Natalia Molchanova, the 23-time world champion free diver who went missing during a recreational free dive on Aug. 2, was easily the toughest competitor in the sport. I saw her a few times a year at international events, and her son, Alexey, is my rival and a good friend. Her loss is devastating for the whole community.
Free diving—diving underwater while holding your breath—is both a mental and a physical sport. You have to train your body to adapt to low oxygen and to move efficiently though the water. Natalia was incredible at that: She had a huge breath hold and a very good technique in the water. She was also supremely strong mentally. Natalia thrived under pressure, and she was always able to go inside herself and pull out amazing performances.
This holistic challenge of free diving is what drew me to the sport. I was brought up around water, and it became a game to go under and stay as long as I could. In other physical sports like rowing I felt myself becoming bored because my mind wasn’t as engaged; in mental games like chess, I would get fidgety because I wasn’t using my body. Free diving feels like it’s challenging your whole being.
It’s also a beautiful sensation—to be under the water and feel weightless and free. It’s a feeling of going inside yourself because there’s an absence of stimuli, an absence of light and sound. It allows you to discover yourself and feel what it’s like to be pure consciousness.
Free diving is often thought of as a dangerous sport—divers can go to great depths without extra oxygen or a link to the surface. And the human species has an inbred fear of water: We’re not as adapted to being in water as we are to being on land. But when you’ve taken the necessary safety precautions, free diving is a lot easier and more accessible than many think.
The cardinal rule of free diving is to never dive alone—even if it’s as simple as trying to hold your breath in your pool in your backyard. In competitions, divers are connected to a counterbalance system and are monitored on a sonar screen. Recreational free diving is the most dangerous because there can be unknown hazards. You should always make sure someone who is trained in safety measures is watching you.
Despite the risks, the challenge of going deep and breaking world records is an incredible experience that can be addicting and liberating. But for me, the most beautiful, poignant moments aren’t necessarily those at huge depths. Watching a little seahorse swim along at 10 feet underwater, or swimming down to a sandy bottom at 40 feet and lying down and closing my eyes—those are the magical experiences that sustain me in the sport.
William Trubridge is a 15-time world record holder in free diving.