from The New Yorker

The Disappearance of the World’s Greatest Free Diver


Natalia Molchanova, pictured here in 2005, trained like an old-school Soviet athlete, but her voice was full of laughter and even joy. Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY JACQUES MUNCH / AFP / GETTY

It seems clear that the great free diver Natalia Molchanova is dead. She was diving last Saturday off the coast of Spain, giving lessons to a rich Russian, when she made a dive of her own and didn’t return. She was almost surely the greatest diver in the history of her sport, which, as mentioned in The New Yorker in 2009, is sometimes described as the world’s second most dangerous activity, after jumping off skyscrapers with parachutes.

In free diving, men and women descend as deep as they can on a single breath. Not infrequently, when they reach the surface after a deep dive they pass out. In a competition, if they pass out before five seconds after reaching the surface their dive doesn’t count. There are eight disciplines in free diving, three of which take place indoors in a pool and involve holding one’s breath and swimming as far as one can underwater on a single breath. The other five are deep-water disciplines. Two of them, variable weight and no limits, are too dangerous for competitions; a diver can only attempt a record. In variable weight, a diver is pulled down by a metal sled, then swims to the surface. In no limits, the diver also rides a sled but ascends by means of an air bag. In the remaining three disciplines, the divers descend by pulling on a rope, or wearing weights. The most prestigious event is constant weight, in which a diver wearing fins or a monofin, a device that looks like a mermaid’s tail, must return to the surface with the weight he or she wore to the bottom. Molchanova, who held the record for breath holding (nine minutes and two seconds), excelled at this, but she was pretty much better than everyone else at nearly all the tasks. She was challenged from time to time by other women, but never really seriously. She was so consistent that she was sometimes called “The Machine.”

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