopped calling me after that and became my mentor ever since.
Describe the feeling of freediving (or spearfishing) using the five senses.
KW: As I float on the surface, my whole body feels weightless and completely supported. What a beautiful miracle it is just to float..to be free from gravity and to be able to completely surrender every single muscle and let it relax to the support of the ocean. I stare into that endless blue hue feeling both nervous and intrigued by the mystery of what lies below. When I take my drop, I have to be strong and deliberate to break past my own buoyancy and make my way into the depths. But after a while, this buoyancy changes and gravity does kick in and start to pull me down into the depths. As I sink, I feel the pressure squeeze me, tighter and tighter. That used to feel so uncomfortable but now I welcome that feeling like a big hug. I can hear whales singing and I can hear the reef breathing and crackling with life. No words, no talking, just the sounds of the ocean. I especially love looking up and stealing glimpses of the sun shining through the surface. It looks so distorted and beautiful and the way it shimmers and dances. It’s like magic and I always feel like it’s dancing just for me and playfully calling me home.
How do you prep for a dive? It’s probably second nature to you at this point, but are there any special things you do? A little prayer? A moment of gratitude? A blessing? I feel like most people connected to the natural world have little traditions they incorporate into their lifestyle.
KW: I start with gratitude for being able to experience the ocean. Then I give every muscle in my body and thought in my brain permission to take a break and relax. I slowly breathe in oxygen and truly feel its power to fuel me for what I’m about to do and when I exhale, I let go. I let go of all the tension, noise and self created boundaries.
What’s the process of evaluation like for a new dive location?
KW: Everything is weather dependent. Are there waves? Wind? Current? Nearby streams? Has it been raining? Is there structure? Sand? What does the land look like and how does that translate to what the underwater landscape looks like? How cold or warm is the water? How deep?
What are some of the stats on places you have been diving, spearfishing? Most interesting? Deepest? Most technical, challenging?
KW: I’ve been diving in the Arctic, Antarctica, Palau, Africa, Japan, Korea, basically all oceans and all continents. My deepest dive, swimming down and back unassisted was 159 feet. Once I rode my friends anchor down when he dropped it off his boat, and I got to 184 feet, but that was just playing around and cheating.
Do you remember the first fish you speared and got to eat? What was it like to have just provided your own food?
KW: I came home with a variety of 6 little fry fish. The locak names are kole, aholehole and menpachi. These fish don’t get much bigger than 5 inches in length. It was a humble catch but it felt like the most ultimate glory. I felt like a lioness returning home from a hunt with dinner. The satisfaction I felt from simply feeding myself made life seem so much more real and primal to me. It gave everything meaning.
Shaun Harada, a mutual friend, told me you’re one of the only people he knows who doesn’t really even have to clear her ears and it’s as if your body is just designed for freediving. Do you feel like you have a special physical and spiritual connection to the ocean?
KW: I remember being a kid and playing around with the control I had over those muscles in my ears. I’d do it in front of the radio and note how sound changed when I’d open or close it. No one ever understood what I was doing since they couldn’t see that muscle moving. When I tried to ask my mom about what I was doing, or why the sounds changed, she’d say “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Aside from my ears, there were many moments in life that I didn’t understand and constantly questioned. I hated being on the swim team high school. I couldn’t stand being confined with walls, I didn’t fit in with the other swimmers and there was one coach who would pick on me and make my life miserable. I didn’t understand why I kept swimming even with my goggles often filled with tears. Why didn’t I just walk away? I was only able to quit when I discovered canoe paddling. That was the first place that I felt adequate and like I belonged. Later in life, all of these choices would make sense to me and the skills learned from all of them are what made me the diver I became. When it finally all clicked, I felt like I was stepping into my destiny. Like through all the struggles and uncertainty, it all had been lined up and once I reconnected with my roots of diving, it was a there just waiting for me.
For you, spearfishing is more than just the sport of it. Can you explain the value of being able to provide natural, healthy food and taking from nature only what you can eat. You are a foodie and this is sustenance. You talk about being part of the ecosystem and helping your neighbors, examining your choices in terms of where our food comes from. Can you elaborate on why that philosophy is so important to you?
KW: I guess I just believe that we are a part of this ecosystem, not separate from it. Many people want to conquer nature, many want to save it and keep it untouched. But I feel that we are a natural part of our environment and that we can live harmoniously both harvesting from it and contributing to it. The more we truly tap into our connection to the natural world and how we are indeed a part of it, the more we can find our place and understand how to feed it and let it feed us.
What’s it like to be an incredibly successful woman in a relatively male dominated space? I know there are some seriously kick ass freediver and spearfisher women but I think the average perception is that it’s more males than females.
KW: I have nothing but gratitude for my spearfishing community and am humbled by the respect I get from the guys. I’ve never wanted to be known as being better than the boys or good for a girl. I just wanted to be a great diver. And that’s how I’ve been treated, which I’m so thankful for.
You’re beautiful and you’re also completely bad ass. Do you find that that combo throws people for a loop? I ask this because it boggles me that noone ever asks guys this question … “Oh you’re good looking AND you’re athletic, talented?”
KW: One of my first mentors admitted to me later in life that when he first met me, he thought, “she’s too pretty to be good at this.” And that he realized he was wrong once he saw me in the water. I still don’t really know what that means but I do appreciate that the ocean becomes this great equalizer. I like that image and looks can’t help me preform or advance underwater whatsoever. I’m usually head to toe in a camo suit and if I have a hood on, people sometimes don’t even know that I’m not a man until I take it off. I just love that.
Everyone has a message they put out into the world through their words, actions and lifestyle. What is yours?
KW: Be your authentic self and nothing else. That’s what this world needs.
You write beautiful and very descriptive captions on Instagram. It really feels like you are taking people with you on your journeys. Do you feel like introducing people to places, people and experience is part of your mission?
KW: Maybe it’s the artist in me that makes me feel this way. When I feel inspired by something, it manifests into an almost tangible form of self expression begging to be set free. I often feel like a mere vehicle or vessel used to bring this expression to life. It stirs within me restlessly until I can find a way to share it. I do share to take people on journeys but I also share for me, and for the idea itself because only once it’s out and free, can I move on to my next thought or journey.
Most people would be terrified to do what you do. So what terrifies you … if anything?
KW: I used to be terrified by the fear of failure but I don’t feel scared of that anymore. I think I’ve learned to believe in myself and believe in the journey and create my own idea of success.
What future life goals do you have for the next five years? Any big bucket list items, travels, career goals, etc.?
KW: I do think I would like to be a mom one day. Sometimes I get scared of missing that window. But I have faith that things will work out as they should. I’d love to write children’s books, cookbooks and novels.
What do you feel like are your biggest professional and personal accomplishments to date?
KW: I could say being inducted into the spearfishing hall of fame. I’m the first female and the youngest person to date. But honestly, my biggest accomplishment was when I was living on my own, with my Rottweiler, Tonka, and painting trucker hats to get by. It was a hustle! I’d paint little fish on hats and sell them and would make just enough money to pay the rent and take care of my dog. It wasn’t luxurious but it gave me the freedom to make my own schedule and dive. Though I was basically a one woman sweat shop, I gained confidence to know that I created my own life. It truly taught me that I could do anything I set my mind to. To this day, that time in life of being alone and independent and making it work on my terms reassures me that everything will always be ok and it helps me to dream bigger with the comfort of knowing that I was happy then and can always go back to that if needed.
What other hobbies do you have that people might not expect?
KW: I love to write. People might know that because of the words and stories I post but I also very much enjoy writing childlike poems that rhyme. I always have. Other than that, I love catching waves, foraging, cooking, drawing and riding in helicopters.
Advice for anyone looking to get into something like freediving or spearfishing?
KW: Please start slow. Start with snorkeling and observing. Get to know and love your prey long before you try to hunt them. When you are filled with knowledge and comfort and ready to hunt, get a three prong pole spear. Don’t rush into a speargun, you will skip so many steps and never become a true master if you focus too much on the end prize or trophy. Stretch out the whole learning experience. Take your time. It will only make you a better hunter!
Never one to sit still, Kinga Philipps has tested herself for the past decade by traveling the globe, rappelling, caving, scuba diving, jumping out of airplanes and diving with the sharks as a writer, producer and on-camera host. In her rare bits of free time, Kinga explores her singular fascination with sharks followed by a love for the beach, surfing, motorcycles, cars, charity work, travel, food and action sports.
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