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William Trubridge — Breath of Life

Interview by Stephen Brown
William Trubridge — Breath of Life

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William Trubridge is only too conscious each time he completes his pre-dive routine that this could be his last breath. After all, what other sport so overtly challenges the very existence of its competitors each and every time with biochemical changes which contract the body’s circulation to its core, release oxygen-filled blood from the spleen, starve the brain’s oxygen supply and pressurise the ear drums and lungs to the extreme?

Now 34 years old and domiciled next to Dean’s Blue Hole on remote Long Island in the Bahamas, the New Zealander set an amazing 15 free diving world records between 2007 and 2011, charting a course towards global recognition.

The vagaries of financial support for what many still regard as a ‘fringe sport’ are at least partly offset by his organisation and facilitation of each year’s Suunto Vertical Blue competition — described by the New York Times as the “Wimbledon of free diving”. The sport is becoming more popular each year and the numbers wanting to challenge the 220 metre plus depths of Dean’s Blue Hole also rise annually.

Consequently, Trubridge’s place as the superstar of men’s free diving seems assured for some time to come. However, he feels that he is yet to reach his full potential, and his inspiration and goals go well beyond the sport of free diving alone. Destinations approached William Trubridge to discuss motivation and future challenges, in free diving and other pursuits.

Do you ever feel as if you are the interface between two quite different worlds?

Free diving is the one sport in which humans are in totally different elements from what they are accustomed to: even swimming still relies on breathing from the sea’s surface. Biochemical and physiological changes that occur while diving contribute to me feeling like I’m putting on another guise and transferring from one environment to another: it’s very much a case of leaving one environment or world and entering another.

Luc Besson’s film The Big Blue (1988) is about two childhood friends on a Greek island who ultimately become free diving competitors and champions. At the conclusion of the film, Jacques — its main character — ends up diving to around 100 metres before being approached by a dolphin and then drifting off, in a rather dream-like sequence, into the sea’s dark depths. In a related vein, your site quotes you as saying “I have a relationship with the depths, they beckon me beyond my means: cold dark vacant pressure, forever night, endless dreams.” Are you ever tempted by this ‘other world’; just to let go of the world as most of us know it and float free?

This never happens when I’m competing: everything is pre-programmed in great detail, so everything is very planned and focused. However, when I’m training and go down a couple of hundred metres to stay at depths for several minutes, your body can be affected by the pressure, gases and narcosis. There are often feelings of being relaxed, at peace, and of ‘complete integration’ with the marine environment all around me. But, ultimately there is always that part of me which wants to survive and manage risk. There is no danger of me staying down there.

However, there is also a very pure connection with the ocean and marine environment, far more than you can ever have when scuba diving or swimming or in any other aquatic sport, simply because you are so free of equipment and reliance on breathing. There is also a very strong awareness of one’s self — of the changes that the depths make to your body and of your own physiology, with super awareness of sounds, feel and touch, and of your own being — perhaps feelings that are comparable with the ‘oneness’ attained by advanced disciples of yoga. It is an intensely personal experience.

In the video Breathe, your wife Brittany remarks that she didn’t start getting concerned until she saw you going “deeper and deeper and deeper” and started wondering when you would stop. Do you know your own limits or are you simply getting better at beating new thresholds of pain?

There is very little pain in free diving: strange things happen with the gases as you dive deeper and a sense of pleasantness pervades the body as you reach real depths — not pain. Other factors limit what you can achieve, such as the need to equalise and hold your breath. On the other hand, there is no question that the ability to deal with the physical challenges posed by free diving has advanced very considerably over recent decades: where once it was considered challenging to use a sled to get down to 50 metres, that is now surpassed by free divers who can regularly reach 50 to 60 metres or more without assistance. What seemed impossible only a few years ago is now the new reality: the future becomes the present, then the past; but new challenges are always before us.

The Breathe promo also shows you struggling to answer the question “Why?” Have you found an answer?

Actually, the producers didn’t like the first answer that I gave them, which included me saying that free diving doesn’t actually have much in the way of risk. They wanted an answer that would excite and amaze people, so they decided to show me stuck for an answer. In fact, even though there have been thousands of competitive dives over recent years, there has only been one fatality and it’s actually a very safe sport. However, returning to the question of ‘why’: there’s obviously the fulfilment of taking on a challenge and beating it, there’s the complexity of a sport that involves intense mental as well as physical challenges, there’s even the joy of escaping the trappings and limitations of being on the surface and seeing the beauty of the marine environment with its dolphins, sharks, reef fish.

There were lots of new records from 2007 to 2011, culminating in the Free Immersion Record of 121 metres. However, the cupboard has been more bare since then. Yet your website suggests that free divers reach their peak later than most other athletes, and you cite the example of the women’s record-holder — Natalia Molchanova at the age of 53. So, when do you think you’ll actually peak?

It’s hard to say. Both of my 2011 free diving world records — for free immersion and no fins — still stand and I spent a lot of 2012 attempting to become better at monofin diving, the third of the major diving disciplines. I got as far as completing all but one of the surface protocols required to set a new monofin record, but on coming to the surface I failed to take my nose clip and goggles off in the right order after resurfacing. However, I’ve refocused again recently on my two main disciplines, culminating in my record attempt last December. That was unsuccessful, but all the parameters of my performance have been improving. Consequently, even though I may not be setting records at the rate that I did after first taking up the sport and don’t know when I will peak, I wouldn’t be surprised if I keep improving through my mid to late 30s.

You have made the ocean your ‘alternative home’: you have also raised very real concern about the fate of the Hector’s and Maui dolphins, about the massive ‘gyres’ of plastic that now lie at the nexus of ocean currents, and you even mention on your website that you won’t buy fish from the supermarket because of the by-catch effects associated with commercial fishing. What has gone wrong with our relation with the sea?

Nothing has gone wrong as such; it’s more that we’ve still got the same attitudes to the oceans that we’ve always had. Whereas in the past we didn’t have the technology to, for instance, affect tuna stocks or other fish species, we now do. If we are going to address the problems becoming apparent in our oceans then now is the time to do it: we have to act quickly. In fact, this isn’t just an issue for marine environments, it reflects the way we are managing the terrestrial environment, including civilisation’s effects on lakes, rivers and forest.

Is fish farming the answer to management of the oceans’ resources?

It could be, although I’m certainly aware of problems associated with over-feeding of fish in farm environments, while the longer-term effects of using feed produced from chickens and pigs are unclear at present. On the other hand, the world’s growing population needs protein and food, and I’m aware of at least one Spanish fish farm that supposedly puts more nutrients back into the aquatic environment than it takes from it, and has more positive than negative effects overall.

You have mentioned the longevity of free divers, but is there the prospect that William Trubridge the free diver might well morph into William Trubridge, ambassador and advocate for the oceans?

[A wry grin then laughter]… yes, I see this as a possible way in which I can add value and contribute something back to the oceans, helping to care for them and keep them as they are or hopefully improve them. If I can use my fame to help shine a light on the fate of the Maui dolphin or other issues, then I will. When in the future I start to slow down and compete less, I can see myself becoming more and more involved with such matters.

Where does New Zealand sit in relation to these issues from your perspective?

The issue of the Maui and Hector’s dolphins is emblematic for New Zealand, and should be relatively easy to resolve. It just involves a cessation of gill netting in their territory, and is much less complex than dealing with kiwis or other endangered bird and animal species. If New Zealand is to really live up to its environmental ‘clean and green’ labelling then now is the time to do it. The dolphins must survive; it is a relatively small precursor to having to deal with such major issues as the loss of tuna stock and plastic in the oceans, and New Zealand has no excuses for not acting.

Published on May 1, 2015
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