February 9, 2012


OPEN YOUR MOUTH AND YOU'RE DEAD:  The freediving world championships occur at the outer limits of competitive risk. ­During the 2011 event, held off the coast of Greece, more than 130 athletes assembled to swim hundreds of feet straight down on a single breath--without (they hoped) ­passing out, freaking out, or drowning. JAMES NESTOR reports on the amazingly fit, unques­tionably brave, and possibly crazy people who line up for the ultimate plunge. (James Nestor, March 2012, Outside)

"Freediving is as much a mental game as a physical one," says Trubridge, who, in his wraparound dark glasses, cropped hair, and worn-out T-shirt, fits right in. He pulls up a seat beside me at the swimming pool. "It's a sport that's open to everybody."

Well, maybe. You still have to be able to hold your breath an incredibly long time, exert yourself tremendously, and not freak out--something I find extremely challenging, even though I spend most of my spare time surfing. Recreational freediving is one of the fastest-growing watersports--a trend that will accelerate this year when Scuba Schools International expands its freediving courses to dozens of locations worldwide--but it's hard to imagine competitive freediving in the Olympics anytime soon. It just seems too damned dangerous. I ask Trubridge to walk me through the physics and physiology of what he endures. Before long my stomach is tightening again.

In the first 30 or so feet underwater, the lungs, full of air, buoy your body to the surface, requiring strenuous paddling and constant equalization of the middle-ear cavities to gain depth. "This is where you use up to 15 percent of your energy," Trubridge says. And you've still got 600 feet of swimming to go.

As you dive past 30 feet, you feel the pressure on your body double, compressing your lungs to about half their normal size. You suddenly feel weightless, your body suspended in a gravityless state called neutral buoyancy. Then something amazing happens: as you keep diving, the ocean no longer pushes your body toward the surface but instead pulls you relentlessly toward the seafloor below. You place your arms at your sides in a skydiver pose and effortlessly go deeper.

At 100 feet, the pressure has quadrupled, the ocean's surface is barely visible, and you close your eyes and prepare for the deep water's tightening clutch. 

Further still, at 150 feet, you enter a dream state caused by the high levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas in your bloodstream: for a moment, you can forget where you are and why. At 300 feet, the pressure is so extreme that your lungs shrink to the size of oranges and your heart beats at less than half its normal rate to conserve oxygen. You lose some motor control. Most of the blood in your arms and legs has flooded to your body's core as the vessels in your extremities constrict. Vessels in your lungs swell to several times their normal size so they won't be crushed by the incredible pressure.

Then comes the really hard part. You open your eyes, struggle to force your semiparalyzed hand to grab a ticket from the plate, and head back up. With the ocean's weight working against you, you tap your meager energy reserves to swim toward the surface. Ascending to 200 feet, 150 feet, 100 feet, your lungs ache with an almost unbearable desire to breathe, your vision fades, and your chest convulses from the buildup of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. You need to hurry before you black out. Above you, the haze of blue water transforms into a sheen of sunlight on the water's surface. You're going to make it.

You resurface, the world spins, people are yelling at you to breathe. Is this just another altered-state dream? It's hard to tell. So you sit there, whacked out, trying to come to quickly enough to complete the surface protocol. You take off your goggles, flick a sign, say "I'm OK"--then you get out of the way and make room for the next diver.

HOW DO YOU DECIDE THIS IS something you want to do? That you can do?

"I was always drawn to the ocean," Trubridge shrugs when I ask him how he got into freediving. "My first memories were of the sea." Born near the small village of Haltwhistle, Scotland, Trubridge was 20 months old when his parents, seeking adventure, sold their house, bought a 45-foot sailboat, loaded up Trubridge and his brother, Sam, and took off. For the next nine years they lived on the boat, sailing west. For fun, William and Sam would challenge each other to breath-holding dives. "We probably made it to 25 or 30 feet," he says, then laughs. "Which, you know, in retrospect was all pretty dangerous."

By the time Trubridge was 12, the family had settled in Havelock, a tiny town near New Zealand's east coast. He studied genetic biology at the University of Auckland, where he tested himself one day to see if he could swim 80 feet underwater on one breath. One lap soon became two. Trubridge was slowly drawn into the sport.

After a stint in London as a bellhop in his early twenties, Trubridge took off for Honduras to explore freediving. "I remember diving one day, to maybe 60 feet, and lying down in a sea garden, relaxing, meditating, watching all the life and just being part of the environment," he says. "Not having to breathe for a minute or two. It was just the most amazing and peaceful feeling you can imagine."

For the next few years, Trubridge dropped out and dedicated himself full-time to freediving, honing his body into a machine built for undersea performance. He trained for hours a day, every day, swimming, doing yoga and breathing exercises. A rower and junior chess champion, Trubridge found that the combination of mental and physical training came naturally to him. "Freediving requires body, mind, and even spirit to be aligned and directed toward a common intent," he says. "I'm the sort of person who requires a challenge." When not diving, he translated freediving manuals, taught, and studied videotapes. At the end of a two-year stint bouncing around Central America, the Bahamas, and Europe, he hit the freediving scene as one of the best in the world.

"Here's a guy who spent two years sitting on a mountain alone, just waiting," says Sebastian Näslund, a Swedish freediver. "And when he came down, he was just kind of unstoppable."

Posted by at February 9, 2012 5:55 PM

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