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“Free diving is a really uncomfortable sport,” says 47-year-old Anthony Williams, a sport psychologist turned free diving athlete and keynote speaker originally from New Zealand. And he would know, in March this year he broke the Guiness World Record for ice diving, plunging an incredible 70 metres below the surface in Northern Norway.
"It’s like looking into an oil slick it’s so black, it’s so dark."
Two days later Williams descended five metres deeper. The 75 metre tag – the small token of depth of which athletes grab before turning around and making their ascend – slipped his hand as he resurfaced.
Without the tag, it doesn’t count, he says nonchalantly. Understanding William’s success in part lays within how he manages to keep his cool about such a misfortune.
“Free diving is 95 per cent mental strength—the rest is physical,” he says. But that’s not an undersell of the physical strength and training needed to dive.
In fact, on his first dive, “It felt like someone had gone down behind me and had given me this massive bear hug while simultaneously holding me by the throat,” he says.
“I didn’t dive again that day.”
That was 19 years ago now, in a small cottage by the name cote d’Azur in Southern France. At the time he was training a MotoGP team and came to the realisation: “I was a fraud.”
Growing up Williams was fascinated by all kinds of extreme sports from rally car drivers to speed skiers. But after so many years in the industry, he’d hadn’t experienced the extreme side of what he coached—physically, that is.
Living along the French Riviera left three options: bullfighting, paragliding or free diving. “Free diving takes you further,” he says. “It’s the sport that helps you understand more about yourself and what happens to you under pressure —literal pressure.”
From here Williams left sport psychology behind but carried its methods through to perform. He also became a keynote speaker, drawing from both a theoretical and now firsthand experience to teach aspects of leadership and how to deliver under pressure.
On the transition to ice diving he says, “I needed a new challenge”. He’d been free diving for the best part of 15 years and, “like every other freediver, it was about going a metre or two deeper each year.”
A small word from world renowned ‘waterman’ and big wave surfer Laird Hamilton sparked a new interest: “Find the edge of freediving.” Hamilton had told him his key to staying relevant was ‘to constantly innovate and come up with new techniques’.
In a dark space, feeling suffocated and claustrophobic, it doesn’t sound very free I say. Williams responds, “It’s about letting go of your fear and allowing yourself to sink for minutes at a time. Getting further and further away from help—it’s a very unusual sport”
“There’s no one down there,” says Williams. Each dive sees only a handful of items accompany him beneath the surface. Of those, is a GoPro attached to his harness, an alcapez torch, high tech goggles and two watches; his Panerai Submersible Carbotech on his wrist and a computerised watch behind his neck in his diving hood.
A faint alarm lets him know when he has reached certain depths but on the days he substitutes his computerised watch for a diving computer, it’s the voice of “an angry sounding Russian woman”. “Great dive! You’ve got so much air in your lungs!
Relax!” he repeats with a chuckle. These are the pre-set reminders keeping him company while submerged.
For now, Williams has pressed pause on his competitive watch, but the diving is far from over. Today he calls home to a small coastal town 97km southwest of Melbourne by the name of Torquay. After spending many weekends travelling down for the surf he decided it was finally time to move.
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Beyond the surf, Torquay offers a great place to train. Through Instagram he met a group of local divers reaching 30 metre depths just 10kms offshore. Most mornings Williams takes his Yamaha FX HO 1800 jetski out with a rescue sled to practice. “I didn’t know you could dive off a jetski so easily,” he says noting its efficiency and ease of use. “Normally we dive off boats and it’s hard work.”
From France’s mediteranean coast to Torquay, freediving sees Williams nose diving across the globe. Asked how many countries freediving has taken him to, “not enough,” he says with a laugh.
The Bahamas, Fiji, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Hawaii to name a few. “If it was my choice on where to dive I’d be straight back to the Bahamas,” he says. “Maybe even Columbia, somewhere like the wild wild west, untamed, somewhere really exciting.”
But before enjoying the comforts of somewhere warmer, Williams has an important task. On his list of feats to explore, his next focus is the ocean and conservation. “I’d like to observe how climate change is affecting low lying areas and follow the humpbacks down to the Antarctic,” he says.
Using free diving as a way to access different places and as a window into creating awareness is the goal. “I feel like I’m not doing enough from my own perspective”. Beginning around Tonga or Samoa, he will use freediving as a tool to explore the greater effects of climate change and the importance of environmental change in time.
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Reaching new depths is about choosing the right instruments and combining them with practice, training and determination. Beyond physical toughness is a resistance to the surrounding environment partnered with a want to dive deeper, go further and to break records in and out of the water.
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