Schön! plunges into deep conversation with triple world champion free diver Guillaume Néry.
With a single breath, Guillaume Néry has the power and skill to plunge 125 metres below the water’s surface without any assistance, holding his breath for seven minutes, 42 seconds, with lungs harbouring between eight to 10 litres of air. However, this Frenchman proves that he is much more than just an athlete – but also an artist who collaborates with wife Julie Gautier on hauntingly beautiful videos that demonstrate nature’s immense power and man’s impressive adaptation to the elements. Néry harnesses free diving as a healing tool to understand the link between mind and body and the fundamental importance of patience to achieve harmony when exploring the unknown.
Guillaume Néry’s upbringing in Nice’s Mediterranean surroundings contributed to his passion for nature and adventure. As a young boy, he spent his summers diving with his father with a mask and flippers. At 14 years old, he and a friend challenged each other to see who could hold their breath the longest and this simple game turned into a deep fascination that eventually led him to a sports biology university where he studied the body’s reaction during extreme activities. “I wanted to have a better understanding of the mental and physical interactions in my training,” Néry explains. “I am someone in the depths of the ocean and the high altitudes of the mountains.”
At 20, Néry became the youngest free dive record holder, achieving depths of -87 metres using the power of his monofin alone. Since then, he has combatted the world record three times, becoming world team champion in 2008 and individual world champion in 2011, reaching -117 metres, and, in 2013, a new record of -125 in Greece. Despite these grand triumphs, he believes his greatest accomplishment lies elsewhere. “I think the most important achievement we have done – I say ‘we’ because it’s with my wife Julie – are our videos,” Néry smiles. “Many people contact us to say ‘Thank you for the images.’”
Néry could almost say he met his partner Julie Gautier underwater. A competition united them and, a few years afterwards, the diver attempted to set a world record in the French island Réunion, where his wife grew up. Together, they produced Free Fall, a film that highlights Néry walking on a seabed and leaping into the deepest blue hole in the world in the Bahamas. The video, which demonstrates a revolutionary poetic interpretation of free diving, received instantaneous positive reviews.
Néry and Gautier’s film exploits, Les Films Engloutis, have led to yet another deeply emotional video called Narcose, which features Gautier only 10 days before she gave birth to the their baby girl Mai-Lou. The love between the couple is prominent. “It’s great working with Julie because we know each other so well that we can understand one another without words,” Néry enlightens.
Narcose is based on Néry’s real life hallucinations, and explores an unsettling, yet compelling, sequence of events when he experiences narcosis underwater. “[These hallucinations] disturbed me a lot,” he explains. “I couldn’t control what was happening. I could either have good vibes or scary, anxious feelings. Now I can deal with it much better because I understand the best way to deal is to just accept and let go.”
The unique freedom of water makes it the only place on earth where one can fly and move in all directions, but as one descends deeper, pressure builds. With its juxtaposition of the water’s open space and the extreme force on the body, diving has helped Néry control his emotions and has acted as a form of meditation. “To be a good diver, you have to be focused on what is happening in your body. You need to let go of your thoughts,” he explains. “You just focus on the heartbeats, the water going into your face, the temperature of the water changing. If one fights against the pressure, one will lose. Letting go is a mind exercise, and once that is achieved, the muscles in the body will follow.”
Free diving gave Néry the chance to realise his childhood dreams to be an explorer and discover the unknown by travelling the world. Nearly twenty years as an adventurer of the depths have equipped him with skills that translate to daily situations. “Patience is the key of long-term success,” he states. “Free diving taught me that the solution is not to fight, because this is what humans always do to get what we want. If you follow your passion with dedication, even if success is not guaranteed – because not everyone can be a world champion – you cannot be disappointed because you’ve tried, and at least you can have beautiful experiences.”