Adventure

Fire and ice

Words by Johanna Nordblad
Photographs by Elina Manninen

I find peace whenever I freedive.

I have a two-minute breathing ritual, which I repeat before all of my dives and competitions. I relax and empty my mind. If my mind isn’t in this peaceful place, freediving becomes incredibly difficult. I find this process is one of the most interesting aspects of free diving.

I tried freediving from the first time in 2000, when the first club in Finland opened. As I settled myself beneath the surface of the water, watching distorted shapes move slowly around me, I knew I would inevitably become obsessed with freediving. The serenity was addictive. That same year I entered the World Championships in France. Just four years later, I managed to set a world record in distance diving with fins – 158m. Now my personal best in competitions is 192m and I can hold my breath more than 6 minutes 30 seconds.

I wasn’t drawn to the ice straight away. In 2010, during a downhill bike ride I fell and shattered my leg. It was so badly broken in so many places I thought I might lose it altogether. I had a complicated procedure called a Fasciotomy, after which they had to keep the larges cuts – which ran all the way from ankle to the knee on both sides of my leg – exposed for ten days to avoid necrosis.

I recovered to an extent, but I was consistently in pain I had to walk with sticks for almost a year. For three, I would wake up throughout the night, writhing from the pain. Eventually, my doctor suggested cold water therapy, which I thought could be interesting. At this point, I was ready to try almost anything. I remember it so clearly – the icy water swallowing up my leg hungrily and how much I hated the sensation. At first the cold was excruciating, like a thousand needles penetrating a deep ache – but I got used to it. It soon became my only tangible sanctuary from the pain and it became quite meditative in itself.

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Little by little I got more used to it and within a couple of months I wanted to put both of my legs in the cold water, then my whole body. Not long afterwards, I just jumped in. As a freediver, diving in cold water felt like the most natural thing in the world.

The focusing and concentration techniques that I had grown accustomed to through my yoga, meditation and free diving practices helped me to overcome the physical, knee-jerk reaction we get when holding our breath – I realised that those same techniques could be utilised to combat the agonising feeling of extremely cold water. I realised that I could use it for all unpleasant feelings in life, and as a result I’ve found great happiness and contentment in my day-to-day life. The practice has tied together so many of my passions – freediving, yoga and even art and design. I’m now involved with an exciting project, working on creating the Isotope Goutte d’Eau diving watch. I wanted to add some artistic flair to it but make sure that it could survive my ice dives in the harshest of Finnish winters.

Cold therapy helped my leg exponentially – it reduces inflammation, swelling and pain. But something else happens to the body in cold water. It’s hard to put into words – it’s almost like it intensely feels everything it could possibly feel. Spending just a couple of minutes in cold water gives me total relaxation of body and mind. After the dive in cold water I usually go to a warm Finnish sauna. It’s such an incredible rush.

In 2015, I headed out to Lake Päijänne in Asikkala, Finland, to try for a world record under the ice. My skin prickled angrily as I sat on the edge of the ice, calming my body and mind. I slipped into the triangle that had been carved out of the 30cm thick ice and struck out along the line. It was so beautiful to see the light penetrating the hazy water and nothing else. There was just shards of light and the line. With no diving suit and no fins, I felt weightless. When I emerged, I’d completed 50m under the ice, breaking the world record for breath held swim under ice (with no suit or fins).

I love the feeling of water. I love how the pressure almost encases you and how my whole body relaxes when I holding my breath. I’m not afraid of anything and I have no doubts. I know my limits.

People often react very strongly when they hear about my ice diving. Generally, it’s a combination of amazement, fear and bewilderment. They think it’s pretty crazy but it’s because they start imagining themselves in a similar situation, only without all the preparations.

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Admittedly, I am scared every time when a friend goes for their maximum dives or when I watch the deep diving competitions. But then again, I am also scared every time I have friends competing in downhill biking. There are so many things to fear in life, but that’s just life. The not-so-secret secret of freediving is that there is absolutely no place for fear. For me, that’s the main reason why freediving is relaxing – it has to be. I really have had to learn how to put all my fears away for those few minutes, and only when I can do that, I can freedive. Sometimes I just float there for a couple of minutes, under the ice, in a dream.

I’ve loved being able to test my physical and mental capabilities and discover my limits in cold water, which is why I also choose to compete. I have dived longer, further and deeper than I ever thought I would. It’s incredibly important for me to know exactly what happens to me and my body in cold water, as a matter of safety. In Finland the water is very cold for half of the year. I often go kayaking alone in the sea, sometimes in rain and storms. To know how far from the shore I can go, the reality is that I need to know how long I can swim in cold water.

I can’t say that I train freediving like any other sport. I do not have a training calendar and I do not train the way other athletes do. I don’t set myself goals. I don’t dive because I want to go deeper or further or hold my breath for longer. I dive purely because I find it so rewarding, so even now I spend a lot of time in the water, diving and holding my breath almost every day.

It gives me the space to master my mind and to both understand and respect my emotions. Your priorities become so much clearer under the ice. You have to accept where your limits are and that you are no worse a person if you can go further or push harder. It’s not about that at all, it’s all about learning yourself and how you acting in different situations.

Under the ice you need total control of the place, the time and to trust yourself completely. When you can do all that you can discover another world. A world so peaceful, beautiful, endless and desolate. With one breath I am part of it.

Photographs courtesy of Elina Manninen, Heinola, Lake Sonnanen, Finland.

Photographs by Elina Manninen

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