Q&A: A Conversation with William Trubridge

William Trubridge holds the world record in free diving. For a living, he treads water at the surface of the ocean, takes a big gulp of air, and proceeds to dive straight down more than 360 feet without any equipment to assist him. Then, he comes back to the surface without taking a breath. Free diving has grown in numbers and in infamy, becoming an extreme sport of global prominence. Seth Kolker ’14 reports.

(Courtesy Igor Liberti)

Q: How dangerous is free diving?

A: This is a question that pops up all the time—but free diving doesn’t have to be of any danger at all if it’s done with adequate safety. No one has ever died during a competition, or during training that has the same safety systems as a competition. Most of the mortalities have been in the sled disciplines, where you go down in the water on a weighted sled like an anvil, and then come back up with a balloon. But that’s more of a stunt than an actual free dive.

Q: How do you train?

A: I do a lot of yoga and other dry training exercises to prepare for the dives. At the depths I’m going to my lungs collapse from the pressure, and at that point I can’t exhale any air from my lungs. That means that for the second half of the dive I’m not going to be able to equalize by exhaling against my ears, so I need to take air into my mouth earlier in the dive and store it all in my mouth. Then I use my tongue to push that air from my mouth into the middle ear.

Q: How did you get into free diving?

A: When I was 18 months old my family sold our house in the north of England to buy a boat; we lived on the boat until I was ten. So the water’s just always been a natural place for me to be, and free diving is the most natural expression of that. The first time I did a dive purely for the depth itself probably happened when I was eight. My family was living in Vanuatu, and my brother and I had this thing where you had to swim down to the bottom of the ocean and grab a stone or a handful of sand and bring it up to the surface to prove you’d been down. We got to I think 45 or 50 feet with no idea of proper technique, and very rudimentary equipment. It wasn’t until I was 22 that I actually found out about the sport of free diving. I was planning a trip to Central America at the time, so I bought a bunch of free diving equipment and spent three months in the water every day; that’s where I got hooked on the sport.

Q: How do you see the sport changing in the next few years?

A: The growth is probably the biggest change. I also think there’s a shift away from the stunts and into a more pure and refined athletic discipline. I hope this continues—it would give free diving more of a chance to be accepted as a mainstream sport instead of being seen as an extreme thing. Perhaps even in the future one or two of the disciplines might be accepted into the Olympics, if it did grow to that scale. It really is the purest expression of human aquatic potential and what we can do under the water, so it deserves recognition as an important aquatic sport.

Q: Why do you do it?

A: For me it’s just the pure novelty of the experience, how different free diving is to anything else that you encounter in your day-to-day life. When you’re in the water it’s very hard to have any thoughts that are of the future or of the past, anything outside of what you’re doing in that present moment. When we hold our breath it’s almost like a suspension of time: you don’t have that natural rhythm of breath to show you that time is passing. And it’s an escape from gravity as well; there are no strong forces on the body, no particular distinction between any of the directions. There’s almost no sound, and all the lights are muted, and all of that combined gives you the chance to go more inside of yourself without any stimuli coming in. A friend of mine used to say that a scuba diver dives to look around, while a free diver dives to look inside. All of those reasons together make it a joyful kind of escape from what we experience in the rest of our lives.

Seth Kolker ’14 is an Ethics, Politics & Economics Major in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at seth.kolker@yale.edu.