‘Hold Your Breath: The Ice Dive’ Explained – Who Is Johanna Nordblad? How Does She Achieve Her Goal?


Directed by Ian Derry, “Hold Your Breath: The Ice Dive” is an inspiring documentary short film about the grit of renowned Finnish free-diver and ice diver, Johanna Nordblad, as she attempts to break the existing world record of traveling the most distance under freezing water in a single breath. The comparatively short film presents a forty-minute long insight into Johanna’s passion as an ice diver, her beautiful relationship with her sister Elina, and how she gets past adversities in life.

What Is ‘Hold Your Breath: The Ice Dive’ Documentary About?

At the time the documentary begins, Johanna Nordblad already holds the world record for the most distance traveled under freezing-cold water in a single dive and breath in the women’s category, having traveled 50 meters. Now in her hometown of Heinola, Finland, Johanna trains with the constant support of her sister, Elina Manninen, to try and beat the world record of 80 meters currently held by a male diver. Through conversations with Elina, Johanna’s firm and strong belief in herself and in women, in general, is established, as Johanna always goes by her belief that “girls can do anything men can do.” The athlete has forever been adventurous and very daring from her very childhood, and her interests have always included kayaking, free diving, motorbiking, and downhill dirt-biking. Johanna’s obsession with ice diving, in fact, was not always there; rather, she had developed it in a twisted manner from her other activities. Always pushing her own limits beyond known bounds, Johanna had met with a dreadful accident while downhill biking. The accident broke her leg terribly, which then became gangrenous, and the treatment of which left her with unbearable nerve pain. After three years of living with such pain, she started cold treatment at the suggestion of her doctor, in which her broken leg was to be immersed in freezing water. After gradually getting used to the intensity of such cold water, Johanna started dipping her other leg in too, and then finally her whole body in, as she slowly started enjoying the prospect of ice diving.

How Does Johanna Prepare For Her Record, And Get Over Barriers In Doing So?

Johanna admits that the biggest part of her preparation is to prepare herself mentally rather than reach a certain level of physical fitness. The key, she says, is to keep one’s mind and body calm under such treacherously cold temperatures, which then allows the body’s muscles to stay relaxed and carry out the entire ordeal. She admits that if she panics in the cold, then it only goes downhill from there as her body panics too, and she gives up much before her usual potential. Elina dives around with Johanna, too, during her practice sessions, and the sister photographs the athlete underwater, as she believes both of them to be artists. They both have a normal and usual life too, with their own families and professions. The documentary crew meets with Johanna’s family, and talks with her son, Kasper, who admits that he loves his mother for the way she is, and would rather have her to look up to than any other mother. The fear of not being able to carry out her goal and something terrible happening in the process remains in the back of all their minds, but the Nordblads do not seem to be ones to focus much on the negatives. Elina does not keep herself from negative thoughts as easily, though, as, at one point, she breaks down in response to the documentary crew’s question of whether she feels Johanna should partake in something so dangerous. Elina replies, emotionally, that it is ultimately what her sister wants to do, and it is her responsibility to support the athlete, despite the dangerous challenges involved.

Johanna’s preparations to break the 80-meter world record do not go too well, as she faces multiple challenges that are out of her control. Around February of 2020, a month before her official attempt, Johanna and Elina realized that there was much too less ice in the lake they wanted to attempt the dive in, measuring about just 10 cm in thickness, as opposed to the 30 cm mark required to participate in ice diving. An overall warmer winter and the absence of freezing cold temperatures that are usual in the country force the diver to move up north into the country and try her dive at a picturesque and extensive frozen lake at the Hossa National Park. The two sisters drive up to the place to start getting more used to the unfamiliar surroundings, and it is now revealed that Johanna has a physical challenge going on inside her own body as well. For some time now, Johanna has been suffering from a chest infection of some sort, and is advised by her doctor to consult a specialist, who would then say whether she should attempt the dive or not. But, before they could find a solution to this problem, a bigger problem crashed upon the entire world—the COVID 19 virus and the following pandemic. This caused all sports activities to be canceled officially, and thus put an end to the pursuit of Johanna’s goal, at least for the time being.

The athlete makes a return the next year, much more determined and with a perspective that she claims to be more global and having more depth to it. Around March of 2021, Johanna again drives up north to the lake at Hossa, this time with a big crew including photographers and safety personnel, as she is very close to making her attempt to dive even deeper this time. By now, the previous world record has been broken—with a woman diver having completed 70 meters, and an unofficial dive having been of 102 meters; so, Johanna’s target now is to travel an almost impossible 103 meters under freezing-cold water.

‘Hold Your Breath’ explained: Is Johanna able to pull off the world record dive?

It is now that the treacherous ordeal of Johanna’s entire attempt becomes clear in its whole to the viewers, as a long stretch of the frozen lake is first cleaned, and then eight triangular holes are dug out at measured distances. As the dive coordinator explains it, Johanna’s attempt would be to enter the water through the first hole, then gradually come out of the last hole, at a distance of exactly 103 meters from the beginning, under one breath, to beat the world record. If she is unable to do it, then the holes in the middle, measuring 20, 40, 60, 71, 82, and 93 meters, would serve as a potential escape route for the athlete, where she would come out of the water to breathe, abandoning her challenge in the process. The place has diving doctors and an ambulance ready to treat her, as she already has hyperthermia in case something goes wrong. Johanna enters the track and then gradually moves ahead, as the group follows her movement from above the frozen lake’s surface. Although she does slow down after having reached a certain distance, Johanna remains as calm and graceful as ever, as she climbs out of the 103-meter hole and signals to the dive coordinator to set the new world record in ice diving.

The documentary film has an effective way of building things up and leading to important parts that are presented with apt tenor. As a jubilant Johanna is hugged and congratulated by the team around her, the relieved Elina admits to the documentary camera that she is now happy that her sister will not have to go into the freezing cold water again. Despite its short duration, “Hold Your Breath: The Ice Dive” also presents brief but important commentaries on global warming, climate change, and the humbling experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. The film is a must-watch for anyone looking for an impactful experience.

“Hold Your Breath: The Ice Dive” is a 2022 Documentary short film streaming on Netflix.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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