Dispatches, July 1997
The most peaceful part of Mehgan Heaney-Grier's life begins at 40 feet below sea level. This is the 19-year-old's "buoyancy point," the depth beyond which she can stop kicking her three-foot fins, straighten her long, slender frame, close her eyes, and fall headfirst like an anvil toward the bottom of the ocean. "Once I break 40 feet, I don't move a muscle," she explains. "I just put myself in God's hands, and he takes care of it."
Sometime within the next few weeks, Heaney-Grier will take one deep breath and then attempt to propel herself past ten safety divers off Looe Key, Florida, snatch a tag at 210 feet, and swim back to the surface, delivering a new women's world record in the sport of free diving. Few observers doubt Heaney-Grier will break the current 204-foot mark held by Cuban Deborah Andollo — after all, some even think Heaney-Grier might be the finest free-diving prospect ever, male or female. "Mehgan will unify men's and women's free diving," insists Cuban expatriate Rudi Castineyra, Heaney-Grier's coach and the man who helped launch the career of his countryman Pipin Ferreras, who perpetually jostles with Italian archrival Umberto Pelizzari for status as the world's best free diver. "At some point, she will certainly break the men's record."
In free diving, practitioners must master but two things: equalizing their air passages rapidly as pressure builds during descent, and slowing their metabolism to conserve what precious little oxygen they have. Thus any discussion of Heaney-Grier's prowess inevitably focuses on her ears and her gender. "Mehgan has a very special pair of ears," Castineyra explains. "She can equalize at any depth. And she is a woman, which is good, because women have a much lower metabolic rate than men. I'll make her into a diving machine."
Not that she wasn't headed that direction anyway. In 1995, when Heaney-Grier attempted her first free dive, she reached a phenomenal 87 feet. A year later, while setting her personal best and the American record of 155 feet, she surpassed her previous mark by a full 15 percent. Still, she remains a long way off from the men's record of 236 feet — and at least one observer doubts that she can ever get there. "I've heard she's very good, but I don't think she can make it," says Ferreras. "Two hundred forty feet is very deep."
Whether or not she's ever able to outdo the men, Heaney-Grier undeniably has one thing over her hairy-chested rivals: vast marketing potential. Though she has not yet attracted any sponsors from outside the scuba industry, the amiable five-foot-nine blond already makes a comfortable living as a top Miami fashion model. "I suppose my looks make people take notice more quickly," she says. "But modeling also carries with it a negative stereotype. In the end, I want to be remembered for what I do in the water."
Ironically, this wish has many in her sport fearing its potential ramifications. Free diving is none too popular among scuba traditionalists, and some worry that the presence of such an attractive, girl-next-door superstar could draw droves of newcomers to what they consider a needlessly risky pursuit. In fact, citing the dangers associated with plummeting to extreme depths, the Conf‰d‰ration Mondiale des Activit‰s Subaquatiques, scuba's international governing body, stopped sanctioning "no limits" (in which mechanical devices are used to aid descent and ascent) and "variable ballast" (in which divers may use up to one-third their body weight in ballast during descent) free diving in the early seventies. CMAS does endorse "constant ballast" diving, the shallower, unassisted variety favored by Heaney-Grier, but warns that even this can bring on shallow-water blackout, a deadly condition that can occur right before resurfacing. "The problem with the record-setting crowd is that they popularize the macho aspects," complains Tec Clark, head of CMAS's U.S. federation. "People log onto AOL free-diving forums and say, 'I just went to 80 feet. How can I go deeper?' I refuse to answer that. They're missing the whole point."
Heaney-Grier doesn't entirely disagree, but also says she has no trouble understanding why beginners become so enthralled with the sport. "It's the most amazing feeling, a comforting feeling," she explains. "You're just gliding through the water, free-falling — down, down, down."
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