Picture the scene: it’s freezing, the landscape is barren, and you are miles from anywhere. In the Arctic Circle, zero degrees would be pretty balmy, but we are talking -30˚C.
Enter New Zealand-born Ant Williams, a man who has been competing at the top level of freediving for the best part of two decades.
After a handful of failed attempts, the ‘ice diver’, as he has become known, is set to dive down once again to unimaginable depths, on a single breath of air.
The physical and mental toll is exhausting, the danger considerable. His target is 75m (246ft), but as he revealed to RSNG, the cold was an implacable enemy – it took his team nine hours just to cut the hole in the ice, then he had to dive into it…
RSNG So it’s March 2019… you are about to dive down below the surface of the ice, to an incomprehensible depth. What place are you at mentally?
ANT WILLIAMS, ICE FREEDIVER ‘I know many people say those few moments before you attempt something like this are filled with clarity, peace, calm, and I have had that before; but on this occasion I didn’t feel quite as in control.’
‘Overall it had been really hard to get into the right mental state because all of the days leading up to the world record there were delays regarding when we could actually do the dive. It’s very frustrating when you’re ready to go but the conditions aren’t right, so there had been a lot of sitting around.’
‘In reality, the conditions for your dive start many months before and it’s the training in the build-up that really counts, even the several months spent in Australia when the conditions couldn’t have been much different!’
‘We had dived under the ice in Finland in quite mild conditions and it felt like everything was on track. But then, when we got up to the Arctic Circle that’s when it got really difficult because it was just so bitterly cold up there.’
‘The team were making lots of little mistakes – like driving the cars too fast and crashing them’
‘The day before we arrived it was -34˚C and we travelled everywhere by snowmobile. That was just another level of intimidation working in conditions that were that cold. Add to the mix that in the team that I had there with me, only one of them was experienced in those surroundings and in ice diving.’
‘It all meant the team were making lots of little mistakes – like, for example, driving the cars too fast and crashing them because we were on the ice – that happened twice. There were five times a snowmobile flipped over, and one ended up buried under two-and-a-half metres of snow… that took three hours to dig out and set free.’
‘All of these things started to mount up and when I talk about little things, I started to think that they weren’t that little at all. We started cutting the hole in the ice and setting up the dive conditions the day before the world record – even that took us nine hours to do.’
‘I wanted to chip in with the guys and help out, but that would mean I could be on the ice for nine hours, and that would just make me want to sleep the next day. But I hadn’t been through it before and we were pretty much all learning these things on the fly.’
RSNG The impression usually on these things is everything is planned to the last measure?
AW ‘It’s true, but you are setting out doing something that really hasn’t been done before. No two world record attempts are the same, and the illusion that everything is meticulously planned is just that – an illusion. World record attempts shouldn’t be easy!’
‘It’s not a criticism of the team – we were all in it together, all making mistakes. Even the foot pockets, which I wear for the dive, had been left out on the ice and the high-density rubber had turned the temperate of the ice around them, like ice sculptures, so we had to leave them to warm for about half an hour!’
‘All those things in isolation are OK, but when you combine with freezing cold water, zero visibility, even with torches, the isolation, the fear… it’s quite easy to see how everything is screaming to you “no, this isn’t a good idea!”’
‘Not only is it challenging in normal conditions like that, but when you’re making those mistakes it’s 10 times as difficult.’
‘But you know, in those final seconds before the dive, nothing matters. My mindset became one of absolute positivity. Despite all of those mistakes, I regained the full conviction that I was going to do this.’
‘There was a scary moment on the way down – I had put too much weight on my suit, and I was sinking too fast’
RSNG And the dive itself, was it scary?
AW ‘There was a scary moment on the way down – I had put too much weight on my suit, and I was sinking, thinking: “This seems like I am going really fast,” but I didn’t know for sure.’
‘I got down to the bottom quite quickly, but because I had too much weight on it took me forever to swim back up. I couldn’t see anything, I didn’t have any bearings and it was taking forever. On the way back up, I was starting to get a bit anxious and thinking that I was going to get stuck.’
‘But the dive was successful, and we did get the world record. It’s strange, it that moment you are elated… but I also felt disappointment that I’d made it more difficult than I should have. I guess they are the emotions of someone always looking to push the limits.’
RSNG Speaking of which, you then went again two days later?
AW ‘Yes, I mustered up the courage to have another go. I actually got really nervous for that dive and I didn’t plan it out for ways to reduce the anxiety before the dive.’
‘There was a crowd of people waiting to see what was going to happen and, I don’t know, I guess that I had been so used to competing for so many years, extra pressure brings out the best in me.’
‘So, in the end I was able to harness that pressure and go another five metres deeper. It’s strange how the pressure can galvanise you.’
RSNG Do you ever have dreams, nightmares or flashbacks from your endeavours?
AW ‘Early on in my freediving career, I remember my wife telling me I would sometimes hold my breath while I was dreaming at night.’
‘I think mostly when I sit down and think about freediving it’s not the scary side I choose to focus on. Even when preparing for some of my biggest dives my subconscious takes me to a positive place and I am grateful for that.’
‘You spend so much time in preparation and doing it that your body and your subconscious gets so in tune with it. For example, what is common in freedivers is that when you are actually competing, your heart-rate doesn’t go up, it goes down. Even when I put my hand into a bucket of water, it decreases my heart-rate.’
‘It’s so comfortable to switch to this freediving mode and it’s such a wonderful thing and it’s quite a neat thing to do, as well, because you feel so in tune with your body and connected when you’re in the water.’
RSNG So that conditioning of mindset… is it very different compared to what others in sports have to go through?
AW ‘It’s certainly an interesting one. I think that, sometimes, when an athlete is going for a world record, there are occasions where they will break it on the first day. It kind of feels like it’s in their back pocket and they have another five days or something similar to play with, to the extent that they don’t need to have another attempt – but so often, they will.’
‘I have always been so inspired and motivated by that, but when I broke the ice diving world record, I just couldn’t wait to have another go, haha! I like to take things one step at a time and that’s what psychologists like to call ‘chunking’.’
‘It helps me a great deal and you break larger things down into smaller pieces – it makes things easier to accomplish and to be able to earn your mental toughness.’
‘Set yourself small goals - for me that would mean just doing one dive; then, once I have done that, I can decide afterwards whether I would be interested in going into the water again. That does seem to take a lot of the pressure away. That enables me to achieve and get one dive in the bag and, by not over-committing, I can concentrate and put all of my efforts into that.’
‘What you are doing is reducing the pressure, so much so that I think that in the case of breaking the record on the first dive, that was probably because we didn’t have as much pressure on us.’
‘Once I had done it, that led me to thinking how hard could it be to go down five more metres? By that time, it works very much in your favour, instead of working against you.’
RSNG How do you think people see it from the outside?
AW ‘I had been competing in the sport of freediving for 17 years before my world record attempt and that is the sort of investment you need. But some people don’t see that – they just see a guy who has turned up in the Arctic Circle, broken a world record and then flew off back home!’
‘Others must think I have some sort of death wish, but this time it worked and it’s hard to share with everyone just what that back-story is… and how small those bits are to get you to that point where you think that it all looks like a lot of fun. You can also see that what looks like fun to me, looks like suicide to other people.’
‘It’s a critical function to learn how to be able to take positive and calculated risks – people talk about their dreams but you can’t do that unless you are prepared to take risks’
RSNG It must feel nice to inspire people?
AW ‘Absolutely. People should always look to set up the type of adventure that they will never forget; one they will always look back upon and think that they were so mad to do it!’
‘One of the guys that I dragged up there with us was from Queensland and he had never seen ice outside of his freezer at home! He wanted to go on an adventure, and we thought it was quite hilarious when he went to buy his Arctic gear, the boots and protective clothing and everything from a shop in Queensland. The guy in the shop was just looking at him sideways!’
‘I guess one thing that doing this has taught me is, when it comes to risk-taking, what is it that can be learnt? What is like to be someone who takes risks?’
‘There is so much evidence to show that if you are someone who has either never learnt to take risks or are not the type of person who would even do so, then it could even lead to something which has consequences and that you may not even ever achieve. You can never really achieve your dreams by playing things safe.’
‘If you look at the managers in business who don’t take risks or who are resistant to change, they are sometimes the type of people who find it difficult to be creative… they don’t have as many solutions to their problems.’
‘So, it’s a critical function to learn how to be able to take positive and calculated risks. People talk about happiness and success and achieving their dreams – you can’t really do that unless you are prepared to take risks.’
WHAT NEXT? If Williams’s achievements have given you the urge to, literally, dip your toe in and try ice diving, head to the annual Päijänne on the Rocks event in Finland.
The event invites entrants into the water, where they swim along a line under the ice and across to an exit hole about 12 metres away. People usually start it in their diving gear, but by the end of the week are doing the dive in their speedos! Bookings are being taken now for 2020.