6. 11. 2020

English version | The Ice Queen

by Matteo Fagotto


Evening is falling and the cold winter light is bleeding out of a steel-coloured, cloud-covered sky. Soon the short Scandinavian afternoon will give way to night. Not a single gust of wind moves the pine branches; not a single leaf ripples the water’s surface on the lake. Nothing disturbs this infinite expanse of trees, ice and snow enveloped by absolute silence. Photos by Elina Manninen.

It’s here, in a simple hunter’s lodge set on the banks of Lake Sonnanen, 170 km northeast of Helsinki, the capital of Finland, that free diver Johanna Nordblad and her sister and personal photographer, Elina spend most of their free time. With urban rhythms left far behind, their days are spent shovelling snow, gathering firewood and spending long hours after dinner chatting by the light from the candles set around the winter garden. “Elina and I always come up here whenever we can. I love this natural setting, these lakes…”, explains Nordblad.Lots of people don’t like to practice free diving in Finland because the water is black in the depths, but that’s exactly why I like it so much. Down below there are no colours, no sounds. There’s nothing… You are completely alone with yourself.” Nordblad is fascinating and versatile, a woman of a thousand skills and a world-famous athlete who managed to transform a serious accident into an opportunity to make her mark in a new discipline, one in which she still holds the current world record. “Diving was never a problem,” she says as she carefully positions a few pieces of wood in the fireplace. “In the town where I grew up we had a big open pool, four meters deep. I remember I would dive down to the bottom, then turn to look up at all the people swimming on the surface. From that distance they seemed more like fish than human beings.” When Nordblad was six she received her first set of swimming fins as a present. She was so happy that she slept with them for months. In 1999, after years of scuba diving, she took her first free dive. The feeling of immediate lightness proved liberating. Being able to swim without the weight of equipment won her over instantly, and ever since then Nordblad has been racking up one success after another. In 2004 she set the women’s world record for dynamic free diving with fins, and she has remained consistently ranked among the best free divers in the world.

Then, in 2010, a serious accident changed her life. “I was riding a downhill bike, traveling a slippery, muddle path down a hill when suddenly I began to slip,” she recounts. “The fall wasn’t particularly dangerous, but I was unlucky and I hit a rock. The pedals didn’t open and my left leg was smashed into a thousand pieces, like a twisted branch.” Rushed to the hospital, Nordblad underwent delicate surgery designed to keep necrosis from developing in her leg. The swelling and compound fractures were so serious that the doctors weren’t able to sew the leg back up and close the wounds until another ten days had passed. Rehabilitation was painful and complex, and lasted more than a year and a half, consuming all of her energies. A graphic designer by trade, she decided to sell her agency and say goodbye to the thirteen people who were working for her. After another 12 months passed she was finally able to walk without a cane, but the nerves in her leg were so badly damaged that the pain, profound and persistent, remained her constant companion. “That’s when my doctor recommended I try cold water therapy,” continues Nordblad. “The first time I put my leg in 4-degree water I only managed to keep it in for a minute, but the relief was immediate. Finally it didn’t hurt anymore.” As the months passed, Nordblad became so accustomed to the cold that she found she could no longer do without it. She began immersing the other leg as well, then her entire body, ultimately even her head. “I liked the way it felt. That’s when I first got the idea of diving beneath the ice. What better place to try it than Finland?”

While her sister is preparing dinner, Nordblad sits on the little wooden dock that runs out from the bank into the lake, busy breaking up the thin layer of ice that's formed on the water’s surface over the past couple of days. After she’s pushed a few sections underwater, she lights a series of candles that illuminate the wooden stairs leading down into the water. In a few hours she’ll be able to take the first dive of the season. She’s been waiting for this moment for weeks, and it stirs emotions she finds hard to conceal. “I love diving, feeling the water run between your fingers… When you’re down below there’s no margin for error. You have only yourself to trust. You have to be relaxed and in control at the same time,” she explains. “Free diving requires physical effort, but mental discipline is even more important. Going as deep as you possibly can isn’t enough; you have to do the dive without panicking or losing your head.” Nordblad’s personal record for static apnea is 6 minutes and 35 seconds, an eternity for mere mortals. “The most difficult thing is watching the seconds go by. After two or three minutes your mind starts listing all the reasons why you should go back up to the surface instead of staying down there underwater. The more time goes by, the harder it gets. You need a lot of self control.” In apnea conducted beneath the ice, where the diver has to move horizontally, covering a preset distance between two holes cut into the ice, the feelings are considerably different. Following an initial acclimatisation phase brought on by the low temperatures, a feeling of great peace takes over. In 2015 Nordblad set the world record in this particular discipline, swimming for 50 meters wearing nothing more than a simple swimsuit and goggles. The water temperature was barely 2 degrees centigrade. “Up until the end I was afraid that my head, the part of the body that suffers the most during low-temperature dives, couldn’t take it,” she confesses, “but in reality things were easier than I’d anticipated.”

Diving beneath ice has other pitfalls. Visibility is one, since the thick layer of ice and snow on the water’s surface often reduces vision to a minimum. It’s easy to become disoriented, so much so that officials extend safety ropes between the holes. “Sometimes I can’t even make out my own hands. That’s how dark the water can be. In the event of a real emergency, my safety plan is to swim down six meters below the surface. That’s the only way I can see light coming in from the two holes and figure out where I can get out.” Although it’s hard to believe, Nordblad is afraid of the depths. Every time she goes free diving and swims downto the Finnish lakebed, her mind turns to sea monsters and unknown creatures that populate the abyss. “The deepest point I reach corresponds to the extreme limits of my ability to dominate my fears. Otherwise I could go much deeper,” she says with a smile. Sunny, energetic and curious, she is an unusual mix of successful athlete and a woman whose dreams and fantasies come to life the moment she comes back into contact with nature. As soon as she can, she likes to leave daily rhythms, work and family commitments behind (she’s the mother of a 18-year-old boy) and spend a little precious time with Elina, her best friend and trusted helper. Although she still holds the record for diving beneath the ice, for Nordblad free diving has long since evolved into something more than a desire to “beat” her opponents. “If you compete with that mentality, you’re not enjoying the moment. I don’t deny that I thought that way when I was younger, but now I don’t like it anymore.”

Today Nordblad is a 44-year-old woman who can allow herself to experience diving and apnea as something more than a duty. “When you win, the expectations of those around you increase automatically,” she says. “So many different windows of opportunity open up around you that you have to be good at figuring out what you want from life and what you truly desire from this sport.” In 2006 Nordblad earned one of just three government stipends reserved for non-Olympic Finnish athletes. Not by chance, that was the year she found herself training the least. “Going to the pool just wasn’t fun anymore. I was losing motivation. I love apnea because I find it more stimulating than spending hours looking at a computer screen, but I realised that I was turning it into a job just like any other,” she explains. “One of the most beautiful periods of my life was the time just after my rehabilitation. I spent two years out in the open: I would take my kayak and go out and explore the islands around Helsinki. There are hundreds of them, and all you need is to paddle for five minutes before you’re completely lost in nature.”  This winter, Nordblad will try the umpteenth achievement in her already remarkable career: beating the men’s ice free diving world record (currently standing at 76.2 meters and held by Stig Severinsen, a Danish four-time world free diving champion) by diving beneath the ice for 81 meters. Shewill take the challenge in stride, almost as if it were a game. Sometimes that’s how remarkable achievements are accomplished.

Translated from the original article from Vogue Portugal's The Beauty of Imperfection issue, published November 2020.
Full credits and story on the print issue.