AT ONE WITH THE DEPTHS

Greg Bruce on world cham­pion free­d­iver Wil­liam Trubridge

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS - Greg Bruce.

He was a young man, on the dance­floor of an Auckland night­club, sober, vaguely tor­tured by life, years away from hear­ing for the first time about the sport of free­d­iv­ing which he would come to com­pletely dom­i­nate, when he com­posed the fol­low­ing poem: “I have a re­la­tion­ship with the depths / They beckon me be­yond my means / Cold, dark, va­cant pres­sure”.

At the time, Wil­liam Trubridge was study­ing sci­ence at univer­sity in Auckland, with a view to work­ing in the then-emerg­ing field of ge­net­ics. He was liv­ing in a renowned party flat in a busy New­mar­ket street, drink­ing a lot of beer and chas­ing “in­dif­fer­ent party girls”. His life, he writes in his just-re­leased, fre­quently-as­ton­ish­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Oxy­gen, in­volved “pub crawls, tequila blow-outs and cannabis spot­ties on the stove.”

He now looks back in won­der at the ap­par­ently un­can­nily pre­dic­tive power of the verse he com­posed on the dance­floor and so, prob­a­bly, should we.

Like tor­tured young men the world over, Trubridge had a close re­la­tion­ship with po­etry, and most of it didn’t point to a fu­ture in ei­ther sport or lit­er­a­ture. Here’s another poem he had writ­ten, not long be­fore.

“Trapped with my thoughts in the court of my head, but / the jury is dead and the plain­tiff has fled. / There’s no es­cape from this men­tal self-rape; the / disease of my rea­son is di­rected at trea­son and the only / de­fences are senses, so stim­u­late them.”

TRUBRIDGE IS NOW 37 and has set 18 world records in free­d­iv­ing since his first in 2007. He won two gold medals at the most re­cent world cham­pi­onships. In 2010, he was the first man to de­scend be­yond 100m, and to make it back up, con­scious, with­out fins or any other help.

He has had var­i­ous chal­lengers at var­i­ous times through­out his ca­reer but he has re­ally owned the sport for a decade. He more or less dis­cov­ered the best place in the world to pur­sue free­d­iv­ing, the calm, deep wa­ters of a 200m deep hole just off a beach in the Ba­hamas, then moved there and built a house in the nearby bush so he could train as much as he needed to be­come the most dom­i­nant ath­lete in the his­tory of the sport. Then he cre­ated an an­nual event there, which car­ried the name of his own free­d­iv­ing school and which has be­come one of the most pres­ti­gious an­nual events in the free­d­iv­ing world.

Free­d­iv­ing is a world of num­bers and acronyms rep­re­sent­ing the var­i­ous means peo­ple have of go­ing deep un­derwater with­out oxy­gen and the depths they have reached, and in all of those acronyms, Wil­liam Trubridge has achieved great num­bers, world-class num­bers, re­ally ex­cel­lent num­bers. But are num­bers what he cares most about? Here are some quotes: “In free­d­iv­ing my fore­most in­ten­tion has never been to set a record or reach a cer­tain depth, but rather to try to come as close as pos­si­ble to hu­man aquatic po­ten­tial, wher­ever that may lie.”

“Through years of dis­ci­pline, per­se­ver­ance, study and dar­ing, I had been able to con­geal into re­al­ity the vi­sion I’d had of a life in pur­suit of the aquatic na­ture of man. Now, ev­ery day and ev­ery dive was a ven­ture into un­ex­plored ter­ri­tory that re­de­fined the range and abil­ity of our species un­derwater.”

“When I speak to it, thank it or, more com­monly just smile in its pres­ence, it is with the un­der­stand­ing that on a cer­tain level I am in­dis­tin­guish­able from the ocean, and am thus re­ally only thank­ing my­self.”

The book’s fi­nal line reads: “I dive to go home”.

Do these sound like the words of some­one who lives for the thrill of com­pet­ing and win­ning, or do they sound more like the words of a half man, half fish-type crea­ture? Is Wil­liam Trubridge at all like you and me and, say, Michael Phelps, or is he a new sort of species al­to­gether?

If this sounds like over-reach­ing for ef­fect, here are two more quotes:

“Quiz me at the end of a train­ing ses­sion or a med­i­ta­tion in front of the wa­ter,” he writes, “and I might an­swer that, in the fi­nal anal­y­sis, the two entities — the sea and my sub­con­scious — are one and the same.”

“I tell my­self that if only I can match the in­ten­sity of my body’s pri­mal scream for air with an equal level of men­tal seren­ity and com­po­sure, then I will break through into a realm where I can con­tinue hold­ing my breath in­def­i­nitely. Years, cen­turies, might pass and I would re­main seated there empty in mind and sus­pended in body.”

BE­TWEEN THE ages of 1 and 10, he lived on a yacht with his par­ents and older brother sailing around the world, and some of it was spent moored in the Bay of Is­lands, where he went to school.

Dur­ing this time, ob­vi­ously, he spent a lot of time in and un­der the wa­ter. It was one of many of what he calls “bread­crumbs” that led him to what he calls “the gin­ger­bread house” of free­d­iv­ing.

But it was 15 years af­ter his par­ents sold the boat that he ended up in free­d­iv­ing, so there needed to be plenty more crumbs. There was the time he swam two un­derwater laps of a 25 yard school pool on a sin­gle breath to im­press a girl, who af­ter­wards said, in­dif­fer­ently, “Was it worth it?” There was the time in Samoa, when he swam through an un­derwater tun­nel link­ing two caves.

But things re­ally came to a head at 3am one Satur­day night, at a house party in North Lon­don where a 23-year-old Trubridge found him­self, on his OE, “sur­rounded by a heav­ing mass of shirt­less ghouls, pupils di­lated and teeth

‘Through years of dis­ci­pline, . . . and dar­ing, I had been able to con­geal into re­al­ity the vi­sion I’d had of a life in pur­suite of the aquatic na­ture of man.’

De­scend­ing to­wards 82m in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, Septem­ber 2006. Trubridge was still re­cov­er­ing from the ef­fects of food poisoning, long travel and jet lag.

Pre­par­ing for a world record at­tempt dive with­out fins.

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