• History

This Is How Free Diving Became a Popular Sport

4 minute read

The world of free diving is in mourning this week over the presumed death of Natalia Molchanova, a 23-time world champion of the difficult sport who failed to return from a dive on Aug. 2. Though Molchanova had successfully completed dives to depths of hundreds of feet, even the most accomplished free diver puts her life at risk.

Why would anyone voluntarily dive so deep with no extra oxygen and no link to the surface?

Diving in general is as old as swimming, but making a sport out of depth competition is a newer phenomenon. In a 1960 cover story about the rise of skin diving, TIME reported that while anyone could snorkel and dive, “the sport’s aristocrats are the ‘free divers'” who dive without keeping the surface in sight. (In the article’s terms, those free divers were interchangeable with scuba divers, who carried air tanks with them. Skin diving is essentially a step between free diving and snorkeling, in that skin divers will duck underwater completely but don’t necessarily use any specialized tools or training.)

The post-World War II trend had one man to thank for the new trend: Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau had discovered diving in the 1930s while in the Navy, when a friend gave the already-strong swimmer some goggles while they were stationed in the Mediterranean. Cousteau fell in love with what he saw underwater, but was frustrated by the fact that he had to stay near the air. “The problem had badgered divers as far back as 5000 B.C.. when the Sumerians spun the tale of a swimmer who sought the weed of eternal life beneath the waves,” TIME wrote. “Down through the centuries, woodcuts show submerged men hopefully sucking on bags full of air or puffing on tubes reaching to the surface. Looking for something better, Cousteau tried an oxygen lung based on a design developed by the British as early as 1878. He almost killed himself. He did not know the fatal flaw of oxygen: it becomes toxic at depths below 30 ft. Twice Cousteau had convulsive spasms, was barely able to drop his weights and make the surface.”

It was in the 1940s that he developed the Aqua-Lung, the first scuba gear, and in 1953 that his book The Silent World was released in the U.S. to immense success. A few years later, it was turned into an Academy Award-winning color film of the same name. The movie, TIME explained, “opened the world’s eyes to the magic world under the sea, sent both scientists and pleasure seekers hustling for masks and fins to see for themselves.” Diving, whether with a snorkel or scuba gear or the lungs alone, captured the attention of people all over the world.

It was another film, decades later, that spread the word about the non-scuba version of free diving, the type that was practiced by Molchanova: 1988’s Luc Besson drama The Big Blue.

As TIME described in 2002, when free diving lost another of its champions—Audrey Mestre, who drowned off the coast of the Dominican Republic while going for a new world record—the movie was “inspired by real events and featured rapturous cinematography.” About 15 years after its release, there were about 20,000 people competing “in a sport that was barely heard of 15 years ago,” plus a couple dozen who practiced a “no-limits” version, using extra weighted sleds to get down even farther than is possible with the body alone.

Despite the danger, despite what happened to Mestre and to Molchanova, free diving’s practitioners find that the risk is worth it. “[Putting limits on diving] would be like trying to forbid people from climbing Everest,” diver Loic Leferme told TIME in 2002. “It’s impossible.”

Read the full story from 2002, here in the TIME Vault: Lost in the Big Blue

18 Groundbreaking Female Athletes

Lili De Alvarez 1926
Spanish tennis player Lili de Alvarez after she had beaten Molla Mallory in the lawn tennis ladies singles championships at Beckenham, England, on June 12, 1926. Alvarez made headlines in 1931 for wearing what TIME described that year as "a split skirt which resembled a pair of abbreviated pajamas" (in other words, shorts) at Wimbledon.G. Adams—Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Conchita Cintron the Matadora 1941
A portrait of the 18-year-old Mexican matadora Conchita Cintron taking a bow after dispatching her first 52-stone bull, May 6, 1941. In 1947, TIME called her "the world's greatest female torero."Hulton-Deutsch Collection—Corbis
Toni Stone 1950
Toni Stone, shortstop for the Indianapolis Clowns of the National Negro Leagues, works out in a photograph around 1950 in Indianapolis. She was the first woman to play in the otherwise-male Negro Leagues.Transcendental Graphics—Getty Images
Babe Didrikson Zaharias 1951
Babe Didrikson Zaharias sinks a putt at the All-American tournament at Chicago's Tam-O'Shanter Country Club in Chicago in 1951. She set a course record of 70 for women, and also won the World Championship, never going over par for her eight rounds. And golf wasn't her only sport: when she died in 1956, TIME noted that she set hurdles and javelin records in the 1932 Olympics, played baseball and "barnstormed nationally in basketball."Underwood Archives—Getty Images
Patty Berg 1951
One of America's top ranking professional golfers Patty Berg practicing at Sunningdale, 1951. She was one of the founders of the LPGA (along with Zaharias) and TIME once noted that her father encouraged her to start golfing so she would stop playing football on a neighborhood boys team.Central Press—Getty Images
Althea Gibson, 1956
Althea Gibson kisses the cup she was rewarded with after having won the French International Tennis Championships in Paris, May 26, 1956. Gibson broke the U.S. national championships color barrier and was on the cover of TIME in 1957.Bettmann/Corbis
Nancy Greene 1968
Olympic Giant Slalom skier Nancy Greene of Canada in Chamrousse, France, on Feb. 15, 1968, after she won the gold medal in the event at the Winter Olympics. The year before, she had become the first woman to win the World Cup of Alpine Skiing. TIME noted that year that she "uses her muscles on skis, and she does it better than any other woman in the world."AP Photo
Kathy Switzer roughed up by Jock Semple during Boston Mararthon, April 19, 1967.
Kathrine Switzer roughed up by Jock Semple during the Boston Mararthon, April 19, 1967, the year she broke the gender barrier for the race. "I was so embarrassed and upset, but if I dropped out, everyone would have said that a woman couldn't do it," she later told TIME.Paul J. Connell—The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Barbara Jo Rubin 1969
Barbara Jo Rubin, 19-year-old veterinary student from Miami, holds the reins of her horse Cohesion, shortly after she rode him to victory at the racetrack of Charles Town, W.V., thus becoming the first female jockey to win a major pari-mutuel flat race in the United States, on Feb. 23, 1969. Later that year she became the first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby. It wasn't an easy ride: TIME noted that she had had her dressing-room window smashed by a rock during a jockey boycott.AP Photo
Billie Jean King 1973
Pro tennis player Billie Jean King holds her newly won trophy high after beating Bobby Riggs in their $100,000 winner-take-all "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match on September 20, 1973. "[The] conventional wisdom [was] that an adequate male player should be able to beat a first-class woman," TIME commented. "Almost everyone was wrong."Bettmann/Corbis
Chris Evert 1974
American tennis player Chris Evert (Chris Lloyd) with the Wimbledon Ladies Singles trophy after her victory over Russian competitor Olga Morozova, July 5, 1974. Evert was the first woman to earn $1 million playing tennis.Leonard Burt—Central Press/Getty Images
Mary Decker 1978
Mary Decker of Colorado University crosses the finish line of the National AAU 10,000-meter road racing championship in Purchase, N.Y., Sept. 23, 1978. Decker, would become the first woman to record a time under 4:20 for the mile, was the top woman finisher and 47th overall. Richard Drew—AP Photo
Ann Myers 1979
Former UCLA women's All-American Ann Meyers drives in during practice at the NBA rookie camp for the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis, Sept. 10, 1979, the year she became the first woman to get a contract in men's pro sports. Though the signing was called a stunt by many, Meyers told TIME that she could "dribble and make plays as well as anybody in the league."AP Photo
Marianne Martin 1984
Laurent F. Fignon, left, of France, and Marianne Martin of Boulder, Colorado, hold up their trophies in Paris Sunday, July 23, 1984 after winning the men’s and women’s Tour de France cycling races. This was the first year for the women’s event.AP Photo
Libby Riddles 1985
Musher Libby Riddles stands in front of the City Hall at Nome, Alaska, March 20, 1985, shortly after crossing the finish line, thus becoming the first female champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. "Two weeks into the 18-day trek, while her competition opted to sit out a fierce snowstorm," TIME reported, "the musher from Teller, Alaska, pressed on with her team of 13 dogs."AP Photo
Michelle Akers 1991
Michelle Akers of the United States, right, prepares to shoot against Brazil next to Marcia Silva of Brazil during their Group B match of the First FIFA Womens World Cup in Guangzhou China, on Nov. 19, 1991. That year, TIME called her "the Michael Jordan of soccer" and noted that she had almost earned a tryout for the Dallas Cowboys kicking coach. In 1999, she became the first soccer player on a Wheaties box. Chen Gou—Imaginechina/AP Photo
Manon Rheaume 1992
Goalie Manon Rheaume of the Tampa Bay Lightning sits on the bench during an NHL preseason game against the St. Louis Blues on Sept. 23, 1992, at the Expo Hall in Tampa, Fla. Rheaume was the first woman to play in the NHL, though she didn't appear in the regular season. After a 1992 game, TIME noted that a sportswriter had just one question for her: "'Did you break a nail?''B Bennett—Getty Images
Jackie Joyner-Kersee 1992
The USA's Jackie Joyner-Kersee walks the track at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona on Aug. 2, 1992, after winning the gold medal in the Heptathlon competition during the Summer Olympic Games. She was the first woman ever to pass 7,000 points in the event.Rusty Kennedy—AP Photo

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com