New Zealand born, Australian come freediver Ant Williams has recently announced a new project. He intends to attempt to break the record for freediving in ice in around eighteen months time. I spoke to Ant recently about the attempt and some of the mental aspects of freediving.
DeeperBlue.com: I was interested to see the segment on freediving on ‘the project,’ one of Australia’s prime time television shows. They seemed to take an extremist view on freediving. Is that what you expected?
Ant Williams: It’s fairly common for the media to sensationalise freediving by focusing on the dangers that come with the sport. I guess when you see at how deep people are freediving these days it certainly looks like a mysterious extreme sport. While pushing this angle will definitely help to sell a story it doesn’t do any favours for our sport. In Australia you can’t train in most swimming pools because public perception is that breath holding is too dangerous and kids will copy us and kill themselves. We have a long way to go for freediving to ever be considered as a Commonwealth or an Olympic sport.
DB: You are not only a very skilled freediver and sportsman but also an experienced sport psychologist. Some people would agree that there are ‘extreme’ elements of freediving, but most who do it would probably disagree. What do you think is extreme about freediving?
AW: In most ocean sports the athletes have safety staff that can get to them quickly if there is a problem. Big wave surfing is using jetskis for rescues, yachtsmen have safety boats and in scuba diving your partner remains with you during a dive. But in freediving you are on your own for most of the dive. We can’t see the athlete and there is no rapid and failsafe way to retrieve a freediver from a significant depth. That’s the thing that separates our sport as more extreme than most others.
DB: Is freediving extreme, or does it attract extreme people? Or is there something just so mysterious and unexplainable about it to outsiders its natural for them to assume that it is really of the charts…?
AW: I guess the answer depends on how you define an extreme sport. If your measure of extreme is the likelihood of injury or death, then freediving has to rank far less extreme than most other sports. But if you measure how extreme a sport is by its fear factor, then freediving definitely wins a place on my list. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve really stopped diving with fear niggling me the whole way down and back on a deep dive. Progressing in our sport is as much about building your mental toughness as it is about developing your technique.
Interestingly, freediving doesn’t seem to attract many risk takers. Most freedivers prepare thoroughly before each dive and invest in good equipment, regular training and excellent nutrition. Consider some of our best freedivers – Trubridge, Lozano, Molchanov, Nitsch, Mullens or Colak. Most of these guys are calm or even introverted. They are not your high-octane thrill seekers that we typically associate with a high-risk sport.
DB: Was there an event or catalyst moment for you that really sparked this idea to break the ice record? What were your initial inspirational thoughts on it?
AW: I decided to the North Pole to chase this record because I want a new experience that makes me feel truly alive. I am also in my 40s now and most of my friends have given up their sport and lost the adventure from their lives. The use their kids of job as an excuse for leaving the physical things that brought meaning and challenge to their lives.
I want to inspire others, young and old, to live a life of adventure while taking positive, calculated risks. This, I believe, is the essence of life. It’s only when we overcome our greatest challenges that we truly experience happiness.
But this dive does terrify me. I have no clue what awaits me deep below the surface on a dive under the ice. With thick gloves on I won’t be able to judge the speed of my descent. That’s something that perplexes me. At the North Pole you have the freezing cold, the hostile environment and the dangers of the wild life up there. It’s that fear of the unknown that really makes this a unique freediving experience.
DB: I suppose more obviously the key difference on this dive is that it is under the ice. What are the other less obvious factors that make this dive more complex or different to ‘regular’ freediving? What different stressors will you have to consider for this dive?
AW: Well there will be polar bear, walrus, killer whale and that freaky narwhal with the massive tusk on its head. Understanding how to stay safe diving around these animals is one thing, it’s another to figure out the logistics of actually getting to the North Pole and staying there for a week. Paying a research station to fly you in and accommodate you costs about USD25,000 per person per night. Our budget will only stretch to the trip in and out. Once we are there we will have to set up our own expedition tents at the Pole.
Selecting the right gear to take is another interesting challenge. Take a 100m dive rope and it will freeze solid when you take it out of the water. Like using fluid goggles? The water at the North Pole is so cold it can freeze your eyeballs. Best to learn how to get as deep as you can wearing a mask. And the extreme cold may place additional stress on your chest. To prevent injury you need to stay as warm as possible on the dive. That normally means a thick wetsuit, gloves and booties. The very things we hate to dive in.
DB: The attempt is in about eighteen months? How do you intend to chart your journey?
AW: The first major hurdle is to secure the funding for the project. We would like to create a documentary on the attempt but is exceptionally expensive to take a film crew to the North Pole. My job for the next 8 months is to secure the funding we need.
In terms of training, I’ll begin with some depth work in the Mentawai Islands in a few months. I need to get back to 80m+ wearing a mask rather than fluid goggles. I will also wear a blacked-out mask to simulate the darkness of a dive under the ice. Then I will take a small crew across to Revelstoke in Canada for a weeklong expedition training camp to prepare us for life on the ice. Next year we will look to get over to Norway to meet up with Antero Joki to really focus on our ice diving.