The Secrets of The World’s Greatest Freediver
1. Rhapsody in Blue
For all the complex techniques required to succeed, the objective is remarkably simple: Go as deep as you can go on one breath and return to the surface without passing out or dying.
This is the point of freediving. At least the competitive point. And here in the Bahamas, 42 divers from around the world have gathered, like filings to a magnet, at a geological marvel called a blue hole, in this case a 660-foot elevator shaft of ocean water, to see how many stories they can plunge themselves down.
The competition, Vertical Blue, is the Wimbledon of freediving, summoning the planet’s best to battle in perhaps the most amenable freediving waters in the world. As the event’s founder, William Trubridge, who’s spent a lifetime scouring the earth’s surface for conducive spots to go deep, put it to me: “You could not design a better place for freediving if you sat down with pen and paper.”
But this is more than the pinnacle competition of a sport. Yes, the divers here devote their lives to the pursuit of record depths, but they also dedicate themselves to a novel way of interacting with this world and its oceans—and of being alive, of breathing. They come from Italy and Japan and New Zealand and Peru. They live and train in Sardinia and Okinawa and Cyprus and Tulum. They compete in the glorious depths off of Egypt and Turkey and Honduras and Greece. They prepare together, rent group houses on the road, often fall into bed with one another, and occasionally marry. They are specialized professionals but don’t really make any money; their sport hasn’t yet hit the big time. But no matter: To spend time in their midst is to begin to comprehend that they are after something greater, something sublime.
Freediving is, after all, a lifelong opportunity to radically reshape one’s body and mind in the process. In pursuing depth, humans must train their lungs and brains to unlock secret sources of clarity and strength and oxygen and potential that are hidden within the body. They are secrets that, once revealed, make the divers not just more effective at their craft, they argue, but more effective, conscious, skillful, and thoughtful as human beings. There is a shift in perspective. A global realignment within one’s consciousness. The look in their eyes when they talk about this thing…every diver who’s gone truly deep sounds like those rarest of individuals who’ve seen the earth from the moon, or died and been resuscitated.
The seemingly unique techniques of freediving, then, translate beyond the bounds of freediving. To other sports, to work, to relationships with colleagues and friends and family. There are, it turns out, benefits to better breathing, to masterful body control, and to pursuing the state of mindfulness that is required to plunge to unfathomable depths without freaking the fuck out and accidentally killing yourself. “There is a part of freediving,” the world’s best freediver, Alexey Molchanov, says, “that can be very useful for everyone.”
Like other activities in which the sublime is sought, danger is an animating feature. Blackouts are frequent, especially at shallow depths, even for the most skilled divers. Pressure, which builds as one goes deeper, can rupture the soft tissues of the ears, throat, and lungs if it’s not properly managed. The risks are deceptive. There is a temptation to go deeper before one is ready, which means that even the world’s best tend to bite off only incremental gains in depth. There are no shortcuts in freediving; no cheat codes to water pressure, buoyancy, and gravity. At the surface, after reacquainting with the air, there can be loss of motor skills, uncontrollable shaking, blackouts, blood. Death is rare, but ever present. At this same competition in the Bahamas eight years ago, a young American from Brooklyn who was quickly ascending the ranks of the world’s elite divers (perhaps too quickly, some say) died in this very cove, above this very blue hole. Safety protocols are always improving, but the specter lingers. It is not a stretch to suggest that when we humans deliberately cut off our access to oxygen, and then exert ourselves in athletic performance, we are inviting disaster, or at least tempting fate. And yet this is what it’s all about. When we tempt fate in this way, our bodies and minds surprise us. This is the allure of the practice of freediving.
There is, though, also the allure of records. The raw number. How deep can we go as a species? Today, there is one diver who goes the deepest, who blends the physical and metaphysical like no one else in the sport. Watching the 34-year-old Russian Alexey Molchanov dive can be dangerously disorienting. Seemingly anyone else attempting what he does would die. It is like watching the world’s best rock climber scale a sheer face with ease, only the inverse. That’s one way to think of what he’s doing: Free Solo but for drowning. Free Solo but down. And no one alive goes down like Alexey Molchanov.
Long Island, Bahamas, looks from above like a seagull in the sky of a child’s drawing. It is long, low-lying, rustic, remote. It is buttressed by a water so Bahamian blue the color looks borrowed from the nation’s flag. There are roadside grills and whitewashed churches and goats strolling the highway and hurricane damage stretching back many hurricanes. It is hot. Here is where the Tropic of Cancer passes through. If you can picture that bird in the sky, right where the wings come together there is a pitted dirt road to a secluded cove, and in that cove, a blue hole.
Dean’s Blue Hole sits within a natural amphitheater of scrub and rock, about 50 feet off of a secluded beach. Today, people are watching the action from those rocks, and from the surface of the water, and from well beneath, down in the hole. It is day four of Vertical Blue, and Alexey is attempting to break one of his own world records—in a discipline called Constant Weight—with a dive of 131 meters (or about 43 stories). In Constant Weight, competitors can dive with the assistance of a small amount of weight and the fin, or fins, on their feet. This is the deepest dive that anyone will attempt in the nine days of Vertical Blue. It is the deepest any diver has ever attempted in the history of the competition.
Alexey bobs vertically in the water. He is maskless but he has just affixed his nose clip. His golden wet suit clings tightly to his head and his body. Though he may be better known for the capabilities of his lungs and his brain, his body is different from many other bodies in freediving, as well. He is just short of six feet tall, bald, and looks as squat as a Soviet boxer. There is no ideal body shape in freediving but many of the divers at Vertical Blue are as long and lithe as distance runners. Alexey’s legs are like fire hydrants. On more than one occasion, I overhear other divers describe his ass as “meaty.” He is a unit. He sticks out.
Fans and fellow divers hang on the floating PVC pipe that delineates mere civilian waters from the “competition zone” above the blue hole. All around are tan chests, taut arms, and high butts bobbing at the surface. There is stillness. No current, no breeze. There is a palpable buzz all around. The safety chief asks the crowd to quiet down. But Alexey will not notice us, anyway—not us or the commentators floating on that platform or the cameras in his face or the implications of his attempt. He is already in transit to another realm.
When Alexey was younger, his mother, Natalia Molchanova, was the world’s best freediver, a distinction that she held for many years. She was a pioneer in the sport and the practitioner of a mind-and-body-control technique called “attention deconcentration.” She passed her secrets to her son, who perfected them and uses the regimen to reach a state of intense calm. By doing so, he can slow his heart rate, his metabolic rate, while simultaneously slowing the activity of his brain and his body. His focus deepens. He relaxes to the point of seeming asleep. He takes deep, drowsy breaths, like a summer breeze filling a sail.
The judges count him down to the start of his dive: One minute…
His jaw is slack. His eyes are half-mast. He is there, but not there. The breaths fill his enormous lungs, which he’s worked to accommodate over years by developing flexibility in his rib cage and chest. You know how stretching a balloon makes it easier to blow up? Alexey has been doing something like that for the past 20 years—stretching out the balloons of his lungs to maximize their capacity to hold air.
With one hand, he holds the dive line—a long cable that marks the path down the blue hole. The dive line serves two primary purposes: to lead the diver to their depth; and to pull the diver up by a winch, as though they are a hooked fish, if he or she blacks out on their way down or up. Once the judges’ countdown reaches zero, Alexey fills his lungs with one great inhalation, and then begins to sip little mouthfuls of air that he compresses on top of his already full lungs. It’s like putting another shirt in an already stuffed suitcase, then another shirt, and then upwards of, like, 30 more shirts. This advanced method is, naturally, called packing. Once Alexey can pack no longer, it’s time. He rolls over into a dolphin dive, his head disappears beneath the surface, and the large monofin that he wears on his feet shoots straight up in the air, lightly spraying the spectators on the pipe.
From the edge of the competition zone, a spectator can, at this point, dip beneath the surface and watch the sleek form in its golden wet suit plunge toward the abyss. Alexey takes several big dolphin kicks, his powerful legs working like the first stage of a rocket. He is fighting the positive buoyancy at the surface, the thing that keeps us afloat in the sea and returns us to the surface after a shallow dive. Alexey eats up that depth quickly, and then, at around 20 meters, he vanishes from view altogether.
At 22 meters, a small alarm from Alexey’s watch signals to him that it’s time to transfer reserves of air from his lungs into his mouth and neck so that he can equalize his ears as he goes deeper. Alexey is doing that once every few seconds during the first 20 meters, preempting the change in pressure, which comes quickly. In the first 10 meters, the pressure doubles. By 20 meters, it’s tripled. To combat the mounting pressure, Alexey heeds his alarm and moves air to his neck and mouth and pushes his tongue toward his eardrums. All this while remaining utterly calm, present, unthinking, practically catatonic.
There is a moment not much deeper into the dive when the body realizes that it is not getting oxygen the way that it usually does. This is, in part, the effect of the elevated carbon dioxide in the system. Bodies react differently, but among less advanced divers there is often an involuntary panic that sets in, convulsions or contractions; an internal spasm by the cells and alveoli, which scream for fresh air. And yet, if you pass through this traumatic phase, on the other side there is one of those unlocked secrets of the body: more oxygen. If pushed to its limit in this way, the body flips a switch, part of the mammalian diving reflex, like toggling to a reserve tank of gas. It is just one of the body’s many extraordinary automatic mechanisms for staving off death—drowning, asphyxiation, brain damage, whatever—and one of the mechanisms that freedivers train to exploit. Blood begins to flow in from the extremities to the core, to the lungs and vital organs, drawing limited oxygen away from less critical body parts to those necessary to sustain life. Alexey can feel the capillaries in his lungs expand and the capillaries in his extremities constrict. A warming occurs all over. A bear hug from the depths.
For Alexey, at around 30 meters the buoyancy shifts to negative and he begins to free-fall. Alexey relaxes his body further. With his arms down at his sides to reduce drag, he starts plummeting to the bottom of the ocean. There is a long, warm embrace and a drift toward nothingness in a sort of zero G. It is a physical manifestation of his mental state. Calmness. Stillness. Barely-there-ness. There are dreamlike contours to the plunge.
At 45 meters: a second alarm. Alexey can hear it clear as a bell, thanks to the acoustics of the deep. The notification means that his free fall has reached its maximum speed and his lungs are compressed to almost one-sixth their size at the surface. The oxygen is no less than it was up there. It’s just taking up a much smaller amount of space, as gases can and do. He is racing toward the bottom, neither accelerating nor decelerating. He is equalizing all the way, but his mind is empty. His fin works as a rudder, moving subtly to hold the absolute vertical of his position. He is goggle-less and his eyes are still half-mast. There but not there.
A third alert sounds as he approaches his attempted depth, marked by a plate at the bottom of the dive line. Three meters short of the plate, the line goes from white to striped, letting Alexey know he is close. All around him, it has been lightless for some time, except for the light from the lamp on his head. If it were to go out, he would not be able to see his hand in front of his face. Given that he’s not breathing, there’s no real sound either. Just: a sensory oblivion. Spooky stuff.
At the bottom plate, he grabs a tag—a symbolic gesture to signify that he’s been here, like the seizing of a shell off the ocean floor—rolls forward, executes a simple turn, and with one tug on the rope, thrusts himself back toward the surface. Up there, in the Bahamian daylight, the judges have been tracking Alexey’s descent, counting depth off like mission control as the lunar module approaches the moon. 110…120…touchdown! The crowd claps, cheers, splashes. At the end of the dive line he is halfway home, but halfway is always as far from breathing as you can be.
During the five days that Alexey and I spend together in the Bahamas, the question that makes him most uncomfortable is not whether he ever worries about blacking out 400 feet beneath breathable air, but about whether he might one day have to give up the vagabond existence he’s cultivated—moving to dive spots for weeks or months at a time. “I’m not thinking in the categories of really settling somewhere…,” he says, on the porch of the house he’s renting here with his wife and infant son and some other divers for several weeks. “I can just go somewhere, live somewhere for a month.” Just as he’s doing here. “Since I finished university, I haven’t spent more than five, six months at home in Moscow.”
That these divers orient their lives around the oceans, around the planet’s best spots to dive, around these long competitions, is a matter of course. They move around the world at significant cost and with little in the manner of sponsorship and prize money. They are simply in pursuit of these pure experiences: It is, like surfing specific breaks or claiming particular peaks, a devotional framework for one’s life. At dinner one night, Alexey shows me a marine navigation app he uses to look for new sites to chase depth. Most places on the planet we scroll over he seems to have been to before. This was the dream: To see the world, to encounter the ocean’s riches, to experience things no other human has—it’s what drew Alexey to freediving from the start.
Alexey grew up in southernmost Russia, in Volgograd (“the old name is Stalingrad”), and, like many busy children of the ’90s, his schedule was packed with activities. Swimming and violin and chess and tae kwon do. He marvels at the way his parents balanced that life for him without pushing too hard on any one pursuit. He chose swimming and, as a teen, went to Saint Petersburg for a swim-focused boarding school, a thrilling and impactful first taste of life away from home, followed by university in Moscow. There, Alexey transitioned from competitive swimming to freediving. He’d been doing something like it all his life, even if he didn’t call it that—swimming and diving as early as three, messing around with breath holds on vacations to the Black Sea not long after. It hadn’t occurred to him that he might build his life around diving. “But one day,” he says, “I saw these articles in magazines about freediving competitions. And trips. It wasn’t just a sport, the way it was presented, it was already this whole lifestyle. Of travels and adventures. With dolphins and sea lions and whales and sharks.” It was a specific grand way of experiencing the world, of living in the world, of orienting his life around this new thing that he could be extraordinary at.
His mother had caught on only a little earlier. Natalia was, like Alexey, a competitive swimmer, but only took up freediving when she was 40, after a challenging divorce from Alexey’s father. By her 50th birthday, she had set numerous world records in various disciplines. “Many people, when they reach 50, they think life is over,” she said. “I want to show them, there is more they can do.” The next year, in 2013, she broke the world record in five disciplines. Concurrent to her development, Natalia built a freediving school in Moscow. When Alexey graduated from university and threw himself into the sport, he worked side by side with his mother, first at the school, then in their business, Molchanovs, which mostly sold wet suits and fins. (The logo, a fish tail designed by Alexey, is also two m‘s: “The big m is my mom and the little m is me.”)
Natalia was regarded as a sort of sage in the sport. “Freediving is not only sport,” she once said, “it’s a way to understand who we are. When we go down, if we don’t think, we understand we are whole. We are one with world.” Through deconcentration, a form of advanced meditation she described as having evolved from techniques used by ancient warriors, she could reset her mind and feel more prepared to take on the world. But in 2015, during a presumably routine training dive near the Mediterranean island of Formentera, she disappeared. She never resurfaced—just literally vanished into the sea. Her presence hovers above freediving and freedivers, and naturally, her legacy lives on most urgently through Alexey, who remains in charge of the school and business, and serves as the conduit to her tenets of diving and deconcentration. Those techniques provide anyone with ways to breathe better, to go deeper more safely, and to expand one’s capacity to operate without air. But, in a broader sense, they also give individuals tools to stare life’s gravest challenges in the face and not look away.
When Alexey teaches these skills, they are not theoretical. They are techniques, after all, that come from a man whose mother disappeared from this world while doing the very thing he’s devoted his life to. At one point, as I alluded to, I asked Alexey if he ever gets consumed by the risks, the potential implications, of a dive gone wrong. “Statistically,” he says, “it’s very safe. When you have this strength and connection between your mind and body, you have this awareness, a sense of if you’re at the limit.” But was there ever a moment, in the wake of what happened to his mother, I asked, when he had hesitation about going on? “Sometimes when I had blackouts and other traumas, she was worried for me and wanted me to stop,” he says. “But I didn’t want to. I wanted to continue.” He wanted to go deeper.
Alexey is unaware of what’s happening at the surface on his world-record attempt at Vertical Blue. He is unaware of anything at all except the hug at depth. His mind has retreated and his body has taken over. He is flying through space in the opposite direction now, but what are directions in the black?
On the way up, his arms are in an aerodynamic position over his head. He kicks calmly with his monofin, focusing all his efforts on efficient and economical movement. He is fighting negative buoyancy now. Any extra tension can eat up energy and precious oxygen. The whole game is this balance of action and inaction. Of optimal motion.
He has been underwater for two-and-a-half minutes now. This is nowhere near as long as he can last. He has a personal Static Apnea record (holding breath in a pool) of 8:33 officially, and nine minutes in training. But in motion, one’s capacity for breath hold is usually only half what it is sitting still, and, anyway, from the surface it feels like he’s been down there for an eternity. He climbs and climbs, and the judges begin to count him back to the surface. 50 meters…40 meters…
This is where divers can get into trouble. They are climbing and they are starting to feel the effects of their breathlessness. When you sense that you’re out of oxygen, you might start to feel tired, your legs might start to get lactic, and it’s natural to want to speed up or tense up. But tensing up, particularly in the shoulders and neck, can restrict blood flow, and right now Alexey needs especially good blood flow to the lungs and brain. This is the discipline: resisting the overreaction, suppressing the desperate move, balancing the need to rush toward the surface with a calmness that keeps one from overriding the plan. Alexey controls his mind and his body with totality.
At 40 meters, a safety diver meets Alexey in the blue hole. At 30 meters, he’s joined by another. They dive to his depth, get close to him, but not too close—they don’t want to contribute to lost focus. They watch Alexey’s face for signals of distress, and kick up alongside him to the surface.
At 20 meters, the spectators watching from above with their faces in the water spot Alexey’s form emerging from the abyss, shrouded by the blurred motion of the safety divers. Positive buoyancy has returned and it begins to lift him. He slows himself down but still breaches the surface with tremendous force, popping up like a rubber ball held underwater. He grabs the line and the air rushes from his body. He fills his lungs with fresh air in forceful draws, his “active inhales.” If a diver blacks out, it’s usually at this moment.
Once Alexey emerges, he has 15 seconds to meet the surface protocol. He must show the judges that he is okay (by flashing an okay sign). He must keep his airways above the water. He must flash the tag he grabbed at depth. And he must not pass out. He can cough up blood from a torn lung. He can produce pink foam or his lips can turn blue. But if he meets protocol, the dive is good.
Alexey looks strong. In complete control. He receives a white card from the judges. The dive counts. It is yet another world record. The large crowd, which had to be implored not to put too much weight on the PVC pipe of the competition zone so as not to sink it, erupts with cheers and splashes.
As Alexey swims away toward the recovery platform, the safety chief yells over to him jovially: “Alexey, what is your secret?!”
Alexey is huffing for air still, unable to speak.
“You won’t disclose!”
Alexey catches his breath and smiles. “I won’t disclose….”
5. The Secret; or the Physicality of Nowness
But, in fact, he is happy to disclose. Just as Denzel Washington is willing to tell you how he acts without worrying that you’re going to steal his roles. It’s easy to share secrets when you know no one can do what you can do with the information.
Learning to control one’s breathing is important, but so is learning to control one’s mind. Oxygen deprivation is, after all, Alexey says, one of the most physiologically stressful things we can experience in life. When every bit of our body starts to scream for air, it surfaces our fears. It emphasizes our proximity to death. Our pulse increases. Panic sets in. Every reaction we are trying to suppress rears itself with fangs. The test is what we will do in that moment.
For Alexey, the goal is to sink into that challenge, that panic, and maintain the focus, the stillness, the meditation, even as it only gets harder to do so. The whole thing is a test of faith: Do I believe that I have more oxygen on the other side of this stress? Do I believe that I will be okay? Our minds are sharpened by facing that test of faith and ultimately passing through to the other side, where there are, it turns out, reserves of oxygen and an even deeper state of focus, stillness, and calm. “Learning how to deal with it,” Alexey says, “gives us this mental strength and focus with other challenging things that happen in our lives—for them to feel less important to us, and less provoking.”
What Alexey has discovered is a way of playing with perspective. “I can,” he says, “make this whole dive superhard or super successful, just by having a different perspective on the dive.” The key is to snap his attention back to the present moment, to train his brain as vigorously as he can train his body to almost physically overcome his thoughts and hold his mind in a state of nothingness and nowness. “I feel how my attention can get broadened in time and space,” he says. “I can be thinking about the future, I can be thinking about the past. All these thoughts everywhere. We have that a lot in life. But if I was just to pull them back into the now moment, pull my thoughts back, really physically, that’s the technique that feels like a technique that can be learned. When I practice it a lot, it’s like an arm movement. Physical. You just pull it back. And you get your attention to the shortest possible time moment.”
The past vanishes. The future does not exist (because it does not exist). Only nowness, only hereness. There is nothing beyond the body, the breathing, the intense focus of the next meter, centimeter, millimeter of depth. The focal length of time and space shortens to practically nothing. After thousands of training dives, the body knows what it is meant to do, but the mind is always threatening to wander. The key, he says, is physically pulling it back. Here. Now. Flatness. One dimension. Not even a line, but a point. Nothing in front or behind, above or below or to the sides. Just this. We can all handle just this.
This is how one goes deep, lowers the heart rate, seems to practically fall asleep at the bottom of a world-record-setting dive, while doing the thing in the water that most of our bodies revolt against most violently. If you can learn to handle that trial, you can learn to focus your way through a penalty kick or a presentation to the partners or a live TV appearance or a job interview. We can remind ourselves that we’ve put ourselves in that position, said yes to the opportunity, pushed ourselves to the outer limits of our comfort zone, and done so willingly.
I ask if he is ever fearful, ever nervous, if he ever gets butterflies before a major competition. “No. That’s something I learned over the years to control,” he says. “The thoughts that you don’t want to do this. Because this super important moment comes. It can be whatever, a dive, a presentation. And you feel sick because of your thought process, where you don’t want to do this because of this pressure. Will he do it? Will he meet others’ expectations? It’s a lack of self-assurance in your abilities. But the shift should be: This is the area of my expertise. This is what I want to do. I have the current skills that I have, I’ve prepared as much as I can, and I will do the best that I can. But I do this because it’s my choice. Realizing your best potential is only possible while being relaxed, while calm.
“With a big event,” he says, “instead of focusing on the importance of an event, I switch to focusing on how much I enjoy deep diving, and how much I enjoy the process. I’m doing this because I like it, and I know how to do this really well. I’m diving with this reason in mind. And I’m doing this because I want to…. When I know I am capable of this, then I can really pull in all my focus to the pleasure of it all.”
The pleasure of it all. It is a version of Alexey’s story that connects each of the competitors at Vertical Blue. These divers, in pursuit of both depth and width of experience—of searching the surface of this watery planet for miraculous marinescapes, for blue holes. At first, divers might go off in pairs, or little packs. Spreading their wings, dusting off their passports. But what a competition like Vertical Blue does is serve as the great pilgrimage for all serious comers. It brings this group of 42 divers to this sparsely populated island of 3,000 (nearest town to Dean’s Blue Hole, population: 86) together for a nine-day competition. There is not much besides one another. There are just a couple restaurants open nearby. There are more churches to attend on Sundays than places to buy potable water. Things can be hard and a little lonely if you don’t find each other. But they always do. This community. It is addicting. The dives are one pleasure. The family is another.
During my time in the Bahamas, I bump up against the edges of this family. For example, while waiting for Alexey to wake up from a nap one afternoon, his housemate Arnaud Jerald (the new Constant Weight Bi-Fins world-record holder until Alexey breaks it five days later) insists on making me an omelette and salade. He is from Marseille, has been at this house near the blue hole for a month, training and taking pictures. He has grand designs for his life in the sport, a plan to excite more high-end sponsors into supporting freediving. He just signed with Richard Mille—making him one of the few freedivers to ink an endorsement deal with a luxury-watch company. He shows me some underwater photos that his partner, Charlotte, had just taken of him in a polo walking on the edge of the blue hole, like it was the surface of a distant planet. He wants would-be sponsors to see what’s possible with divers in the picture.
At a waterfront restaurant one night, sitting at the bar and reading a book, I find myself surrounded by a third of the field of divers. There are groupings that I relish. Pods of nationalities. Clusters by age. A married couple. A couple that might like to be married. I count off the countries represented in my midst: Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Chile, Turkey, Italy, Slovenia, France, Tunisia, and Mexico. On the beach each day are competitors, of course, but there are also mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. While a Czech diver pursues records, her young daughter snorkels in the shallows. The son of an Italian national-record holder is well on his way to matching his father’s tan. There are babies, too, like I’ve never seen in the water. Naked little infants squawking in the waves. You come this far for this long, everyone comes with.
At the restaurant, I help Turkey’s top female diver, Sahika Ercumen, find some fish on the menu that isn’t fried. She’s known Alexey since they were teenagers, “since he had hair,” she says, smiling. “2006, Tenerife. Natalia was there. We were kids, and now he has a baby.” They came up together, live in their respective corners of the world, but then, a few times a year, there are events like this one, with this family, where, Ercumen says, it’s just about “making these memories together.” Ercumen had COVID last year, was terrified about how it would react with her asthma, what it would do to her lungs. Over the course of her six dives, she set five new Turkish records.
All gratitude for the annual family reunion is owed to William Trubridge, the founder of Vertical Blue and one of freediving’s all-timers. Alexey would ultimately break three of the four world records in the competitive depth disciplines at this year’s Vertical Blue, but the fourth is still held by Trubridge, in his specialty discipline, Constant Weight No Fins. No Fins is considered the purest of the dives, as it most resembles the sort of purpose-driven plunges that humans have been taking for thousands of years, to spearfish, to scoop sponges and pearls, to explore the ocean.
Raised in New Zealand, Trubridge moved to Long Island, not far from Dean’s Blue Hole, in 2006, to train. Since then, freediving and Vertical Blue have experienced a rapid evolution. By 2010, he had built a world-class competition. Then, in 2013, in just its sixth edition, tragedy struck. An American diver named Nicholas Mevoli experienced a pulmonary hemorrhage caused by barometric pressure and died at a medical center near the blue hole. Still nascent by the standards of most organized sports, freediving has a growing infrastructure in place for better education, better training, and safer competition. When I ask Trubridge what prior accounts of freediving tend to get wrong, he thinks for a moment, then says the sensationalism of it: “Some people have only focused on the coughing up blood, the blacking out. That is part of it, sure, and that’s a risk that is there. But it’s like auto sports: If you were to just focus on the crashes, you wouldn’t be telling the story in full.”
Still, the effects of diving to these depths day after day are cumulative. In the lungs, in the legs, in the head. Which is one reason why things at the surface get dicier by the last days of competition. Even Alexey, on day eight, takes longer on his Bi-Fins dive than expected. And though he winds up breaking Arnaud’s short-held world record, watching someone fail to emerge from the deep for even just seconds beyond their projected time is enough to make a viewer acutely uncomfortable. On day nine, seven divers fail to reach their attempted depths and five divers black out. Alexey, having nothing left to prove, does a sort of victory-lap dive in recreational fins. Before the dive, Trubridge is in the commentator booth, adding some color to the event’s livecast on YouTube. “Alexey’s been in incredible form this whole competition,” he says. “He’s really untouchable in pretty much all the disciplines at this time.”
Despite being the world’s best freediver, Alexey makes most of his money from the family business. He’s turned down all sponsorship offers to this point, holding out instead for when the sport’s profile grows further. Every once in a while, he’ll participate in an exhibition in Dubai where the winner gets a car—and then he’ll sell the car for cash. There’s a real opportunity for luxury sponsors in the sport, he says, but it’s slow. And so for now, everyone does their own thing. (Slovenian Alenka Artnik, one of the world’s top female divers, is sponsored by, among others, a port and the Slovenian police.) Alexey knows that the future—for the sport and his role in it—will be forged on several potential fronts.
First, a global tour. Like Formula 1 or the ATP. Can’t you see it? These beautiful coves and coastlines and island-fronts the world over, where there’s just enough depth for some world-record attempts and some yachts to anchor up? It feels like the sport is one breath-hold-obsessed billionaire away from a fully funded tour of Grands Prix, one luxury-car title sponsor away from a 10-event season in the Mediterranean, one viral Netflix documentary away from becoming the world’s fastest-growing sport.
Second, amateur events. “Why do people run marathons and participate in triathlons?” he says. “Not to become a national champion or a world champion. They do it as a way to grow and get healthier and structure their life and feel progress.” These exotic locations. The effects on the body and mind. Just listen to a diver describe seeing the sun and sky and gradients of blue from a hundred meters beneath the surface, and it’s easy to imagine novices training up from zero to travel the world for a new hobby.
Third, freediving schools and studios. In the past, Alexey says, diving schools have primarily been set up in coastal diving locations. But Alexey wants to put his new schools mostly in cities. “I really like the concept of having a school in a busy city, where it’s needed to help people calm down and find balance.” The Moscow school is a hit among business executives, entrepreneurs, and average Vlads. His next target? New York. Imagine, then, next to the yoga studio and the climbing gym, a place to train in freediving breath techniques. It reminds me of something a newer diver said to me on the beach at Dean’s Blue Hole one afternoon: “It’s hard to resist getting hooked. You go down for four minutes, and you come up feeling like you’ve been sitting on a zafu pillow for two hours.”
If Trubridge had been the steward of the spirit of freediving all these years, then maybe Alexey could be the steward of its business viability. They were both necessary. Trubridge had done extraordinary things to grow the sport, but it had remained niche. Alexey had ambitions to make freediving big enough for his friends and fellow competitors to earn real money. To build it for the next generation. To make freediving a thing not just for a global tour but also a thing for your bourgeois neighborhood. Yet despite his focus on the business potential for the sport, he is no less consumed by the beauty of it.
The day I arrived in the Bahamas, I went to the blue hole several times. It wasn’t all that close to where I was staying, but I kept going back all week, again and again, to watch other divers, or to sit on the beach with locals grilling seafood close by, just looking at those blues in a lot of different lights. Well, that first night, I went back on a whim near dusk and accidentally met our hero, Speedo-clad and strolling jovially through the sandy parking lot toward the beach.
I hadn’t planned to see Alexey at all that night, but if I had, I would’ve expected to find him in deep, almost monastic, preparation for yet another world-record dive. But his wife and infant son were with him, too, just swimming at the blue hole. Here was Alexey, the fearsomest of all the freedivers, splashing around in the depths. I was stunned. It was like happening upon Roger Federer hitting balls with his kids at Centre Court the night before a final. There was no anxiety, no stress, no fear.
His mother had died freediving in waters much shallower than these, half a world away. A man had died from freediving at this very spot not long ago. Alexey had been there. But all that noise was irrelevant. Those things were not now. Alexey had big ideas for this sport he was here to carry forward, but that was nothing to be bothered with now, either. When the moment called for it, he was as talented as anyone alive at shrinking the focal length to practically zero. It was his great gift. The thing that made it possible for him to go deeper on one breath than anyone. When he chose to, he could make it so all there was in the world was what was in front of him. And that night, the world was just: Man. Wife. Baby. Blue hole.
Daniel Riley is a GQ correspondent.