New Zealander William Trubridge has become the most dominant athlete in the history of freediving. He dives to ‘go home’, writes Greg Bruce.

He was a young man, on the dancefloor of an Auckland nightclub, sober, vaguely tortured by life, years away from hearing for the first time about the sport of freediving which he would come to completely dominate, when he composed the following poem: "I have a relationship with the depths / They beckon me beyond my means / Cold, dark, vacant pressure".

At the time, William Trubridge was studying science at university in Auckland, with a view to working in the then-emerging field of genetics. He was living in a renowned party flat in a busy Newmarket street, drinking a lot of beer and chasing "indifferent party girls". His life, he writes in his just-released, frequently-astonishing autobiography, Oxygen, involved "pub crawls, tequila blow-outs and cannabis spotties on the stove."

He now looks back in wonder at the apparently uncannily predictive power of the verse he composed on the dancefloor and so, probably, should we.

Like tortured young men the world over, Trubridge had a close relationship with poetry, and most of it didn't point to a future in either sport or literature. Here's another poem he had written, not long before.

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"Trapped with my thoughts in the court of my head, but / the jury is dead and the plaintiff has fled. / There's no escape from this mental self-rape; the / disease of my reason is directed at treason and the only / defences are senses, so stimulate them."

Dean's Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas. At 202m in depth, it is the second deepest blue hole in the world and provided the perfect location for his 2007 world-record attempt.
Dean's Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas. At 202m in depth, it is the second deepest blue hole in the world and provided the perfect location for his 2007 world-record attempt.

Trubridge is now 37 and has set 18 world records in freediving since his first in 2007.

He won two gold medals at the most recent world championships. In 2010, he was the first man to descend beyond 100m, and to make it back up, conscious, without fins or any other help.

He has had various challengers at various times throughout his career but he has really owned the sport for a decade. He more or less discovered the best place in the world to pursue freediving, the calm, deep waters of a 200m deep hole just off a beach in the Bahamas, then moved there and built a house in the nearby bush so he could train as much as he needed to become the most dominant athlete in the history of the sport. Then he created an annual event there, which carried the name of his own freediving school and which has become one of the most prestigious annual events in the freediving world.

Freediving is a world of numbers and acronyms representing the various means people have of going deep underwater without oxygen and the depths they have reached, and in all of those acronyms, William Trubridge has achieved great numbers, world-class numbers, really excellent numbers. But are numbers what he cares most about?

Here are some quotes:

"In freediving my foremost intention has never been to set a record or reach a certain depth, but rather to try to come as close as possible to human aquatic potential, wherever that may lie."

"Through years of discipline, perseverance, study and daring, I had been able to congeal into reality the vision I'd had of a life in pursuit of the aquatic nature of man. Now, every day and every dive was a venture into unexplored territory that redefined the range and ability of our species underwater."

"When I speak to it, thank it or, more commonly just smile in its presence, it is with the understanding that on a certain level I am indistinguishable from the ocean, and am thus really only thanking myself."

The book's final line reads: "I dive to go home".

Do these sound like the words of someone who lives for the thrill of competing and winning, or do they sound more like the words of a half man, half fish-type creature? Is William Trubridge at all like you and me and, say, Michael Phelps, or is he a new sort of species altogether?

If this sounds like over-reaching for effect, here are two more quotes:

"Quiz me at the end of a training session or a meditation in front of the water," he writes, "and I might answer that, in the final analysis, the two entities - the sea and my subconscious - are one and the same."

"I tell myself that if only I can match the intensity of my body's primal scream for air with an equal level of mental serenity and composure, then I will break through into a realm where I can continue holding my breath indefinitely. Years, centuries, might pass and I would remain seated there empty in mind and suspended in body."

Between the ages of 1 and 10, he lived on a yacht with his parents

and older brother sailing around the world, and some of it was spent moored in the Bay of Islands, where he went to school.

During this time, obviously, he spent a lot of time in and under the water. It was one of many of what he calls "breadcrumbs" that led him to what he calls "the gingerbread house" of freediving.

But it was 15 years after his parents sold the boat that he ended up in freediving, so there needed to be plenty more crumbs. There was the time he swam two underwater laps of a 25 yard school pool on a single breath to impress a girl, who afterwards said, indifferently, "Was it worth it?" There was the time in Samoa, when he swam through an underwater tunnel linking two caves.

But things really came to a head at 3am one Saturday night, at a house party in North London where a 23-year-old Trubridge found himself, on his OE, "surrounded by a heaving mass of shirtless ghouls, pupils dilated and teeth grinding in time to some soulless music."

"I have to get out of here" he said to a friend, who had just arrived in the city, full of stories about a recent scuba course he had been on in Thailand, and, more relevantly, about the freedivers he had seen training there.

Trubridge was captivated by the stories. Over the following weeks, he read interviews with top freedivers, studied their techniques and even lay on his bed trying to hold his breath on his bed for as long as possible. He describes his first attempt as a "pretty ordinary 2 minutes 15 seconds."

He travelled to Honduras, where he talked his way on to scuba dive boats and started diving alongside the paying guests and testing how far he could go without oxygen. He was surprised to find, on his first attempt, that he got all the way to the bottom, about 15-20m down, and was able to stay there for several seconds.

Three years before, as a student living in that dodgy Newmarket flat, he had written that poem expressing how he felt trapped with his thoughts, but there on the sandy bottom in Honduras, as he writes in Oxygen, "I had broken free, for the briefest moment, from that unsolicited podcast, that relentless stream of internal dialogue. I was my naked self behind my mind."

On the bow of the family yacht Hornpipe with older brother Sam, mother Linda and William, 1982.
On the bow of the family yacht Hornpipe with older brother Sam, mother Linda and William, 1982.

During those first freediving experiences he would frequently swim to the soft sand of the seabed

, 10m beneath the surface, and lie there, almost weightless (near the surface of the sea. the human body wants to rise, and deeper than about 10m it wants to sink, but at somewhere around 10m it reaches a vaguely neutral point, something like zero gravity), a spectator of the ocean, for long periods.

"In these moments," Trubridge writes, "My consciousness would go inwards. The sensation of not requiring breath, of being completely integrated into the underwater world, could last minutes."

While in Honduras, he had "one of those dreams that are so vivid and heavy with meaning that they seem more like a visitation. My oldest childhood friend, Damien Duff, appeared and told me repeatedly, 'Stand in your dream,' before shaking my hand and vanishing . . . I never forgot the message he delivered. It was a confirmation that the life I had begun was my dharma, my 'personal legend' as Paulo Coelho's Alchemist calls it."

Trubridge has become particularly interested in this idea of a calling: "If you pay attention then you might actually hear it calling for you, in many subtle ways. I'd even say that it's really a part of ourselves (one falling under the umbrella of the 'subconscious') that is more in tune with our true desires, or dharma, that is doing the calling."

His rise, to be producing world-class freedives two years after his first encounter with the sport, was predicated on some natural ability and a prodigious appetite for hard work that had its foundations in watching "the archetype of patience and discipline" that was and is his master craftsman father, famed furniture-maker David Trubridge, at work.

He says now, "I think I was probably one of the first in that discipline to train year-round, and I applied myself all the time to improve my technique and my capacity for breath holds and endurance."

By early 2006, he had already equalled the then world record in training, but he failed in his first two officially recorded record attempts. He decided, without any particularly solid-sounding scientific foundation, that his career rested on the success or failure of his third attempt.

On the April 9, 2007, he dived to 81m without fins, and set the first of his 18 world records.

Playing with an Atlantic Spotted Dolphin (Stenella frontalis) in the waters of Bimini, in the Bahamas.
Playing with an Atlantic Spotted Dolphin (Stenella frontalis) in the waters of Bimini, in the Bahamas.

Becoming a creature of the deep changes you, body and soul.

Trubridge has many times experienced blackouts following dives, including underwater blackouts requiring assistance to the surface, and many, many times he has suffered what freedivers blackly call "sambas", where the body spasms in a frightening and not especially accurate imitation of the dance of the same name. These are some ways the body reacts when deprived of oxygen and loaded with carbon dioxide for minutes at a time while going to depths so pressurised that, as Trubridge writes, they could burst the tyres of a freight truck.

On the other hand, he writes of an experience that first happened to him after a dive in 2008 while he was lying on the couch, listening to the Coldplay song Politik: "In that moment, something took place in the base of my skull that sprayed a wave of sensation up and around the surface of my cranium, as well as downwards along my spine, and from there out along my ribs and into my arms and legs. It's hard to describe what that sensation was without using ambiguous and oft-abused words like 'opening', 'light' and 'energy'. It was as if a covering had been pulled away from my body and every newly exposed nerve ending was thrilling at being activated for the first time. Somehow the outer halves of my eyeballs were vibrating and my cheeks had been drawn upwards to couch my eyes in a kind of soft embrace.

"'Give me love over, love over, love over this,' entreated Chris Martin as waves of well-being, immaculate peace and euphoria kept shedding themselves down my spine. Thin seawater tributaries were flowing freely from my eyes and I was laughing in wonder and gratitude."

Trubridge has experienced the same thing many times since and can now bring the sensation on voluntarily, through music, meditation . . . even in certain social settings.

In 2009, he started doing, what he describes as "hangs" at depth, where he dangles from a rope 60m under water, relaxes every muscle in his body and feels himself disappear. "No body, no face, no taste, smell or sound and finally no vision," he writes. "All evidence of physical matter had been stripped away.

"Now my consciousness was naked, stripped of every material and channel that normally kept it occupied. It is not floral prose or exaggeration to say that this is a state of 'pure being'. For in the end, all we are is consciousness."