Recently I had the honor of visiting the world's best free diver. His name is William Trubridge. Trubridge is 31, he was born in the UK but raised in New Zealand, where he spent most of his early years on a sailboat. Today he spends most of his time in the Bahamas where he trains and teaches at the Dean's Blue Hole, the deepest sea water blue hole in the world situated in Long Island, a remote island two hours from Nassau by plane. He currently holds the world record in the 'free immersion' and the 'constant weight without fins' disciplines, and is the first human ever to break the 100-meter barrier unassisted. Trubridge won the 'World's Absolute Freediver Award' (WAFA) in 2010 and 2011 making him the best all around diver. I recently spent a weekend with him to interview him and film him dive. I had been intrigued about this discipline for quite some time and wanted to understand what motivates human beings to push the boundaries of the humanly possible. This interview is part of a collection of short documentaries on extreme sport athletes.
Can you tell me about freediving ?
Yes, freediving is a sport where you hold your breath and go as deep as possible and there are several different disciplines depending on the way that you propel yourself down and up. There are 'no fins', 'with fins', and 'free immersion' where you pull on the line. I specialize in 'no fins' freediving but I train to compete in the three.
Tell me about you and where you came from and how you ended up becoming a freediver.
I was born in the UK up in the northern reaches close to Scotland and my family sold their house there when I was 18 months old in order to buy a boat and sail across the Atlantic through the Caribbean, across the Pacific to get to New Zealand when I was five years old. So I was brought up on a boat. I was always around the water playing, snorkeling... I got into freediving in 2003. I'd heard that it was a sport and decided to give it a go and travelled back to the Caribbean and spent three months just every day diving and from there it's been non-stop.
Photo by Tim Calver /(C) Baraka Productions - Will on the cliff overlooking the Blue Hole
Do you need special qualities to be a freediver?
I don't think so. I think freediving is a sport that anyone can enjoy. It's very low impact on the body so people of all ages or even people with disabilities can enjoy freediving. It doesn't require any freakish genetic ability or anything like that. Anyone can be taught to learn how to hold their breath for several minutes with the right techniques of breathing and relaxation.
When did you discover you were gifted for freediving and decided to commit yourself?
I don't think I ever felt like I had a special gift for freediving. Perhaps the fact that I feel very comfortable in the water, I feel at home and I'm not ever fearful of going deep. There was definitely a moment though when I decided to give everything to this choice and this career and commit myself to finding out what I was capable of doing and what the human body is capable of doing underwater. That moment came in Italy in 2003 when I was quite fresh into the sport .
You've had a few accidents. Can you tell me about them?
Yes, especially early on in my career I had a couple of blackouts during world record attempts. It was in 2006. I blacked out at 12 meters on the way back up, 12 meters from the surface which is a pretty deep blackout for freediving. I was brought to the surface and I was still unconscious on the surface for 20 or 30 seconds before I started breathing again. In freediving that's a pretty serious blackout but it's not a rare event, they do happen both in training and record attempts, but that's the worst that I've experienced in my career.
Photo by Tim Calver /(C) Baraka Productions - Will diving inside the Blue Hole with no fins
You're married, right?
How is your wife reacting to the challenges you're taking in your life? I mean these are pretty tough challenges.
My wife is fine with the choices I make. I mean she does get a little fearful when she's on the surface and I'm doing a deep dive and I'd think I'd be the same if I was watching her do it. She just started freediving herself so she understands more what's entailed and perhaps by experiencing the sensations of freediving herself she understands more about where I'm coming from and why I do it and also why it isn't necessarily as dangerous as it's sometimes portrayed.
I heard her say once that she's scared because you always want to go deeper and deeper. Do you think in your life at some point you're going to say "No, it's enough; I've done what I wanted to do" or it's not part of your character? Do you think you're just going to push, push, push?
Obviously there's going to be a point where I won't be able to go deeper. But it won't be because I've reached a certain depth that I end my career. It will be because I feel like I've exhausted my potential or my desire to pursue that process of discovery, of exploring my limits. For now, I'm still really enjoying that and I feel honored to be part of that discovery. So I can definitely see myself doing the sport for a while yet. It's a sport where we peak later in our careers. It's like marathon running. Maybe in your later 30's that's when you reach your peak. So I can see at least another five, maybe 10 years, of this.
Have you ever had an experience where you were 100 meters deep and you said to yourself "I'm not sure I'm going to make it back up this time"?
Normally on the ascents I feel okay; I feel relaxed and confident. Those voices that tell me I'm not going to make it, that I'm going to die, they normally come before I dive and it's just that negative chatter that we get, that devil's advocate that's sitting on your shoulder and telling you the worst things you could possibly hear. So, yes, I get that but it's generally before the dive and once the dive begins my body and my mind act on autopilot to a certain extent. So I do a lot of training to access the subconscious mind so that I can turn off the rational reasoning mind during a dive. In that way, there isn't as much of the nerves or the negative.
Tell me about the 'flow'. What is it?
The flow state is the ideal state that you want to be in in a freedive and you don't feel anything at that time because you're not thinking about feelings or anything. You can only really consider it in hindsight and look back and say "Yes, during that dive I might have had one or two thoughts at the most the whole time." So, obviously, you were in some state of flow. If a dive seems very, very short and in fact it lasted four minutes, then it's because you were in a state where the subconscious was operating. It had the helm as it were and there's no logical reasoning, thought, or any of that stuff that slows you down.
You said once that what's great about free diving is that you're in the present. You don't think about the past and the future. Can you develop that idea?
Yes. There's been a lot of talk recently about the power of now, the present moment, and freediving is a sport that one of the beautiful aspects of it is that it forces you to be in the moment. It's almost impossible to be in the water and at the same time contemplating problems that you have in the past or things that you're going to do in the future. So I don't know if it's the water or holding your breath that does it or both probably. But it's a really rewarding and nourishing experience.
Check below a shorter version of our documentary "One Breath - The Story of William Trubridge" that will be part of series and a long form documentary on the spiritual dimensions of extreme sport:
Have you ever had one experience where you really were fearful like you did something you said maybe "I shouldn't have done this" and can you tell me about that event, when that happened and what you've experienced and so on?
The only times when I'm fearful is when there's an effect from the narcosis; the narcotic effect of the gases at high pressure makes you woozy or sleepy or makse you a little bit drunk in feeling, and when you get that at a hundred meters or more on the way back up it can be quite unnerving. When I reach the surface, I'm always fine. But in that moment when you're starting to feel strange things or maybe even see like fireworks in your vision then it becomes a little bit disconcerting to be underwater at that depth.
Photo by Tim Calver/(C) Baraka Productions - Will swimming deep inside the Blue Hole
I saw you today collecting the plastic bottles on the beach and I know about your advocacy to protect dolphins. You feel pretty strongly about the environment. Can you talk about that?
I feel real lucky to have the life that I live being a freediver and able to travel the world and basically enjoy myself as a job. One of the ways that I can give back for that experience is by trying to protect the environment and the species that live in it. Two of the causes that I support the strongest, one is the Hector's dolphin which is a New Zealand species of dolphin; it's the smallest dolphin in the world and it's also very, very endangered. The recent world record to 100 meters that I did last year in December was to raise awareness about the plight of the species and try to change the New Zealand's government's laws on gillnet fishing which is severely threatening their numbers.
The other cause that I feel strongly about is to try to do something about the amount of plastic which is floating around in the world's oceans. There's what they called 'gyres' which are vortexes where the plastic just goes around and round in circles in huge areas bigger than Texas in the North Pacific and I think there's one in the Atlantic as well. But here in the Caribbean we also get huge amounts of plastic washed up on the beaches and it floats around. It floats into the Blue Hole. So I am trying to keep the Blue Hole clean. We often clean the plastic off the beach and from out of the Blue Hole and I try to raise awareness especially with the younger generation about recycling, about trying not to use one-use plastics and reduce plastic use in general.
What's your next objective in freediving?
I've been training more in the 'with fins' discipline trying to get close to the world record and I still train obviously in 'no fins', it's my preferred discipline, my specialty. The ultimate goal is the same as it was in the start: just to keep on discovering and keep on exploring.
What do you think you can reach? Can you go deeper than 102 meters?
I know that I can definitely go deeper than the current world record and deeper still. But I couldn't put any ceiling or mark on it and as soon as I do something like that then it will ultimately be the limit for myself. So for me the sky is the limit; there's no boundary to what we're able to achieve.
Thank you for your time !
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