DOWNTOWN — Jana Strain can thank Shamu for helping her become one of the rising stars in the extreme sport of freediving.

It was during a visit to the animal park Sea World over a year ago that Strain, 27, was inspired to become a dolphin trainer. Already a scuba diving instructor who traveled across the globe, Strain, who moved to Los Angeles from Canada at the age of 19 to pursue an acting and modeling career after years of dancing professionally, wanted to take her love of the water one step further. Little did she know she would excel in freediving, being named the sport’s best new freediver of 2008.

“I was very moved,” Strain, who lives on Stanford Street, said of the Shamu show. “The classical music and the killer whales jumping out of the water. I was crying because it was so powerful. These animals sacrifice so much so that humans can realize how important the oceans are. … I think that people need to see something is beautiful before they realize it is worth protecting.”

But to become a dolphin trainer and work with those courageous animals, Strain had to swim 120 feet under water with one breath, a feat of strength and endurance that she thought was impossible, especially for someone who quit smoking (she admits to having a two-pack-a-day habit) only a couple of years prior.

“When I started scuba diving, I realized I really liked it but I thought that swimming underwater for great distances and holding my breath for a long time was insane,” Strain said.

But never one to back down from a challenge, the free-spirited Strain, known for her bright eyes and a large mermaid tattoo that covers the majority of her back, jumped in head first, taking freediving lessons from fellow Canadians who noticed she had a natural ability to hold her breath. From there she started training, earned a spot with the Canadian national team and began breaking records.

The sport of freediving is not well known. It is essentially any aquatic activity in which the swimmer holds their breath for an extended period of time. Examples include breathhold spear fishing, freedive photography, apnea competitions and, to a degree, snorkeling. However the activity that garners the most attention is competitive apnea, an extreme sport in which competitors attempt to attain great depths, times or distances in a single breath without direct assistance or a breathing apparatus. Fins are used in some events. Strain has been able to hold her breath for minutes at a time, swimming more than 170 meters on one breath. She feels the years she spent dancing have helped her with her discipline, enabling her to push on through when her body is screaming for her to take a breath.

“I just have to relax and realize everything is going to be fine,” Strain said of when she is freediving.

“But you can’t get too relaxed. If you get too relaxed for a long time, you will fall asleep,” she said with a laugh. “I’m still trying to work on my exact technique because in the previous world’s I went to sleep a couple of times when I shouldn’t have.”

Since the sport doesn’t garner much attention (but its popularity is growing), there aren’t many coaches or sponsors, forcing Strain to rely on family and friends for support. Her older brother helps her train and she tries to soak up as much knowledge as possible at competitions, talking with fellow divers about their training regimens. Strain trains three to four days per week, working on apnea technique and endurance for 25 to 30 minutes — purely swimming under water, and then she completes 600 to 1,200 meters of lap swimming to tone and relax her muscles.

It’s difficult to find pools that will allow her to train given the nature of the sport. It can be dangerous, with divers blacking out from a lack of oxygen. It also draws a considerable crowd as most people are intrigued by a person who can act like a fish, if only for a few minutes. When Strain trained at Pepperdine University in Malibu, she would often draw a crowd.

At a recent training session, Strain noticed a young boy mimicking her movements. This alarmed Strain because the boy was essentially swimming with no supervision, something you shouldn’t do when freediving. She came up behind him and made sure to warn him about the dangers.

“If a little kid does that and then they die, I personally am not going to be able to live with my guilty conscience … ,” she said. “When I see that, I have to educate.”

Strain first moved to Los Angeles when she was 19. The aspiring actress who studied dance throughout her childhood was living in Calgary at the time and realized that she needed to get to Hollywood if she wanted to get into show business.

“I moved to L.A. and started taking acting classes, doing student films and working on a few things,” Strain said.

But as most young actors know, getting your name in lights is challenging. Strain struggled to find steady work and soon gravitated toward other interests. One was scuba diving.

Strain hadn’t been on vacation in quite some time so about three-and-a-half years ago she decided to go on a cruise to the Carribean. One of the activities offered was scuba diving. Strain started learning all she could about it and soon became fascinated.

“I was really excited by it and realized that I had spent around $3,000 for this trip and I thought how much am I spending on trying to become an actress. I realized that acting wasn’t something that I was passionate about. … For me it was just something fun to do. When I started doing all these outdoor activities, acting just kind of lost its excitement. I still do modeling gigs and acting when people come to me. But I don’t have that drive to go to auditions, keep my hair one color and get three different head shots.”

Then came the trip to Sea World and the rest is history. Strain likes to say that she goes through “open doors,” seizing whatever opportunities come her way, even if it means taking a risk.

When looking back on her childhood, it’s easy to see why Strain feels so comfortable in the water. As a young girl in Canada, her family would often go on camping trips near lakes. Strain would always be the first one to jump in.

“I lived in my bikini during the summer,” she said.

Strain’s first memory of the water was when she was 8 years old. Her older brothers strapped her onto a knee board and towed her around a lake. After jumping the wake, Strain landed upside down, her face submerged for about a minute. She was horrified, but managed to right herself.

“That kind of freaked me out,” Strain said. But it never stopped her from getting back into the water.

When Strain isn’t traveling around the world competing, she can be found working from home as the financial manager for a company that manages nightclubs. The job gives her the flexibility to travel and train since she can work from just about everywhere. She can also be found doing yoga with Bryan Kest, dancing (she wishes more men knew how to ballroom dance), downing a meatball sub at Bay Cities Deli or shopping at the Co-Opportunity Market on Broadway.

“Santa Monica has so many great things here,” Strain said, explaining why she chose to settle in Santa Monica after having spent time in Culver City, Silverlake, Downtown Los Angeles and West Hollywood. “There are so many little food communities, a fantastic yoga community, we have the Farmers’ Markets, tons of really great restaurants. It has everything you need.”

In the next three to five years, Strain will focus on her freediving career, looking to increase her breathhold so that she can compete with the best in the sport. She will also put a lot of energy into finding more sponsors to help fund her trips. Strain keeps fans informed through a blog on her Web site, www.janastrain.com

“It really has been a life-changing experience,” Strain said of her exposure to freediving. “My focus three years ago was more about having the right car, the house, the job and wanting to settle down. Now I am not sure I want to have kids anymore because I have been having so much fun traveling and meeting new people.

“I thought I wanted all these material things but in the end that wasn’t what made me happy, it wasn’t what made me feel joy. Happiness comes from the inside.”