William Trubridge Interview | Meet the Freediving World Champion Who Almost Paid the Ultimate Price
Will Trubridge can hold his breath for an incredible 7 minutes. But that didn't stop him nearly dying during one world-record attempt...
Words by Fergus Scholes | Photos by Alex St. Jean
William Trubridge, 37, is arguably the world’s most outstanding freediving talent. He has 15 world records to his name, as well as being five-time – and the current – world freediving champion. Will tells me it was back in 2003 aged 23 that he first got into freediving: “I quickly became passionate about the sport and decided to dedicate myself to it and see where I could get to." In 2007, some four years later, the dedication paid off when he claimed his first world record, and he has been breaking them ever since.
Freediving is a sport in which athletes compete to go as deep as possible whilst holding their breath. Given the high level of risk, it is classified as an extreme sport, yet nearly all others – for example surfing, snowboarding, parachuting, motocross – are high-adrenaline, and fast-paced. Freediving on the other hand has peace and stillness at its very core.
“The thought ‘is this the last breath I might ever take’ has crossed Will’s mind. The sport of freediving can indeed be fatal."
Will’s current world records are in two different freediving disciplines. The first is in what is widely regarded as the purest form of freediving, ‘constant weight without fins’, where propulsion involves nothing more than bare hands and feet.
His record for this is a depth of 102m. Will is also world record holder with a dive of 124m in the ‘free immersion’ category, in which the diver can use the vertical dive-line as assistance to pull himself down and up again for propulsion. There are six other categories, the most extreme of which is called ‘no limits’ whereby the diver descends with a heavy weight or sled, and also has an assisted ascent. Will’s speciality lies in self-propelled disciplines.
Will now lives and trains year-round in the Bahamas, having emigrated from the UK to New Zealand at a young age. It’s a freediver’s paradise here; home to the world’s second deepest blue hole, plummeting to a depth of 202m a mere stone’s throw from the beach. He’s just returned home after a morning’s training at the ‘hole’ and sits in an office chair, surrounded by medals.
He talks me through the day of a big record attempt: “It’s all about routine. Making the same breakfast. Eating something you know that works from testing during training. For me it’s oatmeal with almond milk, blueberries, raisins." I tell him that sounds like my kind of breakfast - but then the similarities stop.
"Flexibility is key. If you take a balloon to depth, it will be fine. If you take a bottle it will smash."
Top freedivers avoid coffee, as this raises heart rate and is counterproductive to performance. He used to drink it before he took up the sport, but he hasn’t touched it since. Next, he’ll stretch, as lung flexibility is a big contributor to the success of any freedive: “If you take a balloon to depth, it will be fine. If you take a bottle it will smash.
This is why there is such an emphasis on stretching." There are numerous videos on YouTube showing Will’s thorax and lung flexibility, something he has worked tirelessly on for 14 years. It is extraordinary and looks slightly alien how he can morph and control his body in ways you can’t imagine.
After stretching, he’ll then head to the dive site where he spends 20 minutes lying on the platform suspended just a few metres above the water. He meditates, doing his utmost to remove any thoughts going through his mind, as even visualising something, picturing anything at all, requires energy and therefore uses up some of the body’s valuable store of oxygen. Then, “for the final five minutes, I’ll slip into the water and be on the ‘line’, breathing, relaxed, not breathing too much." Hyperventilating is dangerous so it’s important not to overdo it.
“The hardest phase of the dive is the ascent - it’s the most dangerous part."
As he takes his last breath, the thought “is this the last breath I might ever take" has crossed Will’s mind - the sport of freediving can indeed be fatal. But he then explains the moment his head goes underwater, his mind is clear; problems, thoughts, negative thoughts are washed away.
He swims vertically towards the depths and darkness until after seven breaststrokes and around 15 metres. There he goes into freefall, as the body now naturally starts to sink. For a little over two minutes he descends. His heart rate is staggeringly low, somewhere in the late 20s, although Will tells me technology isn’t too reliable at that depth so it’s hard to know exactly. I ask if he experiences any kind of pain or discomfort as he descends - but there’s complete peace. In fact the deeper he goes, the darker it gets and the more relaxed he becomes.
I presume there is a small sense of relief upon grabbing the ‘tag’ at his pre-announced target depth during a dive, and he can turn for the surface. He explains the dive doesn’t feel even remotely in the bag at the turning point.
Actually the hardest phase of the dive is now just beginning - the ascent requires the most energy and is the most dangerous. Will draws a parallel between freediving and summiting a big mountain peak, quoting fellow Kiwi climbing guide, the late Rob Hall, depicted in the movie Everest - “With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill... The trick is to get back down alive".
Now on the ascent, the tougher second half of the dive requires around 33 breaststrokes before the body will become positively buoyant and begin naturally rising to the surface. Coupled with this, the final 10m before surfacing is where a freediver is most prone to ‘blackout’ as the body is severely deprived of oxygen. In 2014 Will came very close to sharing Rob Hall's fate - as the dramatic footage above shows, he ran into difficulties trying to break the world depth record and had to be helped to the surface by his support divers.
“When you come to the surface, there’s a delicate fifteen seconds." Will talks me through the protocol one must go through for a dive attempt to be registered as successful. Within 15 seconds of surfacing all face equipment (e.g. goggles and noseclip) must be removed, then a hand raised giving the okay sign, and say “I’m okay".
“On one occasion, Will re-surfaced after achieving a new world record but, crucially, he forgot to take off his goggles before saying 'I’m okay'. The dive counted for nothing."
On one occasion, Will had re-surfaced after achieving a new world record depth but, crucially, he forgot to take off his goggles before saying I’m okay.
The judge duly gave him a red card, and the dive counted for nothing. He could have taken on another record attempt the next day if he was super keen, but usually he’d wait 48 hours as the body generates a lot of lactic acid from working anaerobically during the dive. Of course, Will eventually broke the world record, with this fantastic dive in 2016.
A day that started off like many of ours, with oatmeal and berries, then deviates so far from the norm and becomes quite extraordinary. What I have learned about free diving over the course of our conversation I think explains Will’s coolness - being precise, to the point and not exaggerated.
Perhaps his diving persona - the world record-holding champion - who has to account for each and every heartbeat, and avoid any excess that might use up valuable oxygen, permeates into his everyday self, and he is the embodiment of those traits. Are the two inseparable? I think perhaps not when you want to be the best in the world.
With Will’s focus and dedication to the sport he loves, it would be no surprise to me if he carries on breaking records for many years to come.
Will is competing in the AIDA World Freediving Championships, which are held on Roatan in the Caribbean from August 22nd to September 3rd. Check out aidaworldchampionship2017.com for more info.
To read more of Fergus Scholes' writing, check out his blog adventureferg.com