Open Your Mouth and You’re Dead
The freediving world championships occur at the outer limits of competitive risk. During the 2011 event, held off the coast of Greece, more than 130 athletes assembled to swim hundreds of feet straight down on a single breath—without (they hoped) passing out, freaking out, or drowning. Meet the amazingly fit, unquestionably brave, and possibly crazy people who line up for the ultimate plunge.
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Junko Kitahama’s face is pale blue, her mouth agape, her head craned back like a dead bird’s. Through her swim mask, her eyes are wide and unblinking, staring at the sun. She isn’t breathing.
“Blow on her face!” yells a man swimming next to her. Another man grabs her head from behind and pushes her chin out of the water. “Breathe!” he yells. Someone from the deck of a boat yells for oxygen. “Breathe!” the man repeats. But Kitahama, who just surfaced from a breath-hold dive 180 feet below the surface of the ocean, doesn’t breathe. She doesn’t move. Kitahama looks dead.
Moments later, she coughs, jerks, twitches her shoulders, flutters her lips. Her face softens as she comes to. “I was swimming and…” She laughs and continues. “Then I just started dreaming!” Two men slowly float her over to an oxygen tank sitting on a raft. While she recovers behind a surgical mask, another freediver takes her place and prepares to plunge even deeper.
Kitahama, a female competitor from Japan, is one of more than 130 freedivers from 31 countries who have gathered here—one mile off the coast of Kalamata, Greece, in the deep, mouthwash blue waters of Messinian Bay—for the 2011 Individual Freediving Depth World Championships, the largest competition ever held for the sport. Over the next week, in an event organized by the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA), they’ll test themselves and each other to see who can swim the deepest on a single lungful of air without passing out, losing muscle control, or drowning. The winners get a medal.
How deep can they go? Nobody knows. Competitive freediving is a relatively new sport, and since the first world championships were held in 1996, records have been broken every year, sometimes every few months. Fifty years ago, scientists believed that the deepest a human could freedive was about 160 feet. Recently, freedivers have routinely doubled and tripled that mark. In 2007, Herbert Nitsch, a 41-year-old Austrian, dove more than 700 feet—assisted by a watersled on the way down and an air bladder to pull him to the surface—to claim a new world record for absolute depth. Nitsch, who didn’t compete in Greece, plans to dive 800 feet in June, deeper than two football fields are long.
Nobody has ever drowned at an organized freediving event, but enough people have died outside of competition that freediving ranks as the second-most-dangerous adventure sport, right after BASE jumping. The statistics are a bit murky: some deaths go unreported, and the numbers that are kept include people who freedive as part of other activities, like spearfishing. But one estimate of worldwide freediving-related fatalities revealed a nearly threefold increase, from 21 deaths in 2005 to 60 in 2008.
Only a few of these fatalities have been widely publicized. The famed French freediver Audrey Mestre—wife of freediving pioneer Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras—died in 2002 during a weight-aided descent to 561 feet, leading to controversy that continues still about whether Ferreras, who managed safety for the attempt, did his job properly. More recently, just three months before the 2011 world championships, Adel Abu Haliqa, a 40-year-old founding member of a freediving club in the United Arab Emirates, drowned in Santorini, Greece, during a 230-foot attempt. His body still hasn’t been found. A month later, Patrick Musimu, a former world-record holder from Belgium, drowned while training alone in a pool in Brussels.
Competitive freedivers blame such deaths on carelessness, arguing that each dead diver was going it alone or relying on machines to assist the dives—both very high-risk pursuits. “Competitive freediving is a safe sport. It’s all very regulated, very controlled,” says William Trubridge, a 31-year-old world-record freediver from New Zealand. “I would never do it if it wasn’t.” He points out that, during some 39,000 competition freedives over the past 12 years, there has never been a fatality.
Through events like the world championships, Trubridge and others hope to change freediving’s shaky image and bring it closer to the mainstream. City officials in Kalamata, a freediving hub, are trying to help. To that end, they hosted an opening ceremony for the event on a Saturday night along a crowded boardwalk. There, hundreds of competitors, coaches, and crew members in matching T-shirts and tracksuits waved national flags and screamed their countries’ anthems from an enormous stage—a scene that looked like a low-rent Olympics. Behind them, a 40-piece marching band played a ragged version of the Rocky theme as grainy video highlights from past freedives were projected onto a 30-foot screen.
“You ask me, this all looks crazy,” said Xaris Vgenis, a Kalamatan who runs a watersports shop near the beach. A video of a 300-foot dive appeared on the screen, and Vgenis shook his head. “You’ll never get me to do it!”
Then the lights of the stage darkened, the video screen dimmed, and the PA system went silent. Moments later, strobe lights flashed and streams of fireworks exploded in the night sky. The participants cheered while a few hundred locals scratched their heads. The 2011 freediving world championships were on.
Two days after the opening ceremony, on a windless and hot Monday morning, I head for the Kalamata Marina, where a scruffy Quebecois expat named Yanis Georgoulis is waiting on a 27-foot boat to carry me to the first event. For all its mainstream hopes, freediving has a built-in problem: it’s almost impossible to watch. The playing field is underwater, there are no video feeds beamed back to land, and it’s a logistical challenge even to get near the action. Today’s staging area is a sketchy-looking 20-by-20-foot flotilla of boats, platforms, and gear that looks like it was swiped from the set of Waterworld.
While we motor out in the shadow of toothy coastal mountains, I use the time to brush up on freediving’s complicated rules. The competition officially starts the night before a dive, when divers secretly submit the proposed depths of the next day’s dive attempts to a panel of judges. It’s basically a bid, and there’s gamesmanship involved as each diver tries to guess what the other divers will do. “It’s like playing poker,” Trubridge told me. “You are playing the other divers as much as you are playing yourself.” The hope is that your foes will choose a shallower dive than you can do, or that they’ll choose a deeper dive than they can do and end up “busting.”
In freediving, you bust either by flubbing one of dozens of technical requirements during and after the dive or by blacking out before you reach the surface, grounds for immediate disqualification. While not common in competitions (I’m told), blackouts happen often enough that layers of safety precautions are put in place, including rescue divers who monitor each dive, sonar tracking from the flotilla, and a lanyard guide attached to divers’ ankles that keeps them from drifting off course—a potentially fatal hazard, I’ll later learn.
A few minutes before each dive, a metal plate covered in white Velcro is attached to a rope and sunk to the depth the competitor submitted the night before. An official counts down, and the diver submerges and follows the rope to the plate, grabs any of dozens of tags affixed to it, and follows the rope back to the surface. About 60 feet down or lower, the competitor is met by rescue divers who are there to assist in the event of a blackout. If he passes out so deep that the safety divers can’t see him, that will be detected by the sonar. The rope will then be hoisted up and the diver’s unconscious body dragged to the surface, rag-doll style.
Divers who successfully resurface are put through a battery of tests known as the surface protocol. This gauges their coherence and motor skills by requiring them, among other things, to remove their face masks, quickly flash a sign to a judge, and say “I’m OK.” If you pass, you get a white card, validating the dive.
“The rules are there to make freediving safe, measurable, and comparable,” says CarlaSue Hanson, the media spokesperson for AIDA. “They are set up to ensure that, through the whole dive, the diver is in full control. That’s what competitive freediving is all about: control.” As long as you’re in control, it’s all right if (as sometimes happens) blood vessels burst in your nose and you come out looking like Sissy Spacek in Carrie. “The judges don’t care how someone looks,” Hanson says. “Blood? That’s nothing. As far as the rules go, blood is OK.”
After an hour, Georgoulis ties up to the flotilla. In the distance, a motorboat cuts a white line from the shore to deliver the first competitors to the site. There are no fans present. Only officials, divers, coaches, and a handful of staff are allowed out here, a group numbering about 15 today.
The divers show up wearing hooded wetsuits and insectoid goggles, each moving with syrupy-slow steps as they warm up on the sailboat, staring with wide, lucid eyes lost in meditation. One, two, three—they slide like otters into the sea, then lie back, looking semi-comatose as their coaches slowly float them over to one of three lines dangling from the flotilla. A judge issues a one-minute warning, and then the competition begins.
Freediving is broken down into multiple disciplines: today’s is called constant weight no fins, abbreviated as CNF. In CNF, divers go down using their lungs, bodies, and an optional weight that, if used, must be brought back to the surface. Of the six areas in competitive freediving—which include everything from depth disciplines like free immersion (the diver can use the guide rope to propel himself up and down) to pool disciplines like static apnea (simple breath holding)—CNF is considered the purest. Its reigning king is Trubridge, who broke the world record in December 2010 with a 331-foot dive. Today he’s trying for 305 feet, a conservative figure for him but the deepest attempt on the schedule. Before he arrives, a dozen other divers kick things off.
An official on line one counts down from ten, announces “official top,” and begins counting up: “One, two, three, four, five…” The first diver, Wendy Timmermans of the Netherlands, has until 30 to go. She inhales a few last mouthfuls of air, ducks her head beneath the water, and descends. As her body sinks into the shadows of the Mediterranean, the monitoring official announces her depth every few seconds. Two minutes later, after reaching 171 feet, Timmermans emerges and passes the surface protocol, setting a new national record. Another diver goes down on line two; another preps on three.
The diver on three takes one last breath, descends 200 feet, touches down, and, after three painfully long minutes, resurfaces. “Breathe!” his coach yells. He smiles, gulps, then breathes. His face is white. He tries to take off his mask, but his hands are cramped and shaking. Lack of oxygen has sapped his muscle control, and he just floats there, with blank eyes and an idiotic grin on his face, probably with no idea where he is.
Behind him another diver resurfaces. “Breathe! Breathe!” a safety diver yells. The man’s face is blue, and he isn’t breathing. “Breathe!” another yells. Finally he coughs, jiggles his head, and makes a tiny squeaking sound like a dolphin.
For the next half-hour, as divers come and go, these scenes repeat. I stand in the sailboat with my stomach tightening, wondering if this is the norm—and if it is, how the hell any of it could be allowed. All the competitors sign waivers acknowledging that heart attacks, blackouts, oxygen toxicity, and drowning may be part of the price. But I have a feeling that competitive freediving’s continued existence has more to do with the fact that the local authorities don’t know what really goes on out here.
Trubridge arrives, wearing sunglasses and headphones, his lean spider limbs dangling from the oversize thorax that is his chest. I can see his gargantuan lungs heaving in and out from 30 feet away. He’s so lost in a meditative haze that he looks half dead by the time he enters the water, latches his ankle to the lanyard, and gets set to go.
“Five, four, three, two, one,” the official says. Trubridge dives, kicking with bare feet, descending rapidly. The official announces “twenty meters,” and I watch through the clear blue water. Trubridge places his arms at his sides and floats down effortlessly until he’s out of sight, drifting barefoot into the shadows of the deep. The image is both beautiful and spooky. I try to hold my breath along with him and give up after 30 seconds.
Trubridge passes 100 feet, 150 feet, 200 feet. Almost two minutes into the dive, the sonar-monitoring official announces “touchdown”—at 305 feet—and begins monitoring Trubridge’s progress on the way back up. After a total of 3 minutes and 43 seconds, I see Trubridge rematerialize from the shadows. A few more strokes and he surfaces, exhales, removes his goggles, gives the high sign, and says in his crisp New Zealand accent, “I’m OK.” He looks bored, his body and brain seemingly unaffected by the fact that he just swam—without fins, without anything—30 stories down.
The next two days are rest days. By midmorning on Tuesday, the courtyard at the Messinian Bay Hotel is buzzing with the chatter of a dozen languages as teams gather around patio tables to sip bottled water, talk strategy, and e-mail worried relatives. The group here is largely male, mostly over 30, and generally skinny. Some are short, a few are pudgy, and most have shaved heads and wear sleeveless T-shirts, action-strap Teva sandals, and baggy shorts. They hardly look like extreme athletes.
“Freediving is as much a mental game as a physical one,” says Trubridge, who, in his wraparound dark glasses, cropped hair, and worn-out T-shirt, fits right in. He pulls up a seat beside me at the swimming pool. “It’s a sport that’s open to everybody.”
Well, maybe. You still have to be able to hold your breath an incredibly long time, exert yourself tremendously, and not freak out—something I find extremely challenging, even though I spend most of my spare time surfing. Recreational freediving is one of the fastest-growing watersports—a trend that will accelerate this year when Scuba Schools International expands its freediving courses to dozens of locations worldwide—but it’s hard to imagine competitive freediving in the Olympics anytime soon. It just seems too damned dangerous. I ask Trubridge to walk me through the physics and physiology of what he endures. Before long my stomach is tightening again.
In the first 30 or so feet underwater, the lungs, full of air, buoy your body to the surface, requiring strenuous paddling and constant equalization of the middle-ear cavities to gain depth. “This is where you use up to 15 percent of your energy,” Trubridge says. And you’ve still got 600 feet of swimming to go.
As you dive past 30 feet, you feel the pressure on your body double, compressing your lungs to about half their normal size. You suddenly feel weightless, your body suspended in a gravityless state called neutral buoyancy. Then something amazing happens: as you keep diving, the ocean no longer pushes your body toward the surface but instead pulls you relentlessly toward the seafloor below. You place your arms at your sides in a skydiver pose and effortlessly go deeper.
At 100 feet, the pressure has quadrupled, the ocean’s surface is barely visible, and you close your eyes and prepare for the deep water’s tightening clutch.
Further still, at 150 feet, you enter a dream state caused by the high levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas in your bloodstream: for a moment, you can forget where you are and why. At 300 feet, the pressure is so extreme that your lungs shrink to the size of oranges and your heart beats at less than half its normal rate to conserve oxygen. You lose some motor control. Most of the blood in your arms and legs has flooded to your body’s core as the vessels in your extremities constrict. Vessels in your lungs swell to several times their normal size so they won’t be crushed by the incredible pressure.
Then comes the really hard part. You open your eyes, struggle to force your semiparalyzed hand to grab a ticket from the plate, and head back up. With the ocean’s weight working against you, you tap your meager energy reserves to swim toward the surface. Ascending to 200 feet, 150 feet, 100 feet, your lungs ache with an almost unbearable desire to breathe, your vision fades, and your chest convulses from the buildup of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. You need to hurry before you black out. Above you, the haze of blue water transforms into a sheen of sunlight on the water’s surface. You’re going to make it.
You resurface, the world spins, people are yelling at you to breathe. Is this just another altered-state dream? It’s hard to tell. So you sit there, whacked out, trying to come to quickly enough to complete the surface protocol. You take off your goggles, flick a sign, say “I’m OK”—then you get out of the way and make room for the next diver.
How do you decide this is something you want to do? That you can do?
“I was always drawn to the ocean,” Trubridge shrugs when I ask him how he got into freediving. “My first memories were of the sea.” Born near the small village of Haltwhistle, Scotland, Trubridge was 20 months old when his parents, seeking adventure, sold their house, bought a 45-foot sailboat, loaded up Trubridge and his brother, Sam, and took off. For the next nine years they lived on the boat, sailing west. For fun, William and Sam would challenge each other to breath-holding dives. “We probably made it to 25 or 30 feet,” he says, then laughs. “Which, you know, in retrospect was all pretty dangerous.”
By the time Trubridge was 12, the family had settled in Havelock, a tiny town near New Zealand’s east coast. He studied genetic biology at the University of Auckland, where he tested himself one day to see if he could swim 80 feet underwater on one breath. One lap soon became two. Trubridge was slowly drawn into the sport.
After a stint in London as a bellhop in his early twenties, Trubridge took off for Honduras to explore freediving. “I remember diving one day, to maybe 60 feet, and lying down in a sea garden, relaxing, meditating, watching all the life and just being part of the environment,” he says. “Not having to breathe for a minute or two. It was just the most amazing and peaceful feeling you can imagine.”
For the next few years, Trubridge dropped out and dedicated himself full-time to freediving, honing his body into a machine built for undersea performance. He trained for hours a day, every day, swimming, doing yoga and breathing exercises. A rower and junior chess champion, Trubridge found that the combination of mental and physical training came naturally to him. “Freediving requires body, mind, and even spirit to be aligned and directed toward a common intent,” he says. “I’m the sort of person who requires a challenge.” When not diving, he translated freediving manuals, taught, and studied videotapes. At the end of a two-year stint bouncing around Central America, the Bahamas, and Europe, he hit the freediving scene as one of the best in the world.
“Here’s a guy who spent two years sitting on a mountain alone, just waiting,” says Sebastian Näslund, a Swedish freediver. “And when he came down, he was just kind of unstoppable.”
Between 2007 and 2010, Trubridge broke 14 world records (mostly his own) in the disciplines of constant weight no fins and free immersion, which allows divers to pull on the rope to gain depth and to ascend. Today he and his wife of two years, Brittany, live mostly out of suitcases, wintering in the Bahamas and summering in Europe. They teach courses between competitions to help make ends meet.
I wonder what keeps Trubridge bound to the sport. It can’t be the money: at the world championships, competitors pay about $700 to dive, plus accommodations, and win nothing but a medal. He makes a pittance through sponsorships. It’s not the fame, either. Few people outside freediving know who he is.
“To me, I don’t really have a choice,” he says in a soft voice. “There is an immortal peace confronting the underwater world on its own terms, with your breath at your breast. The ocean is just where I am meant to be.”
It’s Thursday, and the glassy blue waters of Messinian Bay are gray and wind-chopped from a storm that came through yesterday. It’s not raining now but clouds loom overhead, and subsurface visibility has diminished to about 40 feet. By 9 a.m. the first divers are in the water.
This time they’re using monofins—three-foot-wide wedges of plastic attached to neoprene boots. Compared with traditional fins (one on each foot), a monofin gives a diver more thrust with less effort. As a result, today’s dives will be about 25 percent deeper than the no-fins dives on Monday. The current world record in this category (called constant weight with fins, or CWT) is 124 meters—more than 400 feet—set in 2010 by Herbert Nitsch. Until 2009, only ten freedivers in the world had reached that mark. Today, 15 competitors will be attempting 100 meters, an almost unheard-of number.
British diver David King is one of them. King surprised everyone last night by announcing that he would try a 102-meter dive (335 feet), which would be a new UK national record. According to his teammates, he hasn’t gone deeper than 80 meters in the past twelve months.
The judge counts down. King wets his head, upends, and goes. I watch from the sailboat as his silhouette fades into the gray water below like a headlight disappearing in fog.
“My God, he is flying down,” says Hanli Prinsloo, a South African freediver who has joined me on the prow of the boat. Speed isn’t necessarily a good thing in freediving, she reminds me. The faster King goes, the more energy he burns and the less oxygen he’ll have for his ascent.
“Eighty meters, ninety meters,” the dive official says. “Touchdown,” he announces, and King starts coming back up.
“Ninety meters, eighty meters.” Then the official pauses. King is coming up at about half the speed of his descent. At 60 meters, the updates come slower. At 40 meters they stop altogether.
Five seconds pass. King has been underwater for more than two minutes. “Forty meters,” the official repeats. Pause. “Forty meters.”
A sickening anticipation sets in. I look around the sailboat. The officials, divers, and crews all stare at the choppy water and wait. And wait.
King appears to be moving, but too slowly. Five more seconds. He should have surfaced by now, but he’s still 100 feet down. Five more seconds. “Thirty meters,” the official repeats.
“Oh God,” says Prinsloo, holding her hand over her mouth. Five more seconds. In the water we see nothing—no sign of King, no ripples at the surface, no movement.
“Thirty meters.” Silence. “Thirty meters.”
“Blackout!” a safety diver yells. King is unconscious ten stories below the surface. The divers kick down into the water.
“Safety!” the judge on line three yells. About 30 seconds later, the water around the line explodes in a cauldron of white wash. The wetsuit-covered heads of two safety divers reappear. Between them is King. His face is bright blue, and he’s not moving. His neck is stiff.
The divers push his face out of the water. His cheeks, mouth, and chin are slicked with blood. “Breathe! Breathe!” the divers yell. No response. Bright drops of blood drip from King’s chin into the ocean.
“CPR! CPR!” the judge yells. A diver puts his mouth over King’s blood-covered mouth and blows. “CPR now!” the judge yells. King’s coach, Dave Kent, is yelling into King’s ear: “Dave! Dave!” No response. Ten seconds pass and still nothing. Someone yells for oxygen. Someone else for CPR. Georgoulis screams, “Why isn’t anyone calling a medic? Get a helicopter!” Everyone is yelling.
Behind us, on line one, another diver heads down. Then another surfaces, blacked out. The safety divers move King’s stick-figure form to the flotilla and punch an oxygen mask to his face. Still no response. His facial muscles are frozen into a sickly smile, his eyes wide and lost, staring out at the open sea.
The consensus on the sailboat is that King has died. But we’re 40 feet away from him now, and nobody can really tell what’s happening. The safety crew keep pumping his chest, tapping his face, yelling. “Dave! Dave!”
Then, miraculously, King’s fingers quiver, his lips flutter, and he breathes. Color returns to his face; his eyes open, then softly close again. He is breathing deeply, tapping his coach’s leg to let him know he’s OK.
In the wake of all this, Trubridge attempts a 118-meter dive on line one, but he turns around early and fails his surface protocol. British freediver Sara Campbell turns back after just 22 meters on a world-record attempt. “I couldn’t do it,” she says, hopping back on the sailboat. She was too shaken by King, who’s now being taken by motorboat to a hospital. As it races back to shore, there’s another blackout on line two. Then another on three.
“My God, this is getting messy,” says Campbell. The west winds are up now, chopping the ocean, fluttering the sail above us. “It’s like dominoes. Everything’s falling apart. This is the worst I’ve ever seen.”
The competition goes on for three more hours. On the last dive of the day, a Ukrainian, new to the sport, attempts a beginning descent of 40 meters. He surfaces and removes his mask to flash the OK sign, and a stream of blood gushes from his nose. Then he completes the surface protocol and is awarded a white card. The dive is accepted. Blood is OK.
That night at the hotel the divers cavort, some laugh, others casually shake their heads at all the drama. Of the day’s 93 competitors, 15 attempted dives of 100 meters or more. Of those, two were disqualified, three came up short, and four blacked out—a 60 percent failure rate. King is in the hospital. Nobody knows for sure, but the rumor is that the pressure tore his larynx, which is fairly common on deep dives. A minor injury, they say.
“This kind of thing never happens,” the divers repeat over and over, rolling their eyes. But I think this kind of thing happens all the time: it’s just that nobody here wants to admit it. The challenge now is to see who can move beyond today’s “messy” events, erase them from their minds, and dive to even greater depths on the final day of competition.
One person who seems unfazed is Guillaume Néry, a 29-year-old French freediver and the winner of yesterday’s CWT competition. The day after King’s near-death episode, I meet him midmorning at a table crowded with other members of the French team.
“I was not there, so don’t know exactly,” he says in a thick accent. “But I think the main mistake is not for Dave King but for all freedivers. They were focused on this 100-meter number and not on their feelings, not what they really want to do.” Néry, who started freediving at 14, gained international fame last year with the release of “Free Fall,” a short film that follows him on a 13-story freedive in the Bahamas. The clip has been viewed on YouTube more than 10 million times.
“I learned long ago that patience is the key to success in freediving,” he says. “You have to forget the target, to enjoy and relax in the water.” Néry smiles and runs his fingers through his mop of sandy hair, mentioning that he hasn’t blacked out in more than five years of steady freediving. “What is important now is trying to do the dive, surface, and have a smile on my face. That’s what I did.”
Not everybody is so philosophical. “Blacking out is like shitting yourself,” Sebastian Näslund tells me. “It’s an embarrassment to you and everyone else around you.” Fred Buyle, who became one of the first competitive freedivers in the 1990s and is now retired, echoes Näslund. “Honestly, I think the guy is a fucking idiot,” he says of King. “I thought he was dead. His coach thought he was dead. I’ve been freediving since 1990, and that’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Months later, King tells me by e-mail that he is aware of the criticism he received and offers his own perspective on what happened. “I am not a reckless diver,” he writes, noting that the blackout in Greece was his only one in ten years of freediving. He argues that his work schedule doesn’t allow him to train as much as other elite divers and that he had time for only three dives before the competition. “I got to 102 meters, equalizing easily,” he says. “I just had problems as I reached the surface.”
Saturday, the final day of competition, brings scalding sunshine, still air, and clear, calm waters—perfect conditions. The discipline today is free immersion, where divers are allowed to pull themselves down the line to reach their target depth. Free-immersion dives are a little shallower than CWT, but they can take a while, sometimes more than four minutes, making them excruciating to watch. The divers got a wrist slap last night from event director Stavros Kastrinakis, who told them, “Dive your limits.” The announced dives today appear to be more conservative. Still, there are a number of world- and national-record attempts planned.
As the morning unfolds, more blackouts occur, but today they don’t look so bad. Or maybe I’m just getting used to the sight of inert bodies and blue faces. Most competitors recover quickly, then swim back to the boat in silence, ashamed to have, again, pushed beyond their limits.
I keep watching as the next dozen athletes make their dives. Then the elite divers begin: Malina Mateusz of Poland breaks a national record with a dive of 106 meters. The women’s world champion, Russian Natalia Molchanova, sets a world record of 88 meters. Anton Koderman dives 105 meters to set a new Slovenian mark. Néry breaks the French record with 103. Trubridge does 112, almost effortlessly. Seven national records are broken in an hour. Everyone is in control. The sport, again, is awe inspiring and beautiful.
Then, at line two, a commotion breaks out. The safety divers have lost a Czech diver named Michal Risian. Literally lost him. He’s at least 200 feet underwater, but the sonar is no longer picking him up. He has somehow drifted away from the rope.
“Safety! Safety!” yells the judge. The safety divers go down but come up a minute later with nothing. “Safety! Safety! Now!” Thirty seconds pass. No sign of Risian anywhere.
On line one, Sara Campbell is preparing to dive. From below her, three and a half minutes after he went down on line two, Risian emerges—40 feet away from the line he was first attached to.
There’s confusion. Campbell jerks away, frightened. Risian snaps off his goggles, saying, “Don’t touch me. I’m OK.” Then he swims back to the sailboat under his own steam. He plops down on a seat beside me on the hull, laughs, and says, “Wow, that was a weird dive.”
Yeah, that’s one way of putting it. Before Risian’s dive and per the usual routine, his coach attached the lanyard on Risian’s right ankle to the line. As Risian turned and plummeted, the Velcro securing the lanyard came loose and fell off. The safety divers saw it floating, unattached, and rushed down to stop Risian, but he was already gone, 100 feet deep. Risian, unaware, closed his eyes, meditated, and drifted downward. But he wasn’t going straight down—he was angling 45 degrees away from the line, into open ocean.
Risian’s coach, realizing that death was the likely outcome of this screwup, floated motionless at the surface, gazing at the safety divers, who were too stunned to blink. “I’ll remember their looks for a long time,” he said later. “Terror, awe, fear, and sadness.”
Meanwhile, 250 feet below, Risian was diving farther down and farther away, oblivious to the problem. At 272 feet, he reached out to grab the metal plate, but there was no plate. “I couldn’t see any tickets, any plate, any rope, nothing,” he said. “I was completely lost. Even when I turned up and looked around, I saw only blue.”
At 29 stories down, even in the clearest water, all directions look the same. And all directions feel the same—the water pressure makes it impossible to gauge whether you’re swimming up or down, east or west.
For a moment, Risian panicked. Then he calmed himself, knowing that panic would only kill him faster. “In one direction there was a bit more light,” he told me. “I figured that this is where the surface was.” He figured wrong. Risian was swimming horizontally. But as he swam, trying to remain conscious and calm, he saw a white rope. “I knew if I could find the rope, I would be OK,” he said.
The chances of Risian finding a line 250 feet down—especially one so far from his original line of descent—were, I would estimate, about the same as hitting a particular number on a roulette wheel. Twice. But there it was, the line Sara Campbell was about to descend, some 40 feet away from where he had first gone down. Risian grabbed it, aimed for the surface, and somehow made it up before he drowned.
On the final night, the divers, coaches, and judges gather on the beach for closing ceremonies. Strobes and spotlights glare from an enormous stage, Euro pop blasts from a DJ booth, and a crowd of a few hundred dance and drink beneath a night sky sequined with stars. Behind the stage a bonfire rages, heating the bare, wet bodies of those who couldn’t resist one last splash.
The winners are announced. All told, the divers broke two world and 48 national records. Competitors also suffered 19 blackouts. Trubridge won gold in both constant weight no fins and free immersion.
“Risian is the real winner here,” says Trubridge, sipping a beer beside his wife, Brittany. Behind us, every 20 minutes or so, an enormous video screen shows the chilling footage of Risian’s tetherless dive, which was recorded on underwater cameras. At the end of the video, the crowd cheers and Risian, who’s had a few, rushes to the stage to take a bow. Dave King, the diver who suffered the horrific blackout just two days ago, walks through the crowd with the British team, smiling and seemingly in perfect health. Néry, in quintessential French style, is smoking a cigarette.
“There is such a strong community here,” says Hanli Prinsloo, drinking a cocktail by the bonfire. “It’s like all of us, we have no choice. We have to be in the water, we’ve chosen to live our lives in it, and by doing that we accept its risks.” She takes a sip. “But we also reap its rewards.”
I begin to understand her point. Freedivers have access to a world that the rest of us see only from the surface—from boats, surfboards, and airplanes 36,000 feet up. It’s safe, where most of us are, but it’s also isolating: we can never know the ocean’s true wonder, power, strength, or beauty. The real mysteries of nature are revealed to those who reach farther, push harder, and go deeper.
For freedivers, access to the hidden universe that covers 70 percent of the planet is worth the price of admission—blackouts, ripped larynxes, and all. And blood? What’s a little blood when you’ve made it to the other side?