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Six minutes under: Cameras focus on Finnish free dive record holder

Johanna Nordblad is the world record holder among female free divers. She swam to a depth of 50 metres and was submerged for six and a half minutes with no breathing gear. She will be featured in a new documentary highlighting people who take on the four elements: fire, earth, air and water.

Johanna Nordblad sukeltaa.
Image: MRP Matila Röhr Productions

Nearly seven years ago, Johanna Nordblad broke her leg while cycling downhill. The accident caused 30-centimetre wounds on both sides of her lower leg and tore the muscles in her calf. Up to three years ago, Nordblad would wake up at night, racked with pain. Her doctor recommended treating the pain with cold.

"For the first month I tried keeping the leg in cold water for 10 minutes. When I got used to it, I wanted to out the other leg in as well. I went deeper and deeper and finally asked if I could dive," Nordblad explained.

More than six minutes on one breath

Nordblad was not new to the sport of diving – 20 years earlier, she had taken a diving course. When Finland established its first free diving club, her friends asked her to try diving without breathing apparatus. The rest, as they say was history – Nordblad was sold. Soon she was on the Finnish national team and participating in the free diving world championships.

Two years ago she racked up the women’s world record for free diving by venture 50 metres under the ice, without a wetsuit or flippers. She remained submerged for six minutes and 35 seconds. How did she do it?

Johanna Nordblad sukeltaa jään alla.
Image: MRP Matila Röhr Productions

"Humans have a dive reflex, just like other marine mammals. If a person holds her breath on the surface, the pulse rate will begin to rise. However under water, the pulse rate slows. Your organs calm down, blood flow to the extremities slows and centres on the brain and internal organs."

Time stops under water

Johanna Nordblad is featuring in a new documentary, directed by the makers of "Tale of a Lake" a documentary about Finnish lakes. The new feature is called "The Four Elements" and examines the elements through the experiences of the main characters.

In the film, Nordblad is on her way to dive in Finland with cameraman Teemu Liakka, who documents what it looks and feels like to dive under the ice.

"It’s beautiful and quiet down there. There’s no one to disturb you and I can be alone," Nordblad said.

Although free diving sounds like the ultimate rush for adrenaline junkies, Nordblad said that her experience is quite the opposite.

"Free diving is an anti-extreme sport. If your adrenaline production spikes down there, you can’t dive," she added.

She said that her mind is a blank when she’s under the ice.

Kuvaaja Teemu Liakka ja Johanna Nordblad
Kuvaaja Teemu Liakka ja Johanna Nordblad Image: Elina Manninen

"It’s a little like if I were asleep. Time stops. Everything is slow, relaxed, and enjoyable."

Nordblad is also competitive, however, looking for new disciplines to conquer. She has set her sights on motocross racing and had laid a bet with motocross biker Rolf Molander that if he can dive 50 metres under the ice, she will compete in the punishing Dakar motocross rally.

"I’m intrigued by the fact that motocross is very difficult and I like to train. It’s amazing what you can do if you practice a little," she quipped.

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