Amber Fillary is an ice swimmer, freediver and artist with UK and South African citizenship. Born and raised in Cape Town, she began diving after a difficult childhood and adolescence. She has broken two Guinness Records: one for under-ice swimming and the other for the longest underwater walk on a single breath. She also holds three South African records for pool freediving.
In March, she will attempt another world record for under-ice swimming in Norway, which will involve a breath hold of around 2 minutes 30 seconds to 2 minutes 45 seconds. “I’m finally prepared to talk about my life, and it’s not pretty,” she says. “But I want others to find a way too.”
I love the sun and warmth. I grew up by the ocean in Cape Town and just loved the water from being a child. I started swimming properly when I was about 12 years old and then it developed into a serious sport for me. But in my teenage years I developed eating disorders. I lost so much weight my coach stopped me from training and that was when life started taking some bad turns. Eating disorders became alcoholism and then depression and many rehab clinics. I was lost for a long time and I still get lost.
The movie The Big Blue made me dream of freediving one day but it took years before I tried it. Once I did, I fell totally in love with it. It’s the most amazing way to visit the ocean – just you, no equipment. It’s so unbelievably natural to silently slip through the water. Truly amazing. What I love about freediving is that it forces me to be in a calm state of mind, because the moment you become tense, you lose your ability to stay underwater for long periods. On land, I find it very hard to stay calm for long.
Pop! This is the sound no diver wants to hear in their own head. In 2013, I burst both eardrums and with that I lost the option for deep dives. It was soul-destroying. Left at a dive resort without being able to dive, I discovered ‘pool freediving’ to stay in the water and stay sane. Turns out I’m quite good at it and I got myself two national records back in South Africa, which was nice.
“Surfacing is only possible at cut safety holes and they are 10m apart. It doesn’t sound like much but 10m is a long way when you are swimming slowly or if I start to blackout.”
Three years ago, I found myself sitting in a tub full of ice a parking-lot in Cape Town. A friend had asked if I would be able to freedive in ice-cold water. It seemed like an insane question to me; the ice bit not the breath hold! So in 2019, I agreed to try a Guinness World Record in Finland to see if I could. The problem was finding ice-cold lakes in Cape Town to practice. That’s when I ended up in a tub in a parking lot filled with ice from the local butcher. I went to Finland feeling confident and I made the distance in the training swims the days before the official record. But on the day itself, it all went wrong. I got into trouble with the safety and camera lines, and had to abort. So no record for me. I was angry and depressed and spiralled into a bad place. It took me a while to come back from that.
Down but not out. When I have something to focus on I can get myself out of the depression spiral, so eventually I set myself the challenge to attempt the record again. Things went much better and I actually smashed the women’s record in Norway in 2020 which was an amazing relief. I swam 70 metres under 34cm of ice. Depression has taken so much from my life – it will always suck good things out of me – but the ocean, the swims, the records, are the ways I can get a little back.
The team is everything. My records are not possible without a monumental amount of help and generosity. I have been so lucky to find a group of fellow water lovers in Norway who resonate with my cause (or my madness) and love the water. They know the frozen lakes better than anyone and that’s critical for my safety. They put in so much time and resources to help me attempt these records you wouldn’t believe the set up behind the scenes. As I’ll be swimming under about 34cm of ice, there is no margin for error as surfacing is only possible at cut safety holes and they are 10m apart. It doesn’t sound like much but 10m is a long way when you are swimming slowly or if I start to blackout. That means I need the route planned, the ice holes cut (which they do manually and takes hours), safety lines put in, and then divers who will stay in the water the whole time to film the record attempt for verification. We also need to get the Guinness representatives in for the official record. And someone has to be there with hot tea for when I get out!
Every movement I make in the water is important for gaining distance but it costs me energy and heat, and my muscles are working slowly in the cold. I don’t want to use too much energy because I can’t breathe, but I do want to swim the distance before I run out of oxygen.
I don’t hyperventilate before an ice dive. Actually I don’t do any breathing technique really. I take a few minutes to do some mental visualisation work and then I’m in and off. That might be a bit of an unconventional approach in freediving, but it’s the thing that really works for me. I can just take a breath, hold it, and go. Plus, it’s too cold for me to hang around in a bikini on the ice doing a full meditation or breathing practice! I’m a South African sunshine girl, remember.
I try not to think when I’m in the water. What I’m concentrating on is balance. Every movement I make in the water is important for gaining distance but it costs me energy and heat and my muscles are working slowly in the cold. I don’t want to use too much energy because I can’t breathe but I do want to swim the distance before I run out of oxygen. Given the extreme conditions of the ice water, holding this balance is my only brain function. That and how to get warm again when I get out!
Being alive is amazing. To me at least! This year I will have made it 50 years on the planet with this crazy brain of mine trying to take me out at every turn. I’m making my next record a birthday celebration to myself.
Taking on the boys next… Having got so close to the men’s distance doing the women’s record, I kind of wished I’d said to Guinness I would break both that day. But I only signed up for the women’s so that’s the one I have. It left a tantalising little hook… could I actually break the men’s record too? We will find out in March!