We’ve been waxing poetic about women in diving all month, from women who have just started their diving journey to those who’ve made it their careers. Today, 75% of the world’s divers are men. However, this number is a vast improvement to the 89% we saw ten years ago. Women now make up 35% of all new divers and the number is slowly but surely gaining. As more female role models come to the forefront, equipment manufacturers make gear with women’s considerations in mind and women are more visible in the industry – we can only expect bigger and better things.
However, we haven’t spoken about technical diving where the picture changes dramatically. Theresia estimates that only 5-10% of all tech divers are women. On Blue Marlin Dive Tech’s Facebook page, 92% of all fans are male. In Southeast Asia, leading technical diving agency TDI lists only 2 women out of 47 tech instructors qualified to teach more advanced courses such as Extended Range. Blue Marlin Tech is immensely proud to call one of them, ours. Very few woman divers have chosen the technical path, and even fewer have made it all the way to the instructor level: Meet Theresia Gollner.
Theresia joined the diving world in 2011 and got into tech diving right away. Being fascinated by the mindset of a technical diver, she started with her TDI Cave courses and continued up until TDI Advanced Trimix. After her instructor course in 2013, she joined Will Goodman for his CCR World Record and provided invaluable support to the team for several months while gaining experience teaching TDI Sidemount courses. She decided to leave the corporate world to join the Blue Marlin Tech Team and this past month we were lucky enough to get a chat in with her, even with her busy schedule!
Tell us a little bit about yourself…
Theresia Gollner: I’m from Austria, from the mountains, in a little village and I’ve never had anything to do with water really. But I was always very much into travelling. I worked in banking for a while and also project management where I set up new factories. It was very stressful, very interesting, but very stressful. But I always wanted to go back into travelling or get a job I could travel with. So I started to study international business. I went to China for an exchange year and then I worked in China and Vietnam for four years. During that time I started to dive and that’s how I came into diving. I was 28 when I started diving and became an instructor at 33.
So after you first started recreational diving, what triggered you to make the switch to technical diving?
TG: I, actually, wasn’t very into diving. I enjoyed it, but if I didn’t go diving, I didn’t mind. But I took my Advanced Open Water and my instructor, a tech diver, basically brought me into it. His position in the water was perfect. The way he moved, turned, behaved in the water – it fascinated me. So straight after my Advanced Open Water Course, in 2011, I did the Tech Sidemount and then I went from there all the way to Nitrox and Advanced Nitrox and Decompression Procedures. Whenever I had a vacation I would go to Thailand’s Similan Islands to do the next tech course.
What was the most challenging part of your technical training?
TG: The cave course for sure. I spent 8 days in the freshwater caves in Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park. I am a very conservative person. I don’t take many risks and in the cave course, I really pushed my limits.
What was the hardest part of the cave course for you?
TG: All of the skills you do without a mask. We spent half of the time in the cave without a mask. The instructor turns off your tank, rips off your mask, you loose the line and you have to find your way back. That was really challenging and I was very inexperienced then. I only had about 50 dives so it was a proper challenge, but also very rewarding. After a couple of times going without the mask, it becomes so natural. So now, when I need to relax, I just close my eyes. It’s like my own zen.
So for those who aren’t technical divers, what makes a dive a ‘technical dive’?
TG: The basic definition of a technical dive is a dive where you have a ceiling. It can be a virtual ceiling in terms of decompression obligation, so you can’t go to the surface anytime you want, or it can be a real ceiling, like a cave or a wreck. You’ll have to do certain stops on the way up, you will use different gases, you’ll carry more gauges and more equipment – the whole set-up is different. Also, as you cannot go up to the surface, you have to plan much more. If you have decompression of half an hour and you have 40 BAR left in your tank, you might not make it! So you have to know, before you dive, all the details that are going to happen under water. You need to plan a technical dive every time.
In your opinion, what’s the mindset of a technical diver ?
TG: It’s very detail oriented. You have to be very specific with your checks. You do them in a certain way and you can’t forget things, so you need to check and check again. Let’s say I dive with someone for an entire week, two dives a day. One part of it is to check your equipment and tell your buddy where you have which piece of equipment… your computer, your backup computer, etc. Some people will start and say, “Oh I know where your stuff is, we’ve been diving together for 5 days now.” But you have to do it every single day, every single dive. “I have my SMB’s here, my reels here, my knife is positioned here, my backup mask here, etc.” You don’t take ANY shortcuts in those checks. Even if you’ve done a site 100 times, you have to see it as a new dive every single time you have to be focused when you plan the dive. Awareness is a very big part of technical diving. If you go in a group of three/four people, you cannot just focus on yourself, you have to be aware of everything that’s going on under water during every single second. So the dive itself is much more focused and you have to be more orientated on the dive itself.
What do you do to pass the time during decompression?
TG: Nothing! Breathing, really. I don’t know… I probably think about the dive or the next dive I am going to do. Some people play sudoku, but I don’t like that because it takes your mind off what’s going on around you. When you do decompression, the chances that people convulse because of oxygen toxicity is much more likely the closer you get to the end of the dive. So toward the end of the dive, we should be more and more aware of the team. Basically, just hang there on the reel of your SMB, practice buoyancy and positioning, you can practice backwards kicking… But I guess sometimes it’s a meditation, just focusing on breathing.
What would you consider your best dive?
TG: My first hundred metre dive. It was far away from perfect. In tech diving, you are happy when you do the things you have to do in the proper way. Both of my regulators were free flowing at 100 metres, this was something I learned how to deal with in the shallows so it was already in my muscle memory, and I had to shut down and start feathering. Feathering is when you open the tank when you breathe in and you close it when you exhale. So I did that all the way up to 60 metres and everything went according to the plan and it was just another task I had to do. And that’s what makes me really happy and proud when my tech dive went well and I’m able to handle all the problems that arise.
You were the only female team member on Will Goodman’s record-breaking dive to 290+ metres. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? Did you feel any pride in being the only woman part of this, especially in such a male-dominated sport ?
TG: Not really. When you are part of a team like that, it’s about professionalism, about working together as a team. I’ve always worked in a tech world. Building a factory, you deal with 80% guys anyways. I don’t really see myself as, ‘Oh, I am a woman and everybody else is a guy’. I just focused on the things I had to do and worked to execute them in a proper way. The actual diving is a very small part of the whole project. You use each team member’s strengths to make it work. Back home, I was a project manager. So, for this dive, I was responsible for ensuring that all the tasks that had to be done were done. The entire team did the equipment servicing, the dive plan and talked about the roles together. But I was ensuring that everybody got in the water when they had to, that they followed their dive profiles, that all the tanks were in their proper place. I also met Will on his way up at 45 metres and then I accompanied him for an hour up to 27 metres. Then the support team did rotations, so I went back in two hours later to meet him again at 9 metres for another hour. So a part of it was diving, but the majority of it was preparation. Tech diving isn’t fully about the diving itself, but more about the actual preparation.
The diving itself is like the icing on the cake.
What do you feel are the most important challenges and opportunities facing women in technical diving?
TG: I think many women are scared of the physical and technical challenge. The first thing my instructor told me when I started tech: “You carry your own gear. If you want to tech dive, you are responsible for your own stuff.” So I said, “Ok I can do that.” Of course, the twin tank sets are very heavy and no one likes to carry them around, but if you really want to do it you just get over it and stop complaining.
There are technical challenges as well. You know, you fill gases, you analyse, you make calculations for dive planning and I think most women don’t go into tech diving because they think they cannot do it, which is sad. Many people, not just women, don’t want to do the calculations, but it’s not rocket science. You know the formulas, you know how to build upon experience and on plans etc and it’s always the same, really. So I think it’s more the fear of not succeeding or not knowing what they should expect. I actually think women have the potential to be great tech divers because, as natural multi-taskers, they are very aware of what’s going on in the big overall picture, which is very helpful when tech diving.
How do we get more women involved in tech diving ?
TG: By making it look easy. Getting more pictures of female tech divers and them carrying around the twinsets. You don’t have to go two kilometres with them! I think we need to see more women working in shops. I hope people see me and think, “Oh she can do it, so I can do it.” We need more female role models.
You mentioned that you are running a half marathon. Do you think that women who enjoy activities such as long distance running may be more inclined towards tech diving?
TG: Oh yes! In my opinion, you have to have a strong mind. You focus on a task and you focus on your target. So if you lose track of your target, you get complacent. It’s a mindset. That’s also why I like challenging myself outside of diving and I like to have targets to work towards. If you break your training for 3 weeks, you are not going to succeed so you need to have your mind set on the things you want to do.
Many people who love tech diving are control freaks. They like to have structure. They want to know what to expect. That’s the mindset you need as a tech diver. If you like structural things, I don’t want to say square because it’s a bit too much, but if you like things in a certain way and if you know exactly what you will do, then you will love it. If you are very messy and you do 20 things at the same time then that’s probably not the right thing.
And do you have any plans for PADI women’s dive day on July 16th?
Theresia: I am actually teaching a course of Advanced Nitrox and Decompression Procedures to two girls.