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When freediver Will Trubridge attempts or achieves world record, he can’t – for his life – get excited about it
I once had the horrific pleasure of seeing a child nearly drown. There was no thrashing or bloodcurdling scream, only a limp body being rocked into a deep sleep by an invisible nanny, just beneath the surface. The commotion you’d usually associate with a life-threatening incident only started when a mother broke the scene in a hurricane of expletives, tears and flailing limbs.
Thankfully, this time, the kid was okay. But there was a change in him, a palpable loss of innocence.
What stays with you after a near-drowning experience is the knowledge that there exist terrific monsters under the glassy water surface. Through the looking glass the breathtaking beasts’ deafening roars lull victims into a state of helpless acceptance. Will Trubridge chose to confront these demons.
Trubridge is ominously poetic when explaining his love for diving “I have a relationship with the depths; they beckon me beyond my means,” and it does nothing to calm our fears of the deep blue. One thing that is very puzzling is how he overrides his survival instinct.
“With training and a lot of repetition it becomes a pretty natural thing for me to do,” he says. “It’s not like I wake up and decide to go down to 100m; I’ve built it up from scratch basically – I’ve been to 90 and 91. I’ve never done anything my body wasn’t prepared for or capable of doing.”
Training is what freedivers do a lot of. When he isn’t teaching diving courses to help supplement their income, Trubridge is pushing his body deeper into the 200m abyss of Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas.
“There are many different aspects to my training. I do a lot of training in the swimming pool and the gym,” explains Trubridge. “I also do a lot of dry training like yoga, as well as breathing and lung exercises. But at least half of the year I spend doing depth work, depth conditioning while still doing a lot of yoga and breathing.”
Surprisingly, there is no “lung growth” exercise in his training schedule. As it would turn out, big lungs aren’t that much of an advantage in freediving. Trubridge stands at 1.85m tall and has a lung capacity of 8-litres (the average capacity for an adult man is 6-litres, but it increases with height), which is pretty average for an athlete – Olympic-level rowers usually have 8.6-litre lungs.
“I haven’t actually increased my lung capacity that much. The lung exercises are more to increase the flexibility of your lungs, ribcage and diaphragm that contain the lungs,” he tells us. “Flexibility allows you to accommodate the pressure you experience at depth. Without that flexibility you can do serious damage to yourself at a lot shallower than 100m.”
That’s also assuming you could even reach half that depth. “Someone who hasn’t done any kind of training would probably start to feel a lot of squeezing from the pressure and difficulty to equalise their ears before 30m,” Trubridge continues. “Having a huge lung capacity doesn’t actually help you too much because it means you’re very buoyant on the surface and you’re gonna use a lot of energy to get down.”
But a man who can dive five times deeper than the average human surely has some limitations. Has Trubridge ever come in close contact with the skeletons from Davy Jones’ locker? The short answer is “of course”.
“There was a record attempt that I shouldn’t have gone through with – when I was younger, trying to get my first world record. I started to get that feeling that I wasn’t gonna make it even at 15 to 20m under. I think I eventually blacked out at 12m from the surface,” he recalls. “Other than that, I’ve always been relatively conservative. There have been occasions where I’ve had blackouts, but they’ve all been on the surface or very close to the surface; where I’ve pushed it just like a metre or so too much.”
Will Trubridge casts a shadow of a man who has no actual fear of dancing with death and it would be easy to assume that freedivers don’t share the same sensation as us ordinary folk do when confronted with a large body of water. But turning fear into sport surely transforms it one of those adrenaline-fuelled extreme ones? Actually, it’s the antithesis of extreme.
“You have to have some kind of a sense of fear because it keeps it real. If you didn’t have that sensation, you’d end up being too reckless,” he explains. But obviously If you’re really afraid and your heart is going like crackers at the start of a dive, then that’s gonna be detrimental.”
Trubridge says that the most difficult part of a record attempt or big performance, is controlling the anxiety. “My first record attempts, which weren’t successful because I was stressed out. You just gotta take your mind elsewhere, concentrate on other things.”
To be successful at water sports, as well as life, you need to not have a fear for being in your chosen environment – especially being overwhelmed by it. You need to be able to stare down any challenge and adjust on the fly to unforeseen obstacles. Also, you need to trust in your natural abilities. When you dive into a pool, for instance, if the water temperature is below 21-degrees your heart rate slows by 10%, your blood vessels contract and your organs fill with blood plasma to offset the effects of increased pressure.
We are amazingly adaptable creatures by design and as long as we remain mindful of danger and keep our egos in check, we should be okay. Trubridge has achieved great things because he isn’t devoted to the pursuit of record breaking.
“It’s not so much about the idea of being on top, but more about the exploration and discovery. Sure there’s a pleasure in breaking a world record, but probably my most enjoyable dives have been the times when I feel like I’ve extended the idea of what the human body is capable of; I’ve added an extra notch to the belt of human potential.”
Maybe knowing that the demons exist isn’t what robs us of our innocence, rather our stubborn refusal to coexist alongside them. Or perhaps the bliss of innocence is found in our journey of exploration, discovering and confronting new demons.
William Trubridge, the youngest son of an adventurous Scottish couple who one day bought a sailboat, packed up their family and sailed West, attempted his first measured dive at the age of 22 during his genetic biology studies at the University of Auckland. He tried to swim an 18m length on one breath. A few months later he dropped out, moved to Honduras after a brief stop in London, and started exploring freediving.
Maybe that kid is now a more complete, respectful person after facing his mortality. Maybe he now listens when his parents tell him to not leave the step if there isn’t an adult in the pool with him.
Do this, not that!
The World Health Organization estimates 388 000 drowning deaths worldwide each year and 65% of drowning among people over the age of 15 happening in natural water (almost half being alcohol related). Here’s what to do when someone goes overboard:
If it’s safe to do so, jump in and help them to the surface.
If they starts breathing when they break the surface:
Lay them on there side (i.e. the recovery position) until he has recovered fully.
If he isn’t breathing:
Check for a pulse and administer CPR immediately. When they are revived, place them in the recovery, remove wet clothes and cover with warm blankets.