Deep thoughts in deep waters

For French freediving champion Guillaume Néry, giving up control leads to oneness with the oceans and water bodies
Guillaume says with yoga, one can improve the fluidity in movements, which is useful for freediving
Guillaume says with yoga, one can improve the fluidity in movements, which is useful for freediving
Published on May 16, 2021 07:28 AM IST
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At a time when the whole world seems out of control, it’s rather lovely to hear what French freediving champion Guillaume Néry has to say about how he had to change his ideas about control while learning to freedive.

“In normal life when things are hard to obtain, you fight more and more for them,” he explains. “In freediving, this logic doesn’t work. You have to let go, accept and stop fighting so that you can find harmony and peace with the water. You have to change your mindset to understand that you have to be one with the water. When you understand it, you feel the doors of the deep are open to you.”

Commitment to excellence

In the world of freediving, a sport in which divers do not use breathing apparatus but simply hold their breath until they resurface, Guillaume specialises in disciplined depth. In 2002, at the age of 20, he became the youngest man in the history of freediving to break the world record when he went down 87 meters in the Villefranche-sur-Mer Harbour in the Alpes-Maritimes of France. Next, between 2004 and 2008, he broke three world freediving records and bagged his first world championship gold medal in 2008, together with the French team. Three years later, he became world champion at the Freediving Individual World Championship in Kalamata, Greece. You can see him in short films such as Narcose (2013), Ocean Gravity (2014) and Haven (2016) and read the two books he’s written – Profondeurs and Reconnexion.

Guilllaume got interested in freediving by chance at the age of 14 as he grew up near the sea
Guilllaume got interested in freediving by chance at the age of 14 as he grew up near the sea

It’s this zeal for excellence that’s made Guillaume the brand ambassador for the Swiss watch company, Panerai, which has released a limited Néry edition in the last two years and a third such edition this year.

“It’s an honour for me because Panerai is one of the biggest brands in the watch industry and to know they trust me and my expertise and choose to put my name on the watch makes me very proud,” says Guillaume. He wears his Panerai Submersible Chrono Guillaume Néry edition (limited to only 15 pieces) every day. “It’s like a commitment. I wear it whether I’m on land or in the water,” he says. 

From the start

Guillaume got interested in the extreme sport of freediving quite by chance. “I was lucky to have grown up very close to the sea, so it has always been a part of my life,” he says. “The first time I did freediving was when I was 14. It was a challenge with a friend over which of us could hold his breath for the longest time.”

He got so fascinated with the capacity of the body to live and resist without breathing that from that very day he decided to improve his performance every day. “It was a kind of experiment with the body and the human capacity and I love that,” says the champion. 

What Guillaume likes about freediving is that it’s not a sport but a lifestyle. You can still improve even as you get older. “I’m 38; in July I’ll be 39. I still feel my body capacity is improving for freediving and with training, I can still develop good adaptation,” he says. “After 25 years of doing this activity, I still learn new things. It’s like yoga. You never become a master, you always keep learning.”

Yoga has been a huge part of Guillaume’s life since 2004, when he began learning it in Reunion Island, a French island near Mauritius that’s home to a big Indian community. The practice is used by many freedivers to improve their lung capacity.

Guillaume’s picks
Guillaume’s picks

“I gradually discovered different kinds of approaches, such as Iyengar-style yoga and Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, which are very useful to improve underwater skills,” he says. “Not just deep breathing or pranayama, but also the asanas, because when you freedive, you need a flexible body that can accept the pressure of the water and also use less energy. With yoga, you can really improve the fluidity in your movements and that’s useful for freediving.”

You’d imagine that with his delight in yoga, Guillaume would have visited India at some point in his life, but no. He’s been to Sri Lanka, but not India. “It is such a big country with so many different areas to see,” he says. “However, if I do get a chance to visit, one part I’d love to explore would be the mountains close to the Himalayas.” 

  Vitamin sea

In between exploring the depths of the oceans without an oxygen tank, Guillaume indulges in his passion for photography.

“I always carry my professional camera with me and I’m doing a challenge called ‘One Day One Pic’, which means that I have to take a beautiful picture every day,” he says. “If you are on Instagram, you can follow my photography account @onedayonepicturenery. I always keep an eye out to capture something beautiful in everyday life.” 

He’s just returned to Paris from a six-week visit to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, diving between Panama and French Polynesia. “After that, I spent two weeks in French Polynesia,” says Guillaume. The best place for him to freedive professionally is the Mediterranean Sea, especially around Greece. For wildlife and corals, Guillaume heads to French Polynesia. 

The lockdown in France last year during the first wave of the pandemic was terrible for the freediver because going inside the water was forbidden between March and May. “It was the toughest part of the lockdown for me. I had never stayed away from the water for such a long span,” says the Nice-born freediver. “When we had the second lockdown in winter, we were allowed to swim in the sea and I felt better.”

Guillaume practices for four to five hours a day every day, but does not have a coach and prepares his schedules by himself. He has a trainer only for gym training. 

He advises aspiring youngsters in India to never freedive alone. “It’s an activity you need to do with others to improve and be safe,” he says. “The other thing is, freediving is not just about records. It’s to enjoy the feeling of being one with water.”

From HT Brunch, May 16, 2021

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Sunday, October 24, 2021