AT ONE WITH THE DEPTHS
Greg Bruce on world champion freediver William Trubridge
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.