“I’m used to pain”: Freediving record breaker Vencl opens up
Czech David Vencl made international headlines last week after setting a new world record. He carried out a vertical dive of 52.1 metres without a wetsuit beneath an ice-covered lake in Switzerland, covering the distance in under two minutes – and in a single breath.
Freediver David Vencl first made the news two years ago. At that time he entered the Guinness Book of Records for swimming 80 metres across a frozen lake in Czechia in one breath – beneath a thick layer of ice.
Vencl says he has always been drawn to the depths.
“I first started regular diving, just naturally.
"Whenever we went to the sea, or to a lake, I had a tendency to either high-dive into the water, or to dive to the depths. I started diving deeper and deeper, and thought it’d be good to learn something about it.
"I went on my first diving course, and managed to stay under the water for five minutes.
"I loved all kinds of water. Even cold water held an appeal for me, so I had to toughen up and get used to it, so I’d enjoy it.”
It took the man from Teplice in the north of Czechia a relatively short time to become able to withstand even the iciest of water.
“I’ve been bathing in icy water for four or five years now. Even after just four years, I was able to get to a relatively high level.
"I am aware of the coldness of water that I can withstand – and for how long.”
But what was it about David Vencl’s personality that allowed him to become so comfortable in extremely cold water? He says he enjoys being stretched to the limits.
“I guess it’s down to experience. I do various kinds of sports and I’m used to pain and to sports drilling.
"I didn’t start by doing two minutes in icy water and slowly building it up. Instead quite quickly I set myself the target of creating new records.
"So I really pushed it. I took huge strides forward.
"Even by the second year I could swim 10 or 20 minutes in icy water. So it was a matter of gruelling hard work.”
I asked Vencl whether he used breathing exercises in training, including outside the water.
“That’s the key thing for me. I base what I do on the breathing techniques that I’ve learned in freediving. That means I try to be calm and relax, while also listening to the feelings in my body.
"At the same time, I started using that breathing method in acclimatizing to icy water and it works excellently.”
Last week the Czech achieved a second entry in the record books at Lake Sils, near St. Moritz in Switzerland. There, on one breath, he carried out a vertical plunge to a depth of 52.1 metres beneath the frozen surface, without a wetsuit.
In water of between 1 and 4 degrees Celsius, Vencl covered the total 104.2 metres in 1 minute and 54 seconds.
He said his latest feat was an even bigger challenge than swimming 80 metres beneath frozen ice back in 2021.
“I needed a higher level of skill. I also had to equalise the pressure.
"I had to be aware that there was a greater danger of losing consciousness or of some injury, which in the end did occur.
"It was in my mind that there was the danger of injury. There were unknowns.
"The doctors created hypotheses as to what could occur, but it was up to me whether I confirmed or disproved them.
"So it was interesting.”
As Vencl says, he did sustain one injury during the intense dive.
“I had blood in my mouth. Somebody wrote that I might have had bleeding ears, or something like that, but that didn’t happen at all.
"But it was my trachea. It was damaged – and that’s what caused the bleeding.”
The time of 1:54 was slower than David Vencl and his team had been aiming for, though that doesn’t affect the world record.
He says a huge challenge was dealing with the kind of pressure the human body is rarely called on to endure.
“The lower you are, the higher the pressure.
"From a certain depth vacuum pressure is created. And that vacuum pressure can cause injuries, if we don’t know how to deal with it well.
"When I looked back over my dive, I hadn’t made any mistakes.
"But in all likelihood my body was on the very edge of what was possible for it to withstand.”
The freediver reveals that there is more to preparing for his dangerous, record-breaking attempts than being in peak physical shape.
“Naturally I do have fears, but not during the dive itself.
"I have to overcome my fears before I arrive at the hole in the ice. That is work lasting several weeks.
"I spoke about it a lot with my mental coach, Mira Nečas, who mentored me in how to deal with it and how to shake off the fear.”
Specifically speaking about his first world record, Vencl understands that for many – if not most – people being beneath ice at a spot where there is no way out would be a cause of pure panic.
“It’s true that if you ask somebody what their worst nightmare is, they’ll say, I’m under the ice and I can’t get out.
"That’s something we worked through to perfection, I would say, with my mental coach. In the end I wasn’t afraid.
"On the contrary, I got into a state where I actually looked forward to it. It was great, and pleasant.”
In terms of the actual training for the 80-metre under-ice swim, Vencl explains how it worked.
“I swam in cold water. I didn’t swim beneath ice – that’s more demanding technically, in terms of somebody being there to oversee my safety.
"So I swam in safe conditions, but in icy water.
"Whenever I did swim beneath ice, I had to have somebody there keeping an eye on me.
"In training I did over 90 metres, but during the actual record attempt I did 81.”
How does a person feel after one of these amazing, never before performed physical feats?
“Of course there’s a sense of relief. We’ve reached the destination of the journey we’ve been on.
"For instance, in the case of my most recent record, there was also a risk that it might not work.
"And when you spend six months on something, including the funding and time and extreme demands on your mind, you’re naturally deeply content when it’s behind you.
"It’s a weight off your shoulders.”
Vencl says his extreme feats can also be something of a challenge for his nearest and dearest.
“It’s true that my mum is scared. My dad too, I guess. Mum said she just couldn’t watch it live. She had to watch a recording later.”
The freediver is now 40, an age at which most top level sports people have either retired or will soon be forced to. But he says he has no plans to put away his swimming gear just yet.
“I think I’ll be able to keep going for as long as I want to.
"I’m actually planning to live to the age of 140 or 160, so I’ve got plenty of time left [laughs].
"But when it comes to freediving I think I can stay at the top, competitive level for another 10 or 15 years.”
Alongside his own exploits, David Vencl works as a trainer in ice water swimming and has written a book on the subject. What’s his advice to a would-be beginner?
“It’s very simple. Just tell yourself that you can handle it, and you will.
"The benefits are incredible. You will boost your cardiovascular system, your nerve system and hormonal system.
"But above all you will have a sense of joy.”