Instead of pursuing a career as a professional spearfisher, the former U.S. national spearfishing champion Kimi Werner decided to settle for a simpler life, far away from competitions, medals and podiums. We visited the Hawaiian native to find out why.
The path towards Kaena Point runs past bright sandy beaches and dark lava rocks. On the left, soft rolling hills rise into the morning sky whereas a seemingly endless dark blue sea extends to the right hand side of the road. After a while the highway gives way to a gravel road, only to dissolve completely after another couple of miles. Being forced to continue on foot, it feels like one is heading towards the edge of the world. Which, in this case, is not entirely misleading, given we’re at the westernmost point of the Hawaiian island of O’ahu.
For Kimi Werner, the transition between the land and the sea doesn’t mark the end; it is an entrance to another world. The brown-eyed, dark-haired woman grabs her fins and goggles and fishes an impressive spear from her car’s trunk before making her way towards the water. Supposedly, lots of fish are to be found here at dawn. It’s just that dawn is already breaking and the first rays of sunlight are creeping across the hills. If Werner were to do what most people would, she’d hurry up. It's just that Werner doesn’t play by other people’s rules; she moves at her own pace.
Kimi Werner is a spearfisher and a freediver. She is a cook and huntress but also an artist – a practicing one and in life. She can catch fish with a simple spear, dive dozens of meters deep without equipment and is able to hold her breath for almost five minutes. She kills squid with a single bite and is not afraid to defend her prey against sharks – which she’d never consider her enemies. A video exists, which shows Werner encountering a Great White. Instead of swimming away from the female shark she swims towards her, gently touching her dorsal fin and swimming next to her for a while. “She did not see me as a prey, but as a fellow predator,” says Werner now, when asked about the video.
What might be most impressive, though, is that Kimi Werner does what she loves, and that she doesn’t care a single bit if she pleases other people’s expectations. She follows her own path – even though it wasn’t easy to find.
Mercedes-Benz GLC 300 4MATIC Coupé: Fuel consumption combined: 7.8–7.5 l /100 km; combined CO₂ emissions: 177–169 g /km.*
Today’s dive is a short one; Werner returns to the beach about an hour after having taken off. She caught three Toau, inconspicuous little fish that are very common in this area right off O’ahu’s shore. The animals are small, but that doesn’t bother the 37-year-old. She is not looking for the biggest and heaviest fish – not anymore.
Kimi Werner is one of the best spearfishers in the world but has retired from her career nonetheless. She has won the U.S. national championship as well as international competitions, received praise and sponsorships alike and competed against – and beat – competitors in all of the world’s seas. Then she decided to let it all go, although from an athletic point of view there was no point in stopping. Was it because she couldn’t handle the success? Or was it just because she was tired of being told what she had to do?
“It felt like my love for the sea had been replaced by the rush for points.“
“After my first big wins, everyone expected me to just go on. When you hold that first medal, you don’t stop. You have to get better, dive deeper, achieve more,” she says with a shrug, almost apologetically.
And Werner kept on going, even though she realized early on that nothing could compare to her first big victory – the U.S. national championship. “Everything that followed felt somewhat meaningless, even hollow.” What’s more, she felt like she was losing what she cherished most: her love for the ocean. It was the happiness that came over her whenever she took a drop into the deeper waters. The sensation of being able to fly underwater, feeling the water pressure on her skin as the negative buoyancy would pull her down to the bottom of the ocean. Listening to the sounds of the sea, and looking up at the distorted sunbeams dancing on the ocean’s surface. The competitions drew her attention away from those impressions. “It felt like my love for the sea had been replaced by the rush for points,” she said.
The break with her career, though inevitable with hindsight, wasn’t easy for her. “None of my colleagues could understand why I did it. They felt like I was wasting my talent.” Their reactions upset Werner and made her doubt her decision as well as her power of judgment. When one of her diving partners turned away from her after an argument, she decided to avoid the sea altogether for a while, for the memories she encountered there were too painful for her to bear.
In order to understand her love for the sea, one has to take a look into Kimi Werner’s past. She grew up in an isolated rural area on Maui. She lived a childhood off the grid, one without a lot of money but full of nurture and love. The wild garden behind the shack in which the family lived was an adventure playground for the kids. They took care of the chickens, harvested vegetables and prepared fish in a simple underground oven equipped with hot stones. Her parents couldn’t afford a conventional oven.
Her father caught fish to feed the family. Werner would accompany him whenever he went hunting. When he plunged into the water, equipped only with a spear and a knife, she would stay near him. “I was too young to be spearfishing myself, so I just watched him from a distance. Still, I couldn’t get enough of it.”
But the rural idyll faded when her father started a construction company and moved the family to a larger house in the city. Kimi Werner had to leave her wild life behind – as well as the trips to the sea with her father. “My parents wanted a better life for us. A house, a fridge, restaurant visits. But when we moved, I felt like I had to leave a part of me behind.”
It followed what one might call a regular American upbringing. Kimi Werner graduated from high school, studied culinary arts in O’ahu and began working in a restaurant. The memories of her childhood by the sea faded away. But the feeling that something is missing remained.
She sets off on her first spearfishing trip on her own, equipped with a simple spear and mixed feelings.
Most of all, she missed the connection to the food she cooked with. “Everything came from the supermarket and most of it was imported.” While the doubts about her choice of career increased, she learned about a group of spearfishers that lived close by. “As soon as I heard about them, something clicked. I reached out to them and at first, they promised to take me with them. But then I never heard back from them,” she says, smiling. Kimi Werner doesn’t hold grudges.
That’s why she set off on her first spearfishing trip on her own, equipped with a simple spear and mixed feelings. “I felt like a total fake with my spear and I was incredibly nervous because I didn’t know the reef very well.” She says that she started swimming, not knowing where to go, when her instincts suddenly took over. “I remembered watching my father, and tried to imitate what he did when he was underwater.” Her first catch was tiny, but that didn’t matter. “I felt like a lioness. And most of all, I knew I had reconnected to exactly what was missing in my life.”
“It took me a while to realize that I would never be free, that I could never really be myself if I only did what others expected me to do,” says Kimi Werner as she guts and fillets the three Toau in her bungalow kitchen. “We spend so much time chasing other people’s dreams, trying to pursue goals that others have set for ourselves. I thought I had to go to competitions, I thought I’d have to dive deeper, win more. And I think we do it because we want to belong. But we’ll never truly experience that sense of belonging if we do something just to please others. We have to create our own expectations about what we want to do with our lives.”
Outside, a few of her friends are starting to prepare a barbeque. They’re going to eat together later, and everyone brought something to share; salads, home-made bread, avocados and bananas. Imported or processed foods are nowhere to be seen. Werner takes care of the fish, as always. She invites her friends and family over whenever she can. “I love to share my food. That’s how my parents taught me, and I want to pass it on.” The dive trips with her father may be a part of her past now, but Kimi Werner has created her own happy place: one far away from podiums and sponsorship contracts but surrounded by friends in a small house with a wild garden, not far from her second home – the sea.
* The figures are provided in accordance with the German regulation 'PKW-EnVKV' and apply to the German market only. Further information on official fuel consumption figures and the official specific CO₂ emissions of new passenger cars can be found in the EU guide 'Information on the fuel consumption, CO₂ emissions and energy consumption of new cars', which is available free of charge at all sales dealerships, from DAT Deutsche Automobil Treuhand GmbH and at www.dat.de.