Change in a Single Breath
Written by Lilly Ryzebol with Andrew Ryzebol
Photography by Geoff Coombs
Anticipation welling inside me, I focused on breathing through my snorkel, held tightly by cold, numb lips. I began to loosen my limbs, feeling almost as if I was ready to sleep. I concentrated on relaxing every muscle – on stilling myself inside, to allow for a longer dive.
I breathed deeply, from my stomach, calming myself, focusing my thoughts on my faith, my appreciation of the natural world, and my gratitude for life. Andrew floated beside me, in the hole he had cut in the ice. I drew comfort from his words: ‘OK, Lil, whenever you’re ready.’ I took one final breath, removed my snorkel, and dove down into the dark otherworldly depths of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay.
My heart raced as I floated downwards. Beneath me, the eerie shadow of a shipwreck, shimmering as the light caught its warped bow. Above and around me an endless sheet of ice, pale blue against the darkness of the sea. Icy water seeped through my wetsuit and trickled down my spine. I shivered. All was quiet, tranquil and still. I felt small compared to the glacial leviathan that almost cocooned me. I breathed more slowly, lowering my heart rate and welcoming the calmness that would enable me to explore this magical sculpture, carved by ice and time. All with a single breath.
I lost both my parents to cancer at the age of 25. When my mother passed away, it changed my life completely. The prospect of losing her had terrified me, but when the day finally came I was supported by my faith and belief. Perhaps it was because of that grief, and the way I dealt with it, that I chose to face another fear that has dominated my life – being in water. When I was three years old, I almost drowned in a pool during a family trip to Indonesia. It was our last family vacation before my father’s first cancer surgery. My uncle hauled me out of the water and resuscitated me. This led to a fear of being in water that has plagued me ever since. Whenever I found myself on a boat, or near a body of water, I became hesitant and afraid to even look down into the deep. I avoided pool parties and watersports, and was ashamed that I couldn’t swim. The sound of waves crashing on rocks or the surf rushing onto a beach paralysed me. Yet I suddenly felt excited by the prospect of embarking on something new and unknown. Fear became fuel; a motivation to conquer a phobia that had held me back for far too long.
In early 2017, a good friend of mine, a scuba diver, on realising that I wanted to learn how to dive, recommended me to a local dive shop. After my first scuba-diving session I was hooked. Everything I had suffered, fear and grief, just dissolved underwater. I felt rejuvenated; confused, yet overjoyed. In truth, I felt alive. The dive instructors encouraged me to explore more and dive deeper. Fear of water evolved into a hunger for extreme underwater adventure. Over the next few months I took weekend courses including an introduction to freediving. I learned how to extend my breath-hold underwater without breathing apparatus. Each time I walked into the classroom, emotion flooded me – doubt, fear, excitement, nervousness all intertwined – but even more so during that first freediving class with my diving instructor, Andrew Ryzebol. Two of my great passions began in that class.
What am I doing here? Why am I standing in the middle of a frozen lake, considering diving through a tiny hole in the ice? On a single breath?’ After that dive, it all made sense.
I became hooked on freediving. Fear became fascination. I trained in the pool four times a week and seized every opportunity to go diving. I held my breath everywhere I went to build CO2 tolerance and did O2 training tables whenever the opportunity arose. Freediving gave me peace. It helped me grieve, took me to places I could never have imagined, and offered me a sense of belonging and community. I explored shipwrecks and caves and reached depths I hadn’t thought possible on a single breath. Once winter fell, many divers remained strictly in the pool or travelled south to warmer waters to train. Instead, Andrew introduced me to the world of ice diving. This type of diving presented greater challenges that improved my technique and built mental and physical resilience. Ice diving became the next hurdle to be overcome – in that environment, it is even more critical to be aware of your body and know your limits. Handling extreme cold, adjusting to erratic weather patterns, and maintaining good spacial awareness are all fundamental. There is only one entry and exit strategy: that tiny hole in the ice. I recall ice diving with Andrew and a friend of his, Geoff Combs. It was -20°C with ferocious 50km/h wind. Snow slashed my face. As the boys chopped the ice hole with their axes, excitement, wonder, and fear eddied inside me. I thought to myself, ‘I’m crazy. What am I doing here? Why am I standing in the middle of a frozen lake, considering diving through a tiny hole in the ice? On a single breath?’ After that dive, it all made sense.
The tranquility below the surface soon overshadows the initial pain and discomfort. As I dive I close my eyes and focus on equalising my ears and gently kicking my fins to go deeper. As I kick down my senses are overwhelmed, my emotions heady and intense. I feel peace, wonder, mystery, cold, and a hint of apprehension all interlaced, coiling into something lyrical and beautiful. The silence is complete. Sanctuary from the drone of the city, the voice of my worries, and the ache of my grief. Once I was close to the bottom I opened my eyes to look up. A vast expanse of ice formed in sharp layers, varying in shapes and patterns everywhere I looked. Amazing, startling, breathtaking. Being 10m below a ceiling of ice can induce fear and panic for those not properly prepared. But for me, it brought a new perspective on how wondrous nature is. Even in the most hostile environments, I found beauty.
One of the main attractions of diving on Lake Huron’s Bruce Peninsula are the shipwrecks. This past season, Andrew and I dove beneath the ice and explored the Sweepstakes shipwreck – an old 119ft two-mast wooden schooner built in 1867. The uncanny sensation that comes from diving beside a piece of history is something I will not soon forget. A silent ghost in the cold stillness, sinister and melancholy. Despite the site only being 20ft deep, I was shocked at how many emotions came to me. Peace, wonder, fear, melancholy, joy – all are subsumed together into this one experience; all lead to a new perspective on life. These are the intrinsic pleasures of freediving.
Freediving has allowed me to go to places I had never before imagined. Diving shipwrecks, icebergs, and caves; swimming alongside sharks, manatees, whale sharks, stingrays, turtles, giant crabs, and octopi. With a single breath, freediving has changed my life. I overcame lifelong fear and began to explore a deeper, richer side of my mind. The discipline and accomplishment inherent in ice diving have brought new purpose and meaning to my life and I have been blessed to witness the awe of creation. With the freedom I have found, the possibilities are endless.
This story was first published in Sidetracked Magazine Volume 15.
Lilly Ryzebol is proud to serve as the Ontario Representative for AIDA Canada – the association for promoting the sport, education, and safe diving practices in Canada. The sport introduced her to her favourite dive buddy, her coach and the love of her life, Andrew Ryzebol, who proposed to her under the ice that winter.