ENJOY the present. Don’t try to break records. Relax and really experience freediving.”
These were the words of multiple world record holder and two-time freediving world champion from France, Guillaume Néry, to guests
at Freedive HQ in Lapu-Lapu City.
Last day of the three-day workshop and the small group of newly minted freedivers were all huddled in the room intently listening, while some were jotting down notes. Guillaume, sitting cross-legged atop the table, tipped off some points and reminders before they hit the open water. The sun was up. The water was flat. It was a good day to explore the underwater world.
Play! had a brief chat with Guillaume prior to his pep talk. Ladies and gents—mermaids and mermen—meet the Freediving Ambassador of Philippines in his expedition to promote the country as the freediving capital of Asia in partnership with the Department of Tourism.
Freediving is an underwater diving that relies on the diver’s breath-hold underwater until he resurfaces, as opposed to the use of scuba gear. The Philippines, known for its rich marine life, has been drawing tourists and divers alike; and as freediving becomes a popular water sport recognized internationally, Filipinos are encouraged to take part.
But what is it exactly in freediving that appeals so much to freedivers? Search for the music video of the song “Runnin” by Naughty Boy featuring Beyoncé, and check out Guillaume’s performance. The absence of limits and the presence of total control in the big peaceful blue is “breath-taking”.
The 35-year-old Guillaume recounts his experiences in the depths and paints us a vivid picture of what it’s like being one with nature that we
so often neglect and exploit.
Is this your first time here in Cebu?
No, it’s my second time. I’ve been to Moalboal and I’m going back for another workshop on Aug. 4 to 6. The first one was in Mactan.
Why did you choose Cebu for your workshops?
Because my friends are here. Thibault, the owner of Freedive HQ, is a member of the French team. In Moalboal, there is also a very good friend who has a freediving club. These two are the biggest clubs in the Philippines so I came here to organize workshops with them and their students.
What made you decide to work with the Department of Tourism in promoting the Philippines as the freediving capital of Asia?
Just for a simple reason. The first time I came in the Philippines in 2014, I was amazed by the country; a place of so many different islands, so many places to freedive. And I’m sure that most people who live there have no idea of all the little treasures you have here. I know that Philippines is getting bigger in terms of freediving so I’m very happy to be an ambassador of freediving in the Philippines.
What’s your best freediving experience here in the Philippines?
It was in Palawan, close to El Nido around those islands. We went out very early in the morning to so we can still catch the flight at noon. We took the boat at six in the morning. We went to a place like a garden of corals. I’ve never seen so much beautiful corals like this. Everything was
covered with huge corals. It was at 30m-35m, not shallow, but I remember the visibility was perfect! From the surface, I don’t see rocks, just corals! Wow! It was incredible. It’s something I always keep in my mind. We’re going back to El Nido in a week or two. I just want to see this place again.
What is your end goal being the Freediving Ambassador?
There is no end goal. What I would love to see is for Philippines to become more and more popular as a destination for freediving, and
for freediving to become more known to Filipinos. In the workshops you have people from Malaysia, Korea, Singapore. It would be nice to have more Filipinos join freediving. The Philippines is central of Southeast Asia so it would be nice to have more Filipinos in the team.
What advice do you give to those who want to go freediving?
You go to the water not to break records. If you do want to break a record, you need to be in harmony with yourself and the elements of the water. If you are in harmony with those three—whoa! there’s magic happening. This is my philosophy of performance. You can have a risky
behaviour so what I’m trying to show them is really like feelings first. Enjoy. The performance comes if you don’t think of the performance.
What is the start-up story of Guillaume Néry in freediving?
I started freediving 20 years ago,in 1997. I was 15 years old. I started a challenge with a friend. It was a game of who was able to hold one’s breath the longest. And I lost! (Laughs). So I decided to train to hold my breath longer on my bed and I realized I was able to hold my breath much longer than normal people even when I was just 15 years old. I decided then to hold my breath and dive into the water in the Mediterranean Sea and then I just fell in love with this!
I started with a real freediving club in Nice. It was the only one in the world at the time. I was very lucky then back in 1997. I was like, “Wow! Okay, this is what I want to do.” (Laughs).
I started to improve the performance. That time is not like today.
Today you have freediving shops and centers all over the world. In Cebu, you have two or three shops. In the Philippines, you have many. All over the world! But at that time? Nothing. I was lucky to leave in Nice and dive with this freediving club. We didn’t know a lot about trainings. It was real adventure and discovering on our own. We were there to experiment.
There was a freediving champion and that was my inspiration, an Italian guy named Umberto Pelizzari. This guy was very famous in the 90s. He broke all the records at that time. He was my model and inspiration. The only person who was really doing this was him and then after five years
I broke my first world record.
What was this?
I became the youngest world record holder at 20 years old and I dove at 87 meters and since then I improve my performance for years and years. I’m always doing the same discipline, the purest one, going down and up just with the fins.
We don’t want to measure freedivers by their numbers, but since this is normally the first question they would ask when they know someone is a freediver—how deep can you go?
My deepest dive was in September 2015 at 126 meters. I can still dive deeper, I think, but I don’t do competition anymore. Not now because now I’m not training as hard as before because I’m not in a competition but I’m sure I can go deeper.
What techniques should we learn in freediving?
There is no special trick or magic thing. There’s just training. Of course, it’s better that you’re capable at the beginning.
I knew that I was and I could improve faster than normal. I remember I was 16 and it was hard for me to dive at 30m-35m but 20 years later, I could dive four times deeper, more than 120m. So it’s repetition, constant training, discipline, and a lot of passion. Keep in mind the adaptation of the body with the depths takes time.You need to repeat, repeat.
How long does it usually take?
I know that for me it was longer because we were the first ones at the time. We were discovering the unknown. But now, people can improve much faster because now they know it’s possible to go at 120m.
Fifteen years ago, when I went down to 60 meters, it was like, “Wow! You’re going deep! It’s a new world”. So you improve slowly, step by step. Now people go 60m and it’s nothing because there are already many people who can go deeper.
Sometimes when they’re at 60m deep, they feel comfortable because it’s not something dangerous or that hard but, at the same time, it can be dangerous to think it’s easy. Nothing is easy. You need time to adapt.
Do you dive in a group or just with a freediving buddy?
I dive with friends, my freediving club, or with my wife.
It’s a rule in freediving. Never never dive alone. My wife, she’s the one filming me, in free fall and all the videos we’re doing. She was a champion but stopped competition seven years ago. We have a daughter and we like to dive together.
How old is your daughter?
Five years old.
Does she dive as well?
Not really but she has a mask, fins, and she very much likes to go down! (Laughs).
You go down to the depths. The water is pressing your lungs. It’s dark. What’s the appeal of this to you?
Down there is a very special place. When you think about it, it’s dark and cold. Well, not in Philippines because it’s warm. (Laughs). The feeling of freedom—free diving. You can go and you have no limits around you. You are free to swim all around in the water. There’s no feeling of swimming.
You feel that you fly. You go down and free fall. You don’t do movements. You just drift and fly towards the bottom. It’s really something amazing.
Also, when you hold your breath, it’s like a moment of meditation. It’s the same for people who do yoga and meditate. You stop thinking. You slow down the mental activity. It’s like a moment of peace. When you go down for two to three minutes, you feel like in harmony with the environment.
What is it like when you take the first breath upon reaching the water surface?
It’s like a rebirth. You are born again. The water around you and you’re floating, it’s like you are out in space. You have no gravity. You have this feeling of complete freedom.
Can you share your Top 3 most memorable experience?
One—in terms of deep diving—my greatest dive, the 126m, was amazing.
It was amazing because it was not just about going the deepest but also going into a place and feel you are in total control. Magic is when you are close to your limits, but at the same time you control what you’re doing, it then feels like you can do so much more.
It’s fascinating to control and master the dive. That’smy philosophy. I don’t like to go and feel like oh I’m close to dying and then I’m going, “Oh yes, I have the record!”
No. I don’t care. What I like is experiencing the deep.
This is an experience of human limits, being able to control your mind and body with the elements.
Two, was in Galapagos. I was lucky to be one of the first freedivers to dive Galapagos because at that time, only scuba divers can go down. We organized an expedition with the government and I was able to dive. That one special dive when I went down 10m-15m, there was this group of hammerhead sharks around 200 of them or more swimming together under me. I went down and found a little place in the middle of the group
and I swam with them for one minute. I feel I was one of them. They just kept on going and I was like, “Okay, I have my little place here”. That was amazing! It’s experiencing with the nature.
The third was only a month-and-a-half ago. It was in Nice, my home. I was back after my four months in a tropical island. On that dive, I don’t know what happened but it was like a dream. Sometimes I dream that I do freedive and it was like I’m breathing underwater. I could swim like forever without the need to breathe. And for the first time, I experienced this. I don’t know why because in the morning I was tired, I travelled the day before. There was no reason
There was no reason at all. I was just happy to be here and it was only at five meters. I just went to the beach, put on the mask, grabbed the rock, trying to breathe and go down and enjoy. It was endless. Endless. After 50 meters, I dropped the rock, and it still felt good
so I started swimming in the middle of so many fish. The water was a bit cold so my heart was very slow. I was like, “I don’t want to breathe”. In
the end, I came back up because I was scared because it’s not normal to feel this good. It’s not really about breaking records. It’s aboutbeing in harmony with the universe.
What are your tips, or how would you encourage Filipinos to experience freediving?
If I have one thing to say, it’s that, it’s not what you think it is. It’s not something complicated. It’s not something that requires super powers. Not
at all. A lot of people think it’s for super humans. No. Everybody can do it. At the beginning, you don’t go deep. You can already enjoy at 10m to 15m. And I know so many scuba divers who tried free diving and they don’t want to go back to scuba diving anymore. They feel free. This is
the most natural approach of the underwater world. You’re fluid with the water. Freediving is the purest.
How is it going with the workshops so far?
It’s nice. I love sharing knowledge to people because I think everybody can learn from one another, and I can share what I’ve been taught and learned in 20 years. I’ve got many things and now it’s time to share them.