It was merely fanciful, of course, to imagine that going to meet William Trubridge, the world record holding freediver, would be like going to meet a merman. I certainly didn't share this silly thought with him (asking if he was part fish was quite silly enough and yet ... he sort of is).
He is very serious and intensely focused. He is not the sort to entertain flights of fancy and yet, again, what he does is such an extraordinary thing to do, let alone way to earn your living, that in some ways his entire life is a flight of fancy. If you wanted to reduce what it is that he does to its most simple form, it is that he holds his breath. He is the best in the world at doing this, to the greatest depth, without the aid of anything except his body and his mind. He holds the world record for the deepest unassisted freedive, to 101 metres, which is a long, long way down.
That this is a peculiar thing to do, for mere humans, is rather the point, according to him. "It's peculiar from the mindset that we are terrestrial creatures." Well, quite, which was my point. "But we can be aquatic. We can't be an animal like a dolphin or a whale but we share a lot of similarities with them, physiologically. We're not as streamlined as they are, not as hydrodynamic, but we can slow our heart rates down when we dive, and not breathe for many minutes." He can. "Anyone can."
There is nothing unusual about his lung capacity, he said. What makes him the best is mostly inside his head.
He is, he said, an introvert and he "may be" eccentric. It would be surprising, really, if he wasn't. He was raised on a boat, from the age of 2 until he was 11, by his hippy parents. His mother, Linda, taught art and yoga and his father is the acclaimed furniture designer, David. The family (his brother, Sam, is now a theatre director and designer in Wellington) sailed the Pacific and the Caribbean and had little money but great adventures. By the time they came ashore, and to live in the Hawkes Bay, he was perhaps a bit of a strange boy. He went to school for the first time and was small and quiet and was pushed around a bit but, he said, there are weirdo kids in every school and he found his clan. He liked chess and debating and theatre. Lots of actors are shy and introverted off a stage.
He arrived clutching a water bottle and wearing a T-shirt with a Steinlager Pure logo. He had with him his agent and a publicist. He is still small and quiet. He wouldn't have a coffee. "I don't drink coffee." He likes it, but it increases the heart rate and that is a bad thing for freedivers, so he gave it up years ago.
He was wearing the T-shirt because he is being sponsored by the beer company for his next attempt to break his own world record. He was in New Zealand to promote this, and the beer. The world record attempt will be broadcast live on Breakfast TV on December 3 and brought to you by beer.
I might have a few commiseratory beers! I don't get crazy drunk. No.
I said: "Do you drink beer?"
"Only when I'm celebrating after the dive. If it goes according to plan, I'll have a few beers."
And if it doesn't? "I might have a few commiseratory beers!" How many? Two? "I don't get crazy drunk. No."
He is, for a possibly eccentric introvert, surprisingly good at the PR game and he insisted that the Pure brand was entirely in keeping with his lifestyle and philosophy - which is about being pure.
He can't do what he does without sponsors and he was determined, when he first fell in love with freediving, that he would make a decent living at it, and he has. "Yeah. I mean I'm not making the same as an All Black or a soccer player, but I'm able to live a lifestyle where I'm training in the Bahamas and combining my passion with my career."
He was supposed to be a geneticist and after university did do a year working for a research company and "mentally it was challenging, but I found it claustrophobic being inside all day and wearing a white lab coat and working with stuff that I couldn't see".
Some people (me, for example) would find the idea of even sticking your head underwater 1000 times more claustrophobic and of course he said, no, it was the opposite and I should try it. No thanks. "But you might find liberation!" Too frightening. "If you overcame that fear, you could find liberation. You can't overcome it because you say you can't overcome it."
He was failing to persuade me, which didn't stop him trying. "You test your own existence." Why would you want to? "Because it makes you feel more alive." When he retires from freediving (a long way off; he is only 34; the best woman freediver is 53) he could take up being a guru.
He lives on Long Island in the Bahamas, in a house in the bush, with his wife, Brittany, an American from Florida, who is a yoga teacher. He lives here because it is where Dean's Blue Hole is, which is the deepest seawater sinkhole, the best place in the world to freedive. His day-to-day life is training and tending his vegetable garden and achieving "equanimity". He lives mostly a quiet and serene life, meditating and doing yoga, diving and breathing. He likes to read Martin Amis and Dostoyevsky and Jonathan Franzen and books about Buddhism and yoga, and to watch foreign films on Netflix. He only eats fish and lobsters that he catches himself, but mostly he eats vegetables. He lost his sense of taste some years ago (after using a "dodgy" nasal spray he bought in Egypt) but even before this, never ate sugar.
He was, I said, falling into the trap, very pure. He is, he agreed, laughing, so perhaps that beer really is the perfect fit, brandwise. Still ... He gets free beer as part of his deal but you can't imagine that there would be parties at his place. He said he did have parties and that of course his parties were fun. "Ha. Would I have them if they weren't? Oh. Do you mean because I don't drink and don't eat meat? Do you need alcohol or meat to have a fun party?"
He is a curious mix of hardheaded approach to his career and a faintly hippy approach to life. He said: "I don't think I'm a hippy. Do you?" I said yes and he said "okay", but on reflection he's part hippy and part totally driven athlete, and the rest of him is fish. He aims for serenity and is fiercely competitive, about everything. "If you ask my family, they'd agree with that." Even Scrabble, say? "For sure, Scrabble." He is far too serene to throw tantrums (perhaps he has them on the inside when being asked, for example, questions about promoting beer) but: "I am very driven to win." He would prefer to win, shall we say. "Ha, ha. Yes. So I've tried to keep that out of freediving."
There is a contradiction there that he acknowledges, and struggles with. Because it is a competitive sport, even if you hold the world record and are so only competing with yourself to break it. "I try not to think about beating someone else or even breaking my own record so much as the process and doing a technically perfect dive and focusing on what I need to do at that moment."
All sport is weird, I suppose, but his seems particularly so. It is like him, really: A curious mix of disciplines requiring a curious mix of character. It is about achieving what ought to be unachievable and you wonder (or I do) why you want to do it in the first place. It is, he has said, about attempting to make yourself "complete and infinite". What could that feel like? "It's when you take away your kind of sense of identity, which happens when you freedive. It happens because you're not conscious of having a body because you're weightless under water. There's no sense of pressure from a chair, or your feet. Light is reduced, there is no sound and so without that sensory stimuli, and the sense of space around you, you go inside yourself and also with the cessation of the heartbeat, the whole concept of time past and future disappears. It's almost impossible, even if you're floating on the surface of the water, to think about troubles in the past and the future ... That's freedom from a sense of your own presence."
He made it sound quite nice. "It is. It's kind of like a sensation of being subtracted from yourself or from a normal perception of having a body and having an agenda and having a past and a future. All that vanishes." Yes, that does all sound rather dreamy, but why would you want to be subtracted from yourself? "It's pure," he said. He's worth every dollar of whatever they're paying him, for that alone.
But I was still trying to work out how he makes this contradiction work. He is not a natural front guy for a campaign. He's not at all out-going. He says strange, hippy, dreamy things. He's a rather cool character. He spends most of his life trying to get past ego and yet he is expected to turn up to things, like this interview, and sell a brand - and brands are supposed to be sexy. I asked if freediving was a sexy sport and he said: "If you mean, am I posing for shots in my Speedos, then no." That wasn't what I meant at all! "Okay!"
I suppose what I was getting at was that I imagined he didn't much enjoy having to do things like turning up for this interview (which was offered by the PR company) and which is designed to sell the brands: Him, which must involve some ego, and the beer, which is about profile. I wasn't sure how good he was at doing these things, and I'm still not - despite that "pure" he slipped in. He said it was wholly unintentional, and I believe him. He does good works for the Maui dolphins and for protecting the seas from rotten old plastic, and as he's the absolute opposite of those athletes who are all brand and no brain, I did like him very much.
But he's hard to unpick partly, probably, because even out of the water he's to some extent subtracted from himself, at least publicly.
So he's not the easiest interview in the world. He said: "It's not that I dislike it, but as you say, it doesn't come naturally. I'm not the sort of person who would talk about themselves spontaneously."
I did at moments feel like a terrestrial attempting an interview with some entirely other-worldly sort of being, who, afterwards, swam off on his merman's tail. Well, you never know, do you? He was wearing shoes, but it wouldn't have surprised me one bit to learn that he doesn't have feet.