The Big Blue

Three-time world record-breaking freediver Guillaume Néry ranks Neil Armstrong among his heroes. He talks about the joys of defying gravity and his quest for the perfect dive.

  • Words: Dan Crowe
  • Photography: Klaus Thymann
  • Styling: Alex Petsetakis
  • Production: Grace Lines

From Luc Besson’s famous film to almost 25 minutes spent stuck 85 metres underwater, three-time world record-breaking freediver Guillaume Néry talks us through the highs and lows of the extreme sport.

What is your first memory in water?

My first memory was when I was around 7 years old, in summertime, in the bay of Villefranche, where I attained my first world record at 20 years old, and the place I still train today. We were on the sailing boat of my uncle, and I was fascinated by the idea of going to the bottom of the sea (3–4 metres) to grab some sand. I felt like I was an explorer and a witness of an underwater world. This is still one of my main motivations to dive deeper, even today.

Freediving is incredibly dangerous, and often very painful, what keeps you doing it?

This is absolutely wrong, and the very reason I try to give another message as an ambassador of my sport. Freediving is absolutely not dangerous if you are not diving alone. It’s a very simple rule. Never, ever, dive alone and you will be safe. Of course, the best way to learn the basics is with instructors, to understand how your body is working and reacts underwater when you approach your limit. And the second point is also wrong: freediving is not painful at all! The main reason I do freediving and why so many people want to try it and fall in love with it, is because you experience incredible feelings underwater: a feeling of freedom, without gravity. You can fly underwater! When you hold your breath, you reach a state of total calm, time stops running and the mental activity starts slowing down. After each freediving session, you feel at peace and happy. Of course, with competitive freediving you can experience pain in the training, like any other sport at a top level. But you learn how to deal with it – like when you are running a marathon. Marathon runners are not masochists and neither am I!

Guillaume wears wool cable knit turtle neck sweater by Woolwich.

Who is your hero?

My hero is maybe Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Space exploration is the most incredible adventure for human beings. I admire also a lot of scientists, like Stephen Hawking, who dedicate their lives and their intelligence to the understanding of the great questions of the universe. I have a lot of admiration for people who are fighting for causes without searching for glory, in silence: those people who help millions of others.

What, for you, do you feel is your biggest achievement to date?

My deepest dive ever was 125m in Greece in 2013. But the best dive I have ever done was 122m, in training. During this, I made the perfect dive – which is the ultimate moment when body, mind and water are in total harmony. This is my quest now, to reach great depths with perfect control of mind, body and elements.

What is your scariest moment?

The scariest moment was when I got entangled down at the bottom plate. For safety reasons we were diving along a rope; and we were attached to this rope with a lanyard, like climbers. If something went wrong, the safety team at the surface could pull me up. On one dive, I don’t know exactly why, I got stuck at the bottom because my lanyard was entangled with the bottom plate. It was at 85m. It took me 25 minutes to solve the problem. 25 long minutes. During the action I wasn’t scared, but dedicated myself to finding the solution. Then only at the surface did I realise it had been a complicated situation.

Guillaume wears jacket by Moncler.

Is there a depth that you want to reach?

Not really. When I did my first world record (87m), my dream was to one day reach 100m – I achieved it 3 years later. After that, I decided I wanted to reach 120m, because it’s the depth reached by the hero of the famous French film The Big Blue by Luc Besson, who inspired a lot of freedivers. I did it in 2012. Today, I just want to keep exploring in my quest for the perfect dive. My master always tells me, “Don’t bother me with your numbers… Convert metres into feet and you will see it’s just a human reference and nothing is absolute…”

"The main reason why I do free diving and why so many people want to try IT and fall in love with it, is because you experience incredible feelings underwater: a feeling of freedom, without gravity."
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