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GEMMA O’BRIENArchitect, freediver and tiny house builder, Gemma O’Brien is what you might call a super-achiever, writes Helen Horrocks. In between her architectural work, various home projects and daily breath-hold exercises, Gemma took the time to chat to Helen over the phone during lockdown.Gemma with her dad and dive buddy Geff ‘Cookie’ Cookson. After growing up on the family’s beef farm near Kawakawa in the Far North, Gemma went to OtagoUniversity, where she gained not one, not even two, but three degrees. She credits her mother, whose early-onset arthritis was a wake-up call for Gemma to live life to the fullest and engage her brain as much as her body. Eventually settling on a career in architecture, Gemma says she was drawn to the construction industry because she’s always loved the way buildings can affect people’s moods, health and wellbeing. Gemma with her dad and dive buddy Geff ‘Cookie’ Cookson. “I love the idea of art improving society, and architecture making a better location for people to live in, helping them to enjoy their lives and be healthy and happy,” says Gemma. Freediving came later in life, which is surprising when you consider Gemma’s father is NZ spearfishing champion and international representative Geff ‘Cookie’ Cookson. But she says her father “actively discouraged” her and her siblings from diving with him as children.
“That was his way to escape the family and the farm,” says Gemma.
“It was his release. I don’t know if it was intentional – I feel it was – but he’d always give us old, baggy, holey wetsuits that just did nothing but hamper us. So of course, none of us kids enjoyed diving growing up.”
She admits she was always jealous of the other kids at the annual spearfishing camp her dad would drag the family along to. While her dad spent all day diving, other kids would head out with their parents in wetsuits that fitted them and with spearguns that worked, and Gemma thought they were “so cool”.
But at age 27, working full time, completing a masters in architecture, and playing high-level competitive volleyball, Gemma hit burnout and returned home for some recovery time. She saw her opportunity to spend time with her dad and learn valuable skills that would help her secure a regular supply of fresh fish. They struck a deal, and Geff consented to buying Gemma a decent wetsuit if she would be his buddy for the New Zealand Spearfishing Nationals. Despite her inexperience, her first Nationals competition couldn’t have gone better.
“Everyone else got seasick and I managed to get two butterfish and a porae, which is really embarrassing, but that won the Spearfishing Nationals for me that year.”
The result was an invitation to the Inter-Pacific Spearfishing Competition in Tahiti. But the prospect of having to dive deeper than she had ever gone before didn’t fill Gemma with confidence. “Then they told me that in Tahiti you have to dive 30 metres to shoot a fish, and I thought crap, that’s double, and I really didn’t want to go.”“I’d done pool diving for three months that summer, and I went from diving one or two metres to being comfortable at 18 metres. Then they told me that in Tahiti you have to dive 30 metres to shoot a fish, and I thought crap, that’s double, and I really didn’t want to go.”
So she joined the Auckland Freediving Club, where she was introduced to proper breath-hold and depth diving techniques under the guidance of freediving royalty, John Wright.
“I was very lucky,” says Gemma. “I met up with some really experienced divers in the club who were in the same place as me, wanting to go deeper, with the added experience of understanding what’s happening physiologically to your body. It was a real rapid progression. Within a month I was down at 30 metres, with a minute bottom time. I went to 50 metres pretty early on.” In the seven years since her first Spearfishing Nationals, Gemma has packed in an incredible amount of diving achievements, winning the women’s Freediving Nationals several times, and continuing to compete in both spearfishing and freediving competitions overseas.
She’s since moved home to Northland too, bringing the wealth of experience she gained at Auckland Freediving Working on the tiny house. Gemma and Pete’s “pimped-out mini-mansion.” Gemma at the Guam Interpacific’s with Megan Edwards, Darren Shields (Women’s Manager) and Alex Edwards (right). Gemma at the Auckland Freediving Club Pool Nationals 2017 (Left to right: Nick Rhodes, Nathanial Fairweather, Nicky Toothill and Gemma). with her, and establishing the Northland Freediving Club. Gemma says as a student she would never have been able to afford to pay for a coach with that level of experience, so to have it given freely was “an incredible gift”, and she feels compelled to give back to the sport she loves.
“It’s been such an amazing experience and I just love sharing it with people. I love that adrenaline rush you get after a good dive – it’s addictive, and it’s such a positive addictive feeling. It’s like a free drug.”
Moving home came with its challenges too, like where to live. Her parents offered her a section on the farm, but she’d have to build the house herself. Gemma’s big idea was to think small.
“I was looking at trying to live as low cost a life as possible,” says Gemma. “I was prepared to sacrifice comfy living for financial freedom, so I could do the things I wanted.” Her original tiny house design was fully sustainable and low cost, with a composting toilet, and even hand pumped water. It would have been “like camping”, she says, and given her a place of her own without the constraints of a mortgage. Then she met Pete, an engineer, who is now her husband and “all about the luxury in life,” according to Gemma. With Pete’s input, Gemma’s “shack of a tiny house” has turned into a “pimped-out mini-mansion.”
“It’s beautifully crafted,” she concedes though, with Pete’s eye for good timber leading them to process some of the totara from the farm to incorporate in the build. “But it looks like a very small shed that belongs to a multi-millionaire.”
As Gemma knows all too well, however, life is for living, so she’s happy to accommodate Pete’s embellishments to their tiny home. “I really want to live my life to the fullest,” says Gemma. “Life is short, so do everything you possibly ever wanted to now, while you can.” And she definitely couldn’t be accused of doing anything else. From left: Gemma representing NZ in the 2016 Pan Pacific freediving competition in Brisbane; Geoff Cookson (dad) won the Golden Oldie trophy and Gemma was the Women’s Champ at the 2018 Nationals, only one week after her wedding; A great session at Cape Brett produced these fish for Gemma and the team; Gemma competing in the Freediving Depth Nationals.