The Last Gasp

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The world of competitive freediving is pushing athletes to more extreme depths — where collapsed lungs, ruptured eardrums, and even death can claim them.

By Bonnie Tsui

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One Breath: Freediving, Death, and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits. (Photo: Crown Archetype)

One Breath: Freediving, Death, and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits
Adam Skolnick
Crown Archetype

On the afternoon of November 17, 2013, at Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas, 32-year-old American freediver Nicholas Mevoli became the first in his sport to die in international competition. Adam Skolnick, a journalist covering the emerging freediving scene for the New York Times, suddenly had a front-row seat to a sport in crisis. Though AIDA, the international freediving organization formed in 1992, oversaw up to 140 depth contests each year and had supervised more than 35,000 competitive dives up until that point, one basic problem remained: No one knew the effects of freediving on the human body.

Mevoli, who spent his childhood in Florida, didn’t take his first formal freediving class until 2011, while he was living in Brooklyn and working as a prop man on set for film and television shows. But he’d always been preternaturally gifted in the water; when his uncle took him on a spearfishing and lobster-diving trip in the Florida Keys with friends, nine-year-old Mevoli could stay underwater longer than any of the men in the boat. He knew instinctively what to do.

Skolnick’s new book, One Breath: Freediving, Death, and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits, tells the story of Mevoli’s turbulent life and rapid rise to stardom, leading up to the day of his death and interweaving the intimate biography with an examination of competitive freediving, a sport built on the simple act of diving as deep as possible on a single breath. Mevoli’s death became the tipping point for those in the sport to take a hard look at safety — to acknowledge how little they knew about the cumulative health toll of diving so deep for so long, and the resulting inability to institute effective safety protocols to protect athletes in competition.

What happens to our bodies when we freedive? On the surface, the lungs can hold about six liters of air. A diver has to kick hard to fight that natural buoyancy and become neutral, at 10 meters below. At 20 meters, negative buoyancy takes over and the diver begins to freefall, sinking at an average rate of one meter per second. By that time, lung volume has decreased by more than half, and the heart rate has slowed, with blood flow now shifting from the extremities to the body’s vital organs.

It’s during this part of the dive that an athlete begins to feel untethered, Skolnick writes, “floating through outer space.” Time slows down, and the athletic quest to push the body’s physical limits gives way to a spiritual experience, a sense of being “a speck of pure consciousness in a vast dark abyss.” The magic of this, of course, is rooted in what Skolnick, a longtime travel writer and now a recreational freediver himself, calls a “string of chemical reactions” that comes with limited oxygen and tremendous pressure on the human body, leading to nitrogen narcosis, “a throbbing euphoria that’s as close to an acid trip as it is enlightenment.”

Time slows down, and the athletic quest to push the body’s limits gives way to a spiritual experience.

Chasing this high is as much the allure, competitive divers say, as the record depths they are striving to reach. Both are draws for dropping deeper and deeper — and for enduring dangers that include strong currents, cold-water shock, loss of consciousness, ruptured eardrums, and “lung squeezes,” when capillaries in the tissue hemorrhage under pressure, leaking blood and plasma into the alveoli, or air sacs, and compromising lung function.

Until Mevoli died, lung squeezes were considered more annoyance than hazard. Freedivers often surface with bloody noses, and some come up coughing blood. Never before had the community considered this an injury of significance, let alone one that could lead to death.

In two years, Mevoli had achieved startling success in the freediving world: He’d won back-to-back titles at Deja Blue, a competition held in the Cayman Islands in 2012 and in Curacao in 2013; finished third at the 2013 Caribbean Cup in Honduras; and won silver at the 2013 world championships in Greece. In May of that same year, he became the first American to dive to 100 meters unassisted — that is, without a weighted sled to take him down — though he did use fins. A hundred meters: That’s the length of a football field, and then another to get back to the surface, on one breath.

As a newcomer to the sport, Mevoli dazzled with his natural talent and his intense pursuit of records within months of beginning to train. He had a magnetic personality and his peers wanted him to succeed, though some thought him arrogant for trying to achieve extreme depth so quickly. Skolnick spends many hours in this milieu, re-constructing scenes and conversations that make for novelistic reading. We are presented with a troubled, romantic character who spent his three short decades searching for meaning, finally finding it in a sport that was all about pushing the boundaries of what was possible. We don’t always like Mevoli, but we root for him.

But upon closer examination, the speed at which Mevoli achieved all these marks likely contributed to his death. Rather than slowly and methodically acclimating his body to the stress of diving over a span of many years, as most competitive freedivers had, he pushed himself unrelentingly hard over mere months. When he made his final dive that day in November 2013, his goal was 72 meters — no fins. He cruised down to 68 before he appeared to have trouble equalizing, pausing for nearly 30 seconds. But instead of coming back up, he began to descend again. He made it down to the metal plate marking his target depth and then rocketed to the surface. All told, he’d been submerged for three minutes and 38 seconds, almost a minute longer than he’d wanted to be.

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This story first appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.

A freediver needs to complete a surface protocol in order for a dive to count: the removal of face equipment, an OK hand sign, and a verbal “I am OK.” Mevoli was able to give the sign, but he slurred his words and clung to the line. Then he blacked out. The safety team tried to revive Mevoli, dragging him out of the water and onto the competition platform. But blood poured from his mouth, and he never re-gained consciousness. He was rushed to the rudimentary local health clinic, where he was declared dead at 1:44 p.m.

Skolnick does meticulous reporting on the follow-up to Mevoli’s death and its implications. Until Mevoli died, there was little in the way of research on the long-term physiological effects of repeated deep submersion. In Mevoli’s autopsy, doctors found alveolar capillaries that had been stretched to their limits many times during dives — “think of pantyhose stretched to maximum,” Skolnick writes. The vessel walls weaken, and tissues tear. The result is fibrosis, or the build-up of scar tissue.

Mevoli also had an enlarged right ventricle, as well as thickened pulmonary arteries — common among people with congestive heart failure. Doctors posit that his heart was forced to work harder to ensure enough gas exchange was occurring in order to compensate for the damage in his lungs.

There were other factors at play that day. The competition doctor leading the emergency response team was not prepared with a full medical kit. Mevoli had been spitting up blood the previous day, but didn’t report it. When he first encountered trouble on his descent, Mevoli should have come up. But he did not. Of course, we all accept risks for things that we love, and freediving is inherently a risky enterprise. There are new rules being implemented, but they likely won’t be enough. Dean’s Blue Hole is 202 meters deep, the deepest limestone pit of its kind in the world. Many have died there. Mevoli won’t be the last.

One Breathis a timely, immersive read. While the book was in publication, Natalia Molchanova, considered the greatest freediver in history, died under mysterious circumstances while teaching a private lesson off the coast of Spain; as the lone experienced diver in the group, she was diving without a safety buddy. Molchanova’s death is especially poignant because she appears vividly throughout the book, both as a voice of authority and as a charismatic champion for her sport. The holder of an unprecedented 41 world records, she was 53 years old. Her son and protégé, Alexey Molchanov, currently holds the record for the deepest freedive in the sport: 128 meters, with fins.

Molchanova was careful by nature. Though she was astoundingly accomplished at freediving, she felt that life was more than just sport and results. She did not dive near what she thought were her limits on the day she died, and she often spoke about freediving as something that fed her soul. “If we concentrate on the result and become fanatic, we don’t feel our body and we push our body,” she told Skolnick. “The biggest problem with freedivers now is they hurry. They go too deep too fast.” But the truth is, when it comes to freediving, we don’t yet know our limits, or what can happen to us over time. Molchanova’s body has not been recovered.

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