Freediver Nordblad, a mermaid in icy water

Olivier MORIN, Sabine COLPART
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Johanna Nordblad from Finland is the first woman to swim over 50 metres under the ice in freezing temperatures wearing just a swimsuit

As a young girl she dreamt of becoming a lion tamer. Johanna Nordblad became a freediving sensation, capable of incredible exploits under the ice.

No woman has ever before managed to swim over 50 metres under the ice in freezing temperatures wearing just a swimsuit.

The 41-year-old set a new world record at Lake Paijanne in her native Finland in March 2015, braving the tenebrous depths to swim 55 seconds between two small holes drilled in the thick ice.

"If someone had said to me ten years ago that one day I would dive under the ice I would have said 'no never'," Nordblad told AFP.

"I like the idea of constantly testing myself. I like to really know where my limits are. I tell myself I can't do something but then when I do I find it's quite easy. I was just scared."

Nordblad tried freediving for the first time aged 25. Four years later she was a world record holder after covering 158 metres underwater with flippers.

Capable of holding her breath for over six minutes, she could have continued to push the limits solely in snorkeling. But a serious biking accident in 2010 that almost took her leg opened another door.

The only relief for the shattered bones in her leg was cold water treatment.

"Little by little I got used to it and after several months I wanted to put the two legs in cold water. And then I dived. I'm a freediver, it's normal for me to dive in the water. Even if it's cold."

- 'Beautiful, scary' -

She's aware that she is doing something different, but for her nothing extraordinary, the result of training and self awareness.

"Most people are convinced they would panic. So they are facinated because I'm very relaxed.

"People think it's so cold, its so scary and it's so dark but it's not like that, for me it's beautiful.

"I like to dive, it makes me happy. I don't have to go to the other side of the world," she said.

In two months she will participate in the Finnish freediving national championships before bidding to break her own world record in 2018 and the record of Dane Stig Avall Severinsen, who swam 76.2 metres under the ice on April 17, 2013.

Living in Helsinki with her 15-year-old son Kasper - who prefers computers - Nordblad divides her time between training, her job as an animation artist and her shared activities with her photographer sister Elina Manninen,

"I'm just a normal person even if I don't have many friends who do the same as I do," she explained.

"I have to eat, I have to sleep, I have to work and I have to take care of many things, and then I have free time for me."

But Nordblad sees herself foremost as an artist.

"I like to design. I want to make drawings that make people happier.

"When I was young I loved art and water. Maybe I've never grown up," she laughs.