Ryan Hunter-Reay is an unlikely race car driver. The 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Champion is unusually tall; a slow, steady speaker; and mellow in a way that makes him seem less like he's saving up energy and more like he's about to make a pitch for transcendental meditation. He's not. He has just trained himself to be self-possessed. The driver for Andretti Autosport has an almost intellectual approach to his chosen profession; he's reined in his brain's neurotic streak by free diving to the bottom of the ocean.
Hunter-Reay, who grew up scuba diving with his father off the coast of his native Texas, has always been comfortable in the water, but only got serious about breath-hold diving when he began training off Florida with spearfisher Cameron Kirkconnell. The underwater hunter and merchant ship captain taught him to stay down longer and become more conscious of his body. And the lessons paid off. During a physical at the Indianapolis 500 this year, a doctor recorded Hunter-Reay's resting heart rate: 41 beats a minute.
"Guess I was calm that day," says Hunter-Reay, who recently won the ESPY Award for Best Driver at the 2013 ESPY Awards, is currently favored to finish near or at the top of the Indy field this season, and is bound for the Honda Indy 400 at Mid-Ohio on August 4. He says this with a bit of a smile, presumably because the only way a driver with an infant son would be calm on race day is if he knows he has an edge over his opponents.
Here's how Hunter-Reay found that edge on the seafloor.
Pumping Mental Muscle
He might be more of a good ol' boy than an ascetic, but Hunter-Reay is all about discipline and that starts in his head. He says that free diving has been good for him because he's had to learn to keep his calm even when his body is telling him to panic. "That initial burn is a natural reaction," he says of the urge to swim toward the surface. "You can train your body to do so much if you focus on the mental approach."
Though it took him a long time to learn to suppress his urge to swim up, he can now descend to the seafloor at 60 feet and hang out a bit, sneaking up on the parrot fish and grouper that prowl the Bahamian waters he frequents. "In racing, you want to have a very calm aggression about everything," he says. That's the same approach he's taken to staying down.
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