“The look, of love….is in your eyes...”
One hundred metres underwater, with no breathing equipment and the pressure forcing his lungs to the size of an orange, these are the calming lyrics that were running through the head of world record freediver Arnaud Jerald. Dusty Springfield’s 1967 hit ‘The Look of Love’ may not be the first thing that springs to mind for most extreme athletes but for the 24-year-old superstar, it is the calming influence he needs.
“In the morning I wake up and listen like 20 times to the same music,” he tells The Sportsman.
“This year it is Dusty Springfield, The Look of Love. Because I love the movie with Leonardo Di Caprio, Catch Me If You Can, I thought why not. It is good for me because the song is really slow, really calm. To help your mindset be free at the bottom, this song for me is really nice. I sing it in my head, because I listen 20 times, I have a concert in my head.
“When I get to 90-95 metres I could panic and say, ‘Why am I here?’ I tell myself I can do this as I have a lot of training, now, listen to your music. Don’t create a nightmare. I have my music in my head.”
The Frenchman reclaimed his world record in the ‘Constant Weight with Bi-fins’ discipline, diving 112m deep, in a single breath that lasted him three minutes and 23 seconds. It is just him, the water, and a pair of fins diving down to depths hardly anybody on the planet has experienced. In fact, more people have been on the International Space Station than have dived over 100m underwater. So what does it feel like?
“Freedom. Freedom in yourself, your body,” Jerald says. “You are completely free. You feel whole, you feel the cold water, you feel your emotion, you think that all your mind needs is to think of the surface. Because you need to survive and if you have an accident you need to be fast to crash the surface. Your mind thinks a lot. But I don’t feel any pain or an urge to breathe. Really you feel like water. You don’t have air in your body and your feet are like water.”
Having struggled with dyslexia as a child and found it difficult to concentrate at school, Jerald began casually freediving with his dad off the coast of Marseille at the age of seven, although it wasn’t until the age of 16 when he completed his first freediving course that he realised he had a talent and something that could take him away from his classroom struggles.
“I opened my eyes and all around was blue, I said ‘Okay this is the place for the rest of my life,’ It was such an escape,” he explains. “I’m really confident with not breathing and I just get peace in the water. On the surface or in school I’m really focused on the senses, sometimes it's too much for me and I have to go back when it is quieter. Underwater it is really quiet and I feel whole. Emotion is really high in the water because you have the time to think about all the subjects, but positive subjects. The more I take experience in freediving the more I can be confident on the surface.”
Now able to hold his breath for seven minutes on land, he experiences 10 times the pressure on his body 100 metres underwater than on the surface and the temperature can drop by up to 20 degrees celsius, making freediving one of the most testing and dangerous sports on the planet. But it isn’t about world records, recognition or awards for Jerald, he does it because he loves it.
“When I dive all the time I discover a part of me, myself, and when I come up to the surface I am another man, a better man,” he continues. “I am more confident. Sometimes dive time is two minutes 25 seconds, and one minute is like one day of sensation or emotion. In the journey you have love, you have anger, you are happy, different emotional parts of the journey, and for me it is the same on the bottom, but one minute is like one day. You have a lot of emotion and need to control yourself.”
Controlling your emotions and lowering your heart rate is easier said than done given you are not alone in the water. Wearing just a nose clip and with no protective gear, Jerald has already had some close shaves with inhabitants of the deep.
“Last year for my world record, I went down and at 100m I’m pushed off course, I don't know what it is. Something touched me, pushed me, when I was free falling. I thought ‘what is it?’ but my mind didn’t need to understand what it was at that moment. I touched the bottom, came back up, crashed the surface and got to the platform. Twenty seconds later three dolphins did a loop around me. It was like a dream. The dolphins like to play with the divers, but never touch. Ever.”
But it hasn’t just been dolphins that have taken an interest in the world record holder in the past.
“I saw sharks last year in French Polynesia. I don’t really want any contact because you know it is dangerous. I just keep my distance with this one. But I saw whales for the first time in my life last year. For me it is my most beautiful experience in the water because it was a male, and the male sink a lot, to the bottom. When you go down, your chest moves with the song. It is so much stronger, you have the reverberation on your body. For me, it was a really nice experience.”
At just 24 and with a world record to his name, Jerald has already asserted himself as one of the leading names in his sport. But what does the future look like for him?
“I don’t see myself as a superhero. For the moment just push the world record, like, two metres more or one metre more. I want to crash the limit of my sport.”