Do not count on him to keep the myth of the man Poseidon, who flirts with danger for the pleasure of the thrill or the thrill of the abyss. “Bla-bla to flirt with girls”, decides free diver Arnaud Jérald, 26 and already holder of four world records in constant weight bi-fins. Incredible maturity. The person concerned admits, “more than meters, records, I have been gaining underwater for years”. What a strange idea indeed to deprive oneself of the air for long minutes – seven precisely – to explore mind-boggling depths. He himself wonders, in the icy depths of the infinite blue, what hides this desire to become one with water. Hope for self-transcendence? Infinity that fascinates? Freediving is first of all an immersion in itself. A certainty, his race against the meters and the stopwatch is far from over. Encounter.
Le Point: How did you discover freediving?
Arnault Jerald: Thanks to my father. I accompanied him during the underwater fishing sessions. He signed me up for a freediving course to guarantee our escapes. It was a revelation. The shy, dyslexic and hypersensitive child that I was saw a whole new world open up for him. I have found myself. I knew immediately that I was going to do my job with it.
Have your recent exploits changed your daily life?
On July 17, I broke the world record for the discipline for the fourth time on Long Island in the Bahamas, during the Vertical Blue, descending to a depth of 117 meters. Four days after reaching – 116 meters and breaking the previous world record (which was – 115 meters).
These last two records had a special flavor. I was afraid of having a career as a “shooting star”: a business and then nothing. I waited to stabilize my results, to prove their regularity, to urge Richard Mille.
What role do sponsors play in the viability of your sport?
Today they help finance my expensive seasons. Tomorrow maybe they will allow me to improve my performance, optimizing and making my dives safer.
Meaning what ?
I would like to have a boat as soon as possible that brings together the whole team in tow (about fifteen people including hyperbaric doctors, physiotherapists, engineers, safety divers) and all the equipment (drones, cables, etc.) so that they can accompany me around for the world during my races. Currently, when I travel, I have to rely on local teams, who know less about my body’s reactions. I am less serene. You have to push your physical limits, but freediving is 80% mental.
It seems that you yourself have approached Richard Mille. Why did he seem like the perfect partner?
Since Jacques Mayol, watchmakers have always been the historical partners of freedivers. Probably because the records are recorded thanks to the clocks. For my part, like many Richard Mille fans, I discovered their watches on an athlete, in this case a driver from the Castelet circuit. I was seduced by the object, by the radicalism of the design and I was surprised to learn that they offered functional watches in extreme conditions. I asked if there were any diving watches. I was delighted to learn that not only were they, but they were water resistant to 300 meters (the ISO 6425 certification that gives the diver’s watch designation requires only 100 meters, ed). I made contact with the house, we met, we are happy!
Rafael Nadal, Alexis Pinturault, Charles Leclerc … The list of 42 housemates is enough to make you dizzy. Does this impress you?
It inspires me!
Wasn’t it embarrassing for you to associate yourself with a luxury brand?
On the contrary, it was my will. Freediving is still a relatively private sport. There are more men who went into space than men who went 100 meters deep. Contrary to popular belief, it is a sport that is played 80% in the head, which is why we are associated with yoga, meditation and universes with a strong spiritual dimension. To develop and gain notoriety, apnea must open up to other circles. Luxury offers a springboard.
Why does the RM 032 seem like the ideal watch to accompany you?
When it comes to sports scores, it’s the number of meters that matters, but when it comes to my safety, it’s my watch that is essential. That’s why the RM 032 is an indispensable tool for me. As a freediver, it’s not there to be pretty, I wear it because I trust it.
Freediving is a relatively young sport, how can you explain its late rise?
This sport is my age: 26, but the practice has always existed, especially in the field of underwater fishing. Freedivers have gained notoriety with The big blue. At the time, many records were claimed, without actually being approved due to lack of an official structure. These dives were done without a frame, it was very dangerous and there were many deaths. Everything changes in 1996, when the first world championships are created, in the bay of Villefranche, in Nice. Four disciplines have been created: bi-fin, monofin, breaststroke and free diving. A hundred athletes sign up, freediving officially becomes a sport. But there is still a long way to go.
Do you have Olympic dreams?
We have been under observation for three years. The integration of the Olympic Games would be a huge step forward for the discipline, which would therefore gain visibility. But it is not an end in itself. It is important to keep our soul from apnea. Some sports, such as rock climbing, were recently featured in the Olympics. However, I don’t find the chosen format convincing.
If time is a luxury for mere mortals, it is vital for you underwater, you have no room for error. What relationship do you have with danger?
There is a fantasy about the risks we take underwater. However, in 26 years, we have only known one death in competition. Still, performance is changing. Ten years ago, crossing the 80-meter threshold in double fin was a record. Today you need to go to – 118 meters. 99% of accidents occur during recreational diving when the person dives alone.
In concrete terms, how do you protect yourself from danger?
Thanks to the protocols put in place with my team of doctors and engineers. And also thanks to the drones and agents who scrutinize me during my dives. Diveye technology allows me to be observed from the surface in real time thanks to an underwater drone that follows me all the way. I only went to -117 meters because fifteen people prepared me to descend to these depths without risk. I also choose to announce the depths I master, if I announce a record depth in competition, it is because I have done it multiple times in training. Serenity is the heart of the matter. More than meters, these are years of maturity that I gain during my descents.
Are you looking for the thrill of the abyss?
I run away from her. Don’t count on me to keep the myth of the man Poseidon, who flirts with death and emotions. It’s blah-blah flirting with girls!
However, the thrill of the abyss is a proven physiological phenomenon …
Narcosis is a natural phenomenon due to excess nitrogen due to pressure. I have experienced this state several times. A few years ago, in Greece while diving, I saw myself snorkeling in front of me. This is how I contacted the Comex hyperbaric doctors to understand this phenomenon and do everything to prevent it from happening again.
We realized that narcosis usually occurs between – 80 and over 100 meters deep. So I had to work to limit my time to these depths. I revised my dive pace, optimized my usual times by one minute and never had problems again. I have 100% control of my apneas. This serenity is priceless.
How long can you hold your breath?
Don’t you find the time long?
In static apnea, in the pool, yes. It is terribly long. After three minutes I start to get bored and my body feels it, I have spasms, I fight against respiratory stress. I have never repeated the experience because I found it so unpleasant. Strangely, none of this happens during my descents into the sea, my discipline is not measured in the time spent underwater without breathing, but in meters traveled. It is very different.
What part of innate and acquired is there in your exploits?
I follow closely. My results have improved a lot since I was accompanied by professionals, but it is true that I have a capacity to assimilate lactic acid that allows me to palm throughout the descent and to go back to the bottom. Going fast allows me to reach record depths, without experiencing respiratory distress and without risking narcosis. It is a virtuous circle.
Has your race against time reached its limits?
The peak form of freedivers is between 35 and 40 years old, I have high hopes of breaking some more records! Especially since Alexey Molchanov, my main competitor, currently takes an extra minute to cover the same distances. So this leaves me a lot of room for improvement.