Pierre Frolla is a four-time world record holder in free diving. These days the Monegasque swaps his solitude and fins for paddles and a swimrun partner.
By Nancy Heslin
“We move step-by-step towards an unknown that we learn to master as we go. Fear, doubt, cold, loneliness, fear of disappearing, the risk of drowning … these become part of our daily lives and you must accept to fail.” Pierre Frolla, freedive world record holder
For Pierre Frolla, honour, courage, commitment and humbleness are values we learn from the ocean and from snorkelling. “To be an accomplished freediver, you must first become an accomplished being,” says the four-time world record holder in apnée.
His father Claude, his brother Philippe and Pierre are all members of Monaco’s national spearfishing and deep snorkelling teams. It was only natural that Pierre and his younger brother, Philippe, would spend their childhoods “always trying to always go deeper.”
The Monegasque originally was an Olympic hopeful for 1996 Atlanta Summer Games in judo before a shoulder injury put an end to that dream. He turned his focus to getting certification as an instructor in free diving – or apnée, as it is called in French – the sport of plunging into deep waters on one breath and without any breathing apparatus.
“Apnée requires an enormous overall physical preparation – in swimming, running and bodybuilding – and massive work in terms of acceptance and adaptation to great depths,” explains the 45-year-old, who was born on Valentine’s Day. “You only succeed with your head and your mind, which means maturity, patience and the ability to let go. Like with triathlon or swimrun, the body must be prepared down to the smallest detail.”
In 1999, he became a world record holder with a free immersion dive at -72 meters in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, some 10 km east of Nice. This was followed in 2000 by another record (Free Immersion -73m), and a third the next year (Free Immersion -80m). In 2004, Pierre earned a world record title in free diving in variable weight (descending with weights and ascending without them by pulling on the rope or finning) with a depth of -123.45m.
“In any sport, the difference between someone who practices and a champion is the ability to put the odds on your side and do everything possible to reach your set goals,” says Pierre, who speaks English, Italian, Spanish and French.
“Snorkelling requires an enormous amount of time to acquire the adaptation of moving second after second and metre after metre,” describes Pierre. “Through this, we learn to know our body perfectly – our kinaesthetic, psychological, physiological sensations – and we move step-by-step towards an unknown that we learn to master as we go. Fear, doubt, cold, loneliness, fear of disappearing, the risk of drowning … these become part of our daily lives and you must accept to fail.”
“But then, there is no longer any fear, no more pain, no more thirst for air, just information. We never really know when to go up to breathe. We feel it throughout our body because our body gradually becomes ‘water’. To be as aquatic as possible we must become malleable like the liquid in which we dive.”
His success was not without heartache. Pierre suffered a serious free dive injury at -108m and lost one of his closest diving friends, five-time world record holder Loïc Leferme who died in Villefranche-sur-Mer when his equipment failed during a dive in 2007.
After his fourth world record, Pierre “wanted to give a much deeper meaning to my life. Being a top athlete, for me, means that you are very selfish because when you set a goal, nothing else matters. I absolutely needed to redeem myself.”
Already in 2002, he opened the first free diving school in Monaco, L’École Bleue, using snorkeling as a tool to teach 8 year olds about protecting Mediterranean flora and fauna. Nearly two decades on, there are a bunch of courses also for adolescents and adults. “For ten years now, I have also been teaching aquatic and underwater rescue to children and adults.” Pierre also works with Princess Charlene Foundation of Monaco, which focuses on water safety for children.
A far cry from a boy who was terrified of sharks after watching the movie “Jaws”, Pierre once commented that his biggest fear is living in a world where there would be no more sharks in the oceans. In 2005, he decided to protect great sharks across the world’s oceans. Alongside his friend Fred Buyle, a Belgian free diver turned photographer, the pair started to identify and tag especially White and Tiger sharks. In 2012, he swam for 45 minutes with the 25 sharks in the Paris Aquarium to raise public awareness for their protection.
The director of the Monegasque Academy of the Sea further extended his environmental protection goals after the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation (PAF2) was created in 2006 and he has worked with numerous missions around the globe. His next project, “The HEART of the Ocean,” is a film and book of photography scheduled for release in Fall 2021, with a profit of the sales being donated to PAF2.
As if not busy enough, in 2019, Pierre teamed up with Aqua Lung to produce a 2mm single-piece free diving wetsuit.
Pierre Frolla began swimrunning in 2016. “I find in swimrun the things that got lost in sports as they got bigger. I like this concept of running in pairs, attached to one another, it’s “one for all and all for one” like the Musketeers.”
Frolla has participated in several medium-distance races in France (Saint Raphaël Agathos, Côte de Vermeille and Les Saintes in Guadeloupe). In addition to sponsoring the 5th edition of Swimrun Beaulieu this October, he has helped organize the Mare e Monte swimrun this Sunday, July 19, covering 20 km with 3.7 of swimming in 7 sections.
“I enjoy swimrun because it is simple and we do it in a spirit of sharing,” Pierre enthuses. “But my favourite thing about this noble sport has nothing to do with reaching the podium. It’s about pleasure, and pushing past your limits takes precedence over performance.”
For Pierre Frolla, swimrun brings together commitment, fraternity, courage, honour – all those values he learned from the sea so many years ago.