One afternoon in March, a dozen barrel-chested young men stood on the frozen waters of Lake Päijänne, two hours north of Helsinki, Finland, cutting holes into two-foot-thick ice. Using large saws, hooks, and ropes, they managed, in an hour, to remove a half-dozen 5-by-6-foot blocks from the lake, each weighing about 200 pounds. Among the men were some of the world's best free-divers: Stig Severinsen, a tan 39-year-old Dane with a Mr. Clean head and a Greg Louganis body whose 14-liter lung capacity – more than twice the average man's – has enabled him to hold his breath underwater for a world-record 22 minutes; Guillaume Néry, a Gauloise-smoking French diver and the 2011 world champion in the "constant weight, no fins" deep-diving discipline; and Antero Joki, a bearded Finn who holds a national free-diving record. Though they joked about harvesting ice for vodka, they were readying the lake for a free-diving contest in the dead of winter, in a place where the water temperature hovers just above freezing.
There would be no world records set this day – no Guinness reps had been invited – and there were no championships on the line either. It was pure competition, a simple trial to see who olla munaa (had the balls) to go into water this cold and stay there the longest, and nothing more.
As they worked, I asked Joki why they didn't just cut the blocks and push them down into the lake's 300-foot-plus depths. Looked easier than hauling them out.
"Because sometimes the ice floats back into place after you get in, like a manhole cover," he told me, with typical Nordic reserve. "Then you're stuck."
The holes cut, the divers threw on wetsuits and began doing practice dives. Snow fell. Periodically, a magenta-faced figure in a wetsuit would emerge from the icy waters, saying something about the "cathedral-like light" and "eerie beauty" below.
Finally, around 4 pm, Severinsen got out of the water and removed his wetsuit, changing into the briefest of bright-blue Speedos. He grabbed a stuffed animal – a cat – that he carries around with him like a totem or a good-luck charm, and announced, "OK, Bøf, time to swim!" He sank into a lotus position on the lake ice. Severinsen is the author of the book Breatheology, a sort of breathing treatise and memoir, in which he describes his particular routine before a competitive dive or breath-hold: Four minutes prior to submersion, he sits by the water with his back straight and his eyes closed, breathing quietly, with "an inner smile and feeling light." At three minutes, he deepens his breath, inhaling and exhaling through his nose. At two minutes, he switches to heavier breathing and starts exhaling through his mouth, which he purses in an oval shape, a form of what he calls "purge breathing." The mouth acts as a valve, creating higher pressure in the lungs, which opens the alveoli and allows the blood to absorb more oxygen. After 30 seconds, he takes a long and luxurious yawn. Then, pressing his fingers lightly against his thighs (which, he says, causes the lung pressure to drop as his diaphragm shifts, again allowing the intake of more air), he starts to "pack," sucking in still more oxygen with his tongue, almost like a lion lapping water. He does this perhaps a dozen times, dons his diving mask, and then, still smiling, slips into the hole in the ice.