Johanna Nordblad, Finnish free-diving champion.

Hi, who are you?
I’m Johanna. (she giggles)

Have you been interviewed before?
Yeah, sure. But it’s kinda… annoying!

Where are you from?
I was born in Pori, but I moved to Helsinki in ’94 to study visual design at Laajasalon Opisto. I was also interested in animation but they didn’t offer it, so I went to another school for that. Then I went to work on websites, media, animation. I worked for Talentum, Satama interactive…

Lots of intellectual work. How did you get into diving, which is so physical?
Diving involves a lot of mind work! How did I start? Well… I was asked by the diving center to paint a beautiful picture in their window. … So I got scuba diving lessons as payment! (laughs) I liked it a lot; I was a divemaster for a year (it’s like a teacher’s helper) and then took the teacher’s course.

Free-diving I tried for the first time in my life in 2000, when the first club in Finland opened, and right there and then I decided I would never, ever wear scuba gear again, and I focused solely on free-diving. That same year I went to the World Championship in France and met the free-diving community, which is so nice. Being there was a mix of tough physical and mental training. It was so much fun!

Why give away the freedom oxygen tanks give?
To me, free-diving gives much more freedom than scuba. I can go to the bottom without decompression or mixture calculations. I have all the water available to me down to 30 m or more and three minutes of air, so I just go down, and then I go up, and then I can go down again. My three minutes can be like seven hours: I can repeat it, and repeat it again!

As a kid I was a big Cousteau fan, and I also thought scuba-diving would give me that feeling, you know, of gliding in the ocean, free to go wherever I wanted. But when you put on the equipment, it’s SO heavy! The belts, the weights, the big tanks… And if I dive with friends I can’t see them, ’cause there’s so much stuff on my back! Then I’m anxious about how deep I am, where I am, how much air I’ve left, there’s so many things you need to be aware of. Also, when you dive with tanks, you go to the bottom and you stay there, you explore a little area, and then you have to resurface very slowly.

When you go down, does the water pressure affect you in any way?
The biggest consideration, if you want to go deep in free-diving, is that the pressure compresses the air in your lungs. Let’s say you have 5 liters of air in your lungs at the surface level. Down to 10 m the pressure compresses it to 2,5 liters. At 30 m it’s 1,25 liters and at 50 m you have less than one liter of oxygen in your lungs. But you still need that air to equalize the ears, so you must be very relaxed in order to get it, otherwise it’s not possible to go deep. Before diving, on the surface, you must go into total relaxation, into perfect diving mode, otherwise you shouldn’t go down at all. That’s why I said it’s both an intellectual and a physical activity.

Do you do visualization, like racers or golfers?
Yes! It’s my joke: I do my training every night before I go to sleep. Free-diving is like racing around a track, but without breaking points, corners or apexes. You work with your sensations. I used to do motocross and downhill biking, and in 2010 I broke my leg. I recently went to the place, walked the circuit and said to my friend: If I close my eyes I can race this track in my mind perfectly, even though it’s been five years.

What happened in the accident?
I broke my leg. It was very bad because… Imagine you take a stick, and instead of snapping it in two, you twist it hard. It’s different from a normal fracture, also because of what happens to the muscles.

How did they fix that?
It was an interesting operation. (she laughs nervously) They had to do a complicated procedure called “fasciotomy” and keep the whole thing exposed for ten days. I could look at my muscles and say, oh, this is what my muscles look like! I felt like one of those skinless figures they use in school to teach anatomy.

Wow. Has it affected your performance as a diver?
No, I don’t think so. It took a long time to recover, though (I was on absent leave for a year and a half). It was so broken that they had to put a metal filament inside the bone (it’s gone now, that’s another story). The bone was shattered into little pieces, so I had to walk with sticks for almost a year. And it was painful. This year I’m fine, but the previous four years I was waking up almost every night because of the pain. It’s nerve pain, very strong. But it also made me happy to feel it, cause it reminded me I still have my leg!

While diving, do you ever get into altered states?
Yes. You can’t trust yourself, you don’t know what’s happening with time. You know it’s only three minutes, but it can last for two hours. It happened to me when I started jumping on ramps with bicycles. At first it was like whoa, that went fast, what happened! Then after a while I realized I had a lot of time to do stuff in mid-air, like this, and this, and this…

Do you carry a chronometer?
Yes, but time is different when you’re holding your breath. The feel is different. Even though I’m seeing it on the chronometer, I don’t know what the time is!

Is it longer, or shorter?
It depends. I don’t like watches anyway. (she laughs) But I need to know how deep I am, and how much time has passed, so I always carry one.

Is there ever an internal monologue?
Oh, yeah. In static apnea, for example, I can be under for more than six minutes -which feels like a long time- and in the middle of it I realize I’m talking with myself: “why am I doing this, why am I holding my breath? It hurts!” “Well, I made a decision to do it, so I’m gonna do it, okay?” “But this is not fun, it doesn’t feel good, Johanna!” “I know, but it’s not that bad, we can take it…” And the breaking point always comes from the mind. If I’m not very focused and I forget to concentrate on the real feel, I feel bad. If I’m prepared, that the feeling is coming, I can deal with it. It feels like… stones in my mind!

The hardest part is not feeling what you feel right now, it’s not the “I feel so bad that I have to come up” feeling but the fear of what will come soon. If you’re aiming to hold it for six minutes, and then you go “wow, if at two minutes it feels so bad, what will it feel like later! I can’t do this!”. What I mean is that it’s not the current feeling which makes you quit, but the idea of the incoming pain. But if you stay, you can take it; it’s not that bad. For example, how does it feel to have water up your nose?

It burns?
No, it feels like you have water up your nose. And if you experience it a couple of times it will stop burning (laughs). What I mean is that what you tell yourself about pain is more important than the real pain itself. If you’re aiming for depth, the turning point for you is your maximum scare point.

Is there some kind of danger in not getting enough oxygen to the brain?
As long as you’re conscious, there is enough oxygen in your brain. In free-diving there are many things happening when you hold your breath, but the body makes sure there is enough oxygen for everything. But yes, if you don’t get enough air you can loose consciousness. Some free-divers train every day for maximum depth and blackouts, they push it a lot, but I’m not into that. The older I get the less interested I am. Maximum diving is very hard for the body, and after a while it becomes very hard for the mind too. You’re on the limit, and your body is telling you that this is not okay. Maybe once per year I try to see how I’m doing, but that’s it. And since I have a son now, I don’t want to do it anymore. I compete for distance, and I focus on the Finnish nationals and the world championships. I love to go to competitions, because there I can find out how far can I really go, in a very safe environment.

Why did you go competitive?
I don’t know. (she laughs a lot) My friends went, so I went…

Have you always been competitive?
I guess, yeah… But not compulsively. I used to play volleyball when I was young, and I liked to be in games, and I was high-jumping for height, running the 100 meters, and it was training. Then they told me hey, there’s a competition, you should go; so I said, okay! The competing is not obsessive, I don’t train for that. I just like to see how I do against others from time to time.

Do you compete against others, or yourself?
In free-diving I’m competing to see what is my limit, and also because it’s the safest place to do it. There’s lots of safety, doctors… But of course there must be something in me. People ask me “how do you win, why are you so good?” And I say “because it’s easy to win, and very hard to lose!” Childish, maybe… But free-diving is not the end of everything for me, I’m not a perfectionist.

Do you enjoy danger?
I like strong feelings. It doesn’t matter if they’re positive or negative feelings, I like to feel a lot. If I’m feeling a lot, then I believe it’s good (she laughs) and I love to understand how small I am. For example, the things which make you give up are not related to the situation. It doesn’t matter what is it that you’re doing, but you start, and then something makes you stop. If you don’t continue in the best possible way you can, the reason why you stopped is probably not related to the task itself, but about stuff in your own head.

What about diving on icy water?
Diving in cold water is the opposite to breath-holding. Breath-holding starts easy, then gets worse and worse and worse… Diving on ice is the opposite: it starts painful, then it gets easier and easier and easier. It’s fascinating and interesting, I think. Last winter I broke the Women’s World Record of diving under ice wearing only the swimming suit, fifty meters. From one hole in the ice to another hole fifty meters away.

Is there a special place to perform the run, where judges verify it in person? How does that work?
There’s no special place for it. I broke the record mostly to learn the things that can go wrong during the run, so I based everything on the specifications given by the Guinness World Records, and then I sent them all the material and video we were shooting. I’m still waiting for the final result.

Is there a line to guide you under the ice?
Yes. There is a rope from the start to the end. I follow it but I’m not allowed to touch it at any time. We also made a safety opening mid-way, at the 25 m mark. I’m also wearing a safety lanyard (another rope) so I don’t get lost. And there are safety free-divers and scuba divers. Everything was planned very carefully.

When you reach the 50 m, do you still have air?
Yes, of course.

So you could push it more.

But it IS dangerous.
No, it isn’t. (laughter) I’m not doing dangerous things… It can be dangerous if you don’t go by the book. It’s more dangerous to walk out on the street.

Did you ever experience a tricky situation?
Hmmm, no. Once. But I didn’t have a son then! (laughs) I was young and stupid, and didn’t go by the book. I was diving with my friends in France, in Nice, and there was one place which was like fifty meters deep, and I was going down to 20 or so. Up and down, and then, as I’m coming up, I see this huge school of fish! I had never seen anything like that before, so I was like aaaahhh and oooohhh, this is a show just for me…

Come with us, Johanna! JOIN US!
YES! (laughs) When I re-focused, I realized three and a half minutes had passed… So I’m like, OH DAMN! If I lose my consciousness I could be dead! So I learnt something: NEVER dive alone. I was with friends, yes, but they couldn’t have possibly helped me.

So you didn’t die?
(laughter) No, I came up, nothing happened! But as I get older I take less risks, I am a chicken (laughs).

Life can be weird sometimes. Take Michael Schumacher, for example. He raced the fastest cars in the world, at speeds up to 300 km per hour, and nothing happened to him. Then, while skiing, he fell on a rock, busted his head and went into a coma.
Yes, it’s true. I could have a seizure, or a cardiac arrest. But that could happen anywhere. If I go by the book, I don’t need to be afraid of anything. Except the sea-monster, maybe. (laughter) I could get stuck in some floating stuff, but yeah, I couldn’t plan for that. But for me, the water is the safest place in the world. I am more anxious when I’m riding a bike or driving a car, or taking my son to school.

Do you feel you have more control down there?
When I’m in OUR water, yes. There are very few fish, no sharks, no snakes; it’s the safest place in the world. Of course when I go really deep, I can be scared. In Finland, starting at ten meters it’s pitch black down there, I don’t see my hand in front of my face. I dive in our local lake, where the water is so clean that it’s used as drinkable water, and there’s really nothing else. In the sea there can even be submarines! But in the lake there’s really nothing. The lake is around 75 m deep, which for me is more than enough, I only need 50 m, and you don’t get a sense of depth after some time anyway.

Are there monsters in the deep?
Yes! (she laughs a lot)

No, seriously.
The most dangerous sea-monster for me lives on the lake and I call it “mauri hauki,” which is like a sunken log. It won’t do anything to me, but I’m scared that I’ll get scared and lose my concentration. And of course I’m anxious that something will touch me in the deep. For me the hardest part is the going down. After the turn there’s no problem, it’s all about going up. I know that if I go deep, I can always come up. But there could be the sea-monster… I’m going up, everything is fine, and I crash into something when I’m about to reach the surface… like a giant medusa!

Did that ever happen to you?
No! But those are the things I’m scared of. (laughs)

What about open sea? Have you seen sharks up close?
No, and I’ve been to many different places. In the Red Sea there are sharks, but I’ve never seen any. Maybe because I’m from Finland and in our water there is nothing, so I don’t have that fear. I’m not scared, I’m more scared of an elk on the road when I’m driving, because it’s more possible. I have heard many stories, but generally it’s the people who are at the surface level who have encounters with sharks; surfers and swimmers, because they move in ways which attract them. Scuba divers, also, because they make a lot of bubbles. But in free-diving you are like another fish, you are not on the surface. Manta-rays are huge, but they aren’t aggressive. So I don’t know where the sharks are, the sea is so big, they must be somewhere else.

What is it like, down there?
In the summertime the surface can be like 20 C, but at 10-15 meters, depending on the season, it’s down to 4 C. So there I am, in absolute darkness, in water that is at four degrees. Down to ten meters I need to kick continually because of the buoyancy, but after that the air in my lungs is compressed, so I just drop. I go into a fetal position and concentrate on what I’m doing, the equalization, and so on. If I don’t, I need to stop and head for the surface.

What safety do you have?
There is the safety rope, which is always there. The length of the rope dictates the depth, and I decide on it before the dive. In competitions there’s a tag that you need to collect, as proof that you reached the depth. Actually I don’t know why we still do it like that, because nowadays we have very precise equipment.

But there’s nobody there to assist you, with tanks?
No. Scuba divers can’t go so deep and stay there for the six hours that a competition lasts. They could follow two or three divers, but then they’d have to come up. And then they can’t go down again, because of the nitrogen. And free-divers are so much faster than scuba divers; if something happens, a scuba diver can’t really help. They can’t come up fast enough either.

Are you sponsored?
When I broke the record for distance in 2004, I got some money from a committee, and I also got… pressure. I had to train every year, but I have never dived so little. I couldn’t do it, I’m not training for the competition, I do it because I love it. Also nowadays my son is fourteen, so it’s different. When he was little it was very difficult to go to the trainings, which were at 10 in the evenings, so it was tough. Then I took him to kid swimming classes, and there was so much noise I wanted to go underwater! We used to play I was a surfboard, and he would stand on top of me! (laughs)

How many records do you hold?
Now? I don’t know! (laughs) I hold some national records, I think. The distance record, with and without fins.

And for depth?
No, no records for that. My personal best is 56 m. I think Veera Lopez-Lehto has that in Finland, at 65 m.

Are you interested in beating that?
No. I like to try to beat the under-the-ice record because I like to organize things, set dates, get the people there… And I like diving in cold water. In Tapiola there’s a pool outside so I can train every day in cold water. I love the pool there, it’s always empty, all for myself.

What about hypothermia?
Yes, it is an important factor. If I dive in water at 6 C I can stay for 20 minutes. If it’s at 5 C, I can stay for 10 minutes.

YOU can, or any human being can do that?
Myself. I saw one documentary about helicopter pilots that dropped into water at 6 C, which is not cold. (I laugh at this point) Okay, it is cold, but it’s not so cold that you’re going to die immediately. They were saying they can only stay there for six seconds, and then hypothermia ensues. I have tried this! I can stay for 20 minutes, no problem at all. In 4 degrees I can stay easily 5 minutes. Normally, the water under the ice is at 4 degrees, so I know that I have 5 minutes to swim 50 meters. If I go fast it will take me a minute and a half to get there.

When we did it last time, the water was at only at 2 degrees, so according to my calculations I could stay for one minute. The problem was that I didn’t know if the low temperature would affect my head, so I said to my sister Elina -who’s the officially nervous one- that if I got a little cold in my head in the first 25 m I would come up and call it off. But there was no problem, nothing, and I reached the women’s record.

Another aspect is the buoyancy. When you go close to the surface the air makes you buoyant, so you use a lot of energy not only for advancing, but for diving continually to keep your depth. That’s the hard thing of diving under ice, you can’t use weights, so you must go with empty lungs to prevent floating.

Say what?!
You have to empty your lungs before the dive, so you don’t float, but of course your distance is reduced. The previous test was a bit messy, because the line I had to follow would not stay even, but now I know how to set it better.

What does your family say about your activity?
My son doesn’t say anything. And my boyfriend is also a free-diver, so… They don’t say anything.

What are your plans for the future?
In diving, my personal goals are to break the ice record. And break the men’s record in the right way, with the right rules. I know how to do that now. I’d like to break it in a way that we get material that shows people that cold water doesn’t instantly kill you. The men’s distance world record of diving under ice is 76,2 meters. Cold water, empty lungs; it’s not easy and I have to train hard. But it doesn’t matter if I break it or not. If I go beyond 50 m it’s more than my own record and that’s great, but that’s not the point. It’s about the material. I want to do it to get people interested, to make a cool video, something very visual. I am not super-human, and I want to make people realize they don’t need to drown if they fall into the ice, there’s nothing to be afraid of.

They drown because they gave up already.
Exactly! They get scared and think they are going to drown, and they do. It’s not very difficult to hold your breath, and you don’t need to panic if you swallow a bit of water. We also plan to reach scuba divers, who sadly also drown for nothing. They have a lot of compressed air in their lungs to survive in case something goes wrong. Think about it: if you can normally hold your breath for three minutes, and you are 30 m deep, with one lungful of compressed air from the tank you can swim for much longer than three minutes! There is no reason to drown. And if it feels a bit uncomfortable, does it really matter? You can’t ascend too fast, because of the nitrogen, but you do have lot of time to do it. So we’re planning to make one book for scuba divers and one for surfers, to share all this knowledge. It’s science, these are facts. I want people to know.

Then we’ll have the free-diving World Championship Finland next year -for the first time- in Turku. Maybe I will compete in every discipline, including static apnea. Boring to watch, but very interesting mentally.

How does it work?
You just float in a pool with your head under the surface, and see how long you can hold it. When you take your face out of the water you need to do some hand signals, to indicate that you are fully conscious, you have fifteen seconds to take off your mask and do the ok sign, in that order. If you can’t do it you are disqualified, because it means there’s not enough oxygen in your brain. You’re shaking and mumbling.

Have you seen this? Did it happen to you?
Yeah, it’s common. To me personally it happened twice. In my first competition, and in the last Finnish Nationals, the loss of motor control. I was sick, and I was pushing it too much.

What’s the technique for holding breath?
It depends on what you want to do. For a maximum dive you inhale as much as you can and relax as much as you can. For fun dives, to enjoy the feeling of it, I just do what feels natural. In free-diving, your mind is the most important part. And never go down alone, it’s not safe. If you are in a swimming pool tell the lifeguards, so they are looking after you.

When going for distance, is it preferable to go fast but use more energy and air, or take more time and maximize the resources?
I myself am very slow, everybody is always teasing me. In competitions I’m always the slowest. If you exert yourself you use your muscles, and you get more CO2, which messes up with your body’s ability to determine how much oxygen you have left. It gives you this feeling of “ah, I need to breathe!” But if you go fast you’re also producing lactose acid, which means it’s convenient in a competition because you go anaerobic. There are different styles. I like to go slow; small movements to get the most distance. The important thing is to know how far you can go. If you know your limits, you know yourself.

At Johanna’s website you can follow her diver’s blog, browse her designer portfolio, and find links to her social media pages. Thanks to Elina Manninen (Johanna’s big sister and sidekick) for all the great photography. All images (badly retouched by me) © 2015 Elina Manninen.