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"When we're underwater, it reveals to us our true nature"

Orca chats with athlete and freediving world champion, William Trubridge, about his professional and personal life, as well as his relationship with water and the environment.

  • You have dedicated yourself to the discipline for more than 20 years. How would you define Freediving?

There are many ways to define freediving. I feel that it goes beyond sports, because it's the only activity that we can engage in where we are completely immersed in liquid. 

We spend our lives in a gas environment. When going underwater, we often take the equivalent of a room full of gas, oxygen compressed into a bottle, on our backs, or we go down in a submarine. We can descend to the same depth in a submarine, but we would still be surrounded by oxygen. Freediving, on the other hand, is the only fully aquatic sport and a way we can completely be immersed in the medium of liquid. This makes it an extraordinary experience and not just a sport.

Beyond that, it is also a way to discover more about yourself. Freediving strips away everything extraneous to your consciousness which takes away your senses, thoughts, sensations of having a body, and your idea of the future and past. These are like pieces added to us as we exist on the surface. They melt or fall away when we're underwater, so it reveals to us our true nature, which is just pure consciousness. I often talk about being just a speck of consciousness adrift in the abyss because it is that sensation.

  • You have a very special relationship with water. Where did that begin? What was it that led you to start freediving?

What brought me to the sport began when I was a child. We lived on a boat, and my brother and I would play in the water. We started to snorkel deeper and deeper, and we had this rivalry to see who could go the deepest, until we were eventually diving up to fifteen meters or so. I was eight years old. That is how it essentially began and where it was imprinted in me. 

I found freedive as a sport in my early twenties. What drew me to it was when I started to practice it and experienced what I mentioned above, the sensations and uniqueness. It is such a special activity that I was inspired to pursue it further.

  • You have always been very committed to protecting the environment and its ocean inhabitants. In your opinion, what are the most challenging issues we face today?

I feel that freediving has given me so much, both a livelihood that I can combine with my passion and so many incredible sensations, experiences and friends.

It is only fair and justified to give something back with all I have received. The most significant impact I can have is to try and address the wrongs that we have a hand in inflicting on the environment. We are increasingly aware of it, which is excellent, but the action that needs to follow is still mounting up. In particular, I try to focus on a couple of things and not spread myself too thin. All issues relating to the marine environment are essential, but there are a couple to which I dedicate the majority of my focus.

The situation with plastic pollution is critical, as is the protection of new Zealand's Māui and Hector's dolphins, both threatened with extinction due to bycatch from fishing. I have aligned many of my projects to support these two pressing issues. Still, so many areas require support, from overfishing and warming waters to coral bleaching, which essentially overlap one another. We need to fix them all simultaneously, but I am committed to providing these, in particular, with the maximum impact I can.

  • What do you think are some of the benefits of freediving? What would you suggest to someone starting out in this sport?

There are tremendous benefits to be had from freediving, in terms of both physical and mental health. The techniques and exercises we do when freediving have immense advantages in both areas. When you are moving through the water and practicing swimming underwater, holding your breath, it's a very gentle exercise for the body in terms of impact. You can practice it your whole life without experiencing injuries the way you would in certain other sports.

Also, it allows you an escape when it comes to your mental health. As I talked about before, it takes you away from the worries of the past and future. We need those breaks every so often, especially in this increasingly stressful world. You can get that through meditation, mindfulness and other techniques, but it seems like freediving provides a natural fast-track way to achieve this. It is also experiential simultaneously, as you combine it with an activity you can enjoy while letting go mentally.

  • We understand you have very specific mental and physical preparation practices before each dive. Do you have any that you consider essential to someone learning to freedive?

For someone learning to freedive, it typically would not require too much preparation if you're doing recreational freediving, though whatever you do will help make it safer and more enjoyable. My recommendation is to do some stretching exercises to help your flexibility in the water and to be more supple. You can consider exercises that target your torso, such as back bends, side stretches, torsional stretches and arm stretches around the back and shoulders. These will also help increase the flexibility of your lungs, allowing more air to enter and adjusting to more significant pressure changes during a free dive.

As far as mental preparation, what I would suggest, which may apply more as you move toward deeper dives, is to practice some type of visualization. Imagine what you are about to do and set an intention for yourself and the free dive. It can be simply considering what you want to achieve with your technique or focusing on a feeling of relaxation under the water. Your intention can serve as a guide throughout your session and make your freedive just a little bit better.

  • What kind of features do you consider most important in a wetsuit for freediving? 

The most important characteristic of a wetsuit is that it fits; it has to be a perfect fit without creating any air pockets, because those will become water pockets underwater. It also has to be flexible so as not to limit or constrain your movement, particularly in any direction your limbs move during freediving. These are the two most important physical characteristics. Having a very smooth and hydrodynamic surface on the outside is also beneficial for performance, not so much for recreational or easy dives.

A high-performance wetsuit, such as the Orca Zen, has both a technical coating and compression to assure a tighter circumference around the limbs. This compression helps exert pressure inwards on the limbs to aid in the blood shift, moving blood from your extremities back toward your core. The extremities and limbs can work without oxygen and blood flow for some time, whereas your brain and other organs in your core cannot survive even seconds without oxygen. It is part of the whole mammalian dive reflex and having some compression on the limbs in the wetsuit helps.

Beyond that, it is helpful to have a good seal so that water cannot enter the wetsuit, and that it is designed with a minimal amount of neoprene. Excess neoprene will contribute to increased buoyancy, and greater buoyancy during the dive may require a change in diet to put on more weight and cause you to work much harder to get back to the surface. Ideally, it is a balance of enough neoprene to keep you warm while staying streamlined in the water.

  • In 2022, Orca has launched two new freedive wetsuits: the Zen and the Mantra. What do these words mean to you?

"Zen" and "mantra" mean a lot to me. I often use mantras during preparation, in my training, and throughout my dives. One of the most common that I use in diving and often talk about in my classes is when I enter into free fall, the phase of the dive where we stop swimming and sink under negative buoyancy. I command myself with the mantra, "shut down," which activates a process of relaxation and decontraction of the entire body as I release into the fall, conserving more oxygen and allowing the experience of sinking downwards into the abyss.

Zen is more of an ethereal concept and though I would not consider myself a Zen practitioner, it is something I have studied and integrated into my routine. I guess one of the concepts of Zen that it expounds on is the idea of being a beginner, always learning. I often consider wherever I am in the process as being at the very beginning, intending to improve from there. It is the most important concept Zen has given me.

The experience of freediving, as I mentioned before, is somewhat of a fast track to a state similar to meditation. With that in mind, you could consider the practice of freediving a Zen state in many ways. 

  • Do you have a dive or location that is most memorable to you?

Of course, many locations and dives come to mind. Over 20 years, I have accumulated many places that are very dear to me and of which I have fond memories.  If I had to choose, I would say Dean's Blue Hole is my number one. It's where I have set my world records and proven myself as a freediver.  We also started Vertical Blue there, now the biggest freediving competition globally each year. This place has become quite special to me, but there are plenty of other very important places.

I would also say the Bay Islands in Honduras, where I started Freediving, and the north of Sardinia, where I lived and dived for many years. I would include the waters of New Zealand, wild, chaotic and full of life, Tahiti, with the amazing humpback whales, and Oahu, where I first started to explore the ocean depths with my brother.

I often talk about the Arch dive in Dahab, Egypt. That was the first time I dove to 100 meters. It was actually in training, so it was an unofficial dive, not for competition. It was the first time I, or anyone, had reached 100 meters without fins or any aid. It is the type of dive I consider the purest expression of the sport and human aquaticism.

So, I have many places, and for many reasons. I definitely could not pick just one dive.

  • How has being a father changed your approach to the sport, and life?

Of course, being a father changes everything. You realize that you are no longer the most important thing in your world. Your children are the center. As Barack Obama puts it, "it's like having your heart on the outside of your body." That is what it felt like when my first child, my daughter, was born. 

It does change the way I approach things. I feel like I was careful before, but maybe still taking some small risks as we do in everyday life, such as driving. So now, in everything, in training, in driving a car, in the way I plan and think, I'm just a little more careful and cognizant that other lives depend on mine, so I have to ensure that I'm doing the best I can.

  • What are some projects or goals you have for this year, at this point in your career?

One of the tenets that I have kept to is not talking about goals until I achieve them. It is my feeling that when you talk about a goal, such as by telling someone, "I plan to try and qualify for the Olympics in 2024," you get congratulated. People may say, "Oh yeah, I am sure you can do it. That's fantastic," so you get this positive feedback, which can even translate to hormones such as dopamine, giving you a reward benefit. 

This reward benefit takes away from your incentive and motivation to achieve these goals. But, if you keep them to yourself and keep that fire internal, the only way to realize them, in short, is by actually accomplishing your goals. So, I prefer to have that approach. Though I do have goals, I typically keep these to myself until I can share them with the world by achieving them.

  • With your work as a speaker and an Ocean Ambassador (in addition to your achievements in freediving), what message do you hope to communicate and represent? What are you looking to inspire through your time in the water?

The number one message that I try and put across is the importance of the oceans. The oceans are the lifeblood of our planet. It's called Earth, but it could equally be named Water because seventy percent of the planet is water. And life as we know it is a hundred percent dependent on it in every single way. Most of our oxygen comes from stuff that happens underwater in the sea.

So yes, the oceans are important. We've done damage, so we have to undo that as much as possible and protect them in the future. One of the ways I can deliver that message and inspire others is by introducing people to freediving. I feel like anyone who tries the sport and gets a taste for it immediately, in almost every case, becomes a steward for the ocean. Teaching freediving is one way, and then talking about the sport and my efforts in conservation work is another way to get that across.

  • You've been with Orca for many years. How do you see the brand as aligned with your journey as a freediver? How has this collaboration been for you?

I have been working with Orca for sixteen years, which is incredible. In that time, I have not once been disappointed. Orca wetsuits are absolutely one hundred percent the best that you can use for the kind of freediving that I do. They are low profile, extremely hydrodynamic and top-performing wetsuits. Anyone I have recommended them to that has tried a wetsuit shared that they immediately swam faster, often shaving seconds off their dive time. Hands down, they are the best-performing wetsuits for my kind of freediving.   

It has been an absolute pleasure working with Orca designers and seeing what new designs and features they come up with in each new installment of wetsuits. This year's wetsuit range, with the Zen and Mantra, has been extraordinary. 

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