Story by Liesel Schdmit | Photography Courtesy of Rich Holladay + Waterdogs Scuba
There’s something captivating about the world that exists below the surface of the water, that thrives in the quiet and darkness where the sun doesn’t reach and civilization has no foothold. In that vast expanse of nature ruled by so many creatures that are still a mystery, it is the humans who venture there that are the strange ones; and it is that very sense of strangeness that seems to draw us in to explore the wonders of the deep and all that call it home.
For SCUBA enthusiasts, the exploration of that world is what gets their blood pumping, what excites them and inspires them to venture deeper and deeper. But while some just do it as a hobby, for others, it becomes a true passion.
“There are so many wonders under the surface of the water, and the sensations you feel are so different than being tied down by gravity that it’s hard not to love it once you’ve tried it,” says Rich Holladay, who co-owns Waterdogs SCUBA & Safety LLC, where he and his business partner, Cecil Stout, offer SCUBA training and certification as well as safety courses in CPR. In addition to his work at Waterdogs, Holladay also teaches Underwater SCUBA Diving and Introduction to Rock Climbing classes as an adjunct professor at APSU.
A disabled retired Army veteran, Holladay got his first taste of SCUBA diving in 1997 while he was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, and his military career gave him the opportunity to dive in many different places all over the world. During that time, he also worked with various dive centers both as a client and as staff, furthering his knowledge of the activity and ultimately providing a means for getting a new career off the ground after he separated from active duty.
Not that it’s all work for Holladay, now that he’s running a business. Quite the contrary, as he still finds that sense of wonder, that sense of tranquility and endless possibility in every trip he takes into the deep. Most importantly, he sees the value—socially, physically, and emotionally—of those diving excursions.
“While SCUBA diving can be very exciting, what attracts me is the calm quiet of being underwater. There’s nothing quite like it for promoting wellness, in my opinion; and it’s been incredibly helpful to me mentally, because like so many other veterans, sometimes my mind races,” admits 50 year-old Holladay, who joined the military just before Operation Desert Storm and retired in 2012 as the Command Sergeant Major of 1-187 Infantry, 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell. A career Infantryman, he also had combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, so leaving the stresses that came with active duty and the psychological struggles so often suffered from combat to float above the surface of the water was a sense of solace then—just as it is now.
“When you’re underwater, there’s a singleness of effort and a focus that’s hard to find anywhere else.” And Holladay is not alone in the restoration he finds through SCUBA, as is evidenced by the way that the activity seems to draw a community of people that all find commonality in the water, regardless of their age, profession, social background, or level of physical fitness. All that’s needed is the desire to dive. “I see many folks find a comfortable and familiar place to enjoy this incredible activity with friends of similar experiences and background, but there’s also a unique opportunity that comes with the activity that brings together divers whose backgrounds and lives are extremely diverse, creating new friendships and relationships that last a long time.”
Clearly, the social payoff of zipping up a wetsuit and strapping on a tank is high, but so is the physical payoff. “Physically, it’s a great calorie burner, and the activity helps everyone get stronger,” Holladay says.
As someone deeply immersed in military culture, SCUBA isn’t Holladay’s only passion; and in opening Waterdogs, he and Cecil—also a disabled retired veteran—combined their love of the aquatic world with their desire to create a welcoming place for both active duty and retired military personnel. In addition to having a largely military-based staff, Waterdogs has been a means of satisfying their desire to “start a dive family that has grown into a tribe;” and they’ve gone deep into their mission of giving back through the work that they do with various veterans’ organizations and Wounded Warrior populations both locally and all across the world.
With each dive he takes, Holladay is learning more—about himself, about his planet, about the ways that life is a mysterious thing that is never-ending in its possibilities to bring amazement. And as he works with those who want to enter into the world that he so loves, he is giving them a gift of wonder that inspires them to go deep.