Freediving is simple, says Daniel Riley in GQ: “Go as deep as you can go on one breath and return to the surface without passing out or dying.” Alexey Molchanov, a 34-year-old Russian “as squat as a Soviet boxer”, is one of its champions. At this year’s Vertical Blue, a freediving competition held at a 200-metre “elevator shaft of ocean” in the Bahamas, he broke his own world record by diving 131 metres with little more than a nose clip and a monofin on his feet. As he heads down, he moves air from his lungs into his mouth to reduce the pressure on his ears. “There are dreamlike contours to the plunge”, with “no real sound” and no light beyond the lamp on his head. Once he reaches the right depth, he turns and thrusts himself upwards, eventually popping to the surface “like a rubber ball held underwater”.
Molchanov’s mother, Natalia Molchanova, became a freediver at 40 and was the world’s best for years. She was a pioneer and practised a mental technique called “attention deconcentration” – oxygen deprivation is terrifyingly stressful; it takes a zen-like state of “nothingness and nowness” to hold your nerve. Like any activity “in which the sublime is sought”, freediving carries profound risks. During a dive in the Mediterranean in 2015, Molchanova disappeared and never resurfaced. Despite his mother’s death, Molchanov says he’s still drawn to “the pleasure of it all”. Deep underwater, the past, future and conscious thought vanish. “There is nothing beyond the body, the breathing, the intense focus of the next metre, centimetre, millimetre of depth.”
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