Saturday, August 15, 2015

The deepest dive (Obituary: Natalia Molchanova)

On September 25th of 2009, Russian Natalia Molchanova became the first woman in the world to dive to the previously elusive 100 metre mark in freediving competition.
In the Constant Weight discipline, Natalia gained her twenty-fifth world record with a dive to 101 meters at the Only One Apnea Centre in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.
Her dive was completed in 3 minutes and 50 seconds.
Just 48 hours later, Natalia successfully gained her second world record for the Ruler of the Deep competition, and her twenty-sixth overall, completing a dive to 90 metres in the Free Immersion discipline.
When asked about her Constant Weight dive, Natalia said she decided to attempt the 101-metre dive rather than 100 metres because Sara before tried 100.
Nobody tried it before me. Now, I tried it.
" She certainly did! Sara Campbell held the previous Constant Weight world record of 96 metres, set in the Bahamas earlier this year. 
In freediving history, only eleven men have successfully managed to dive to 100 metres.

Natalia Molchanova, the world’s greatest free diver, was presumed drowned on August 5th, aged 53

It often seemed strange to Natalia Molchanova, as she dived down and down through the blue water of the Mediterranean or the Red Sea, that the fish did not notice her.
Sharks hovered, but did not approach. Schools of small fish flickered past unconcerned.
She noticed one day, however, that a little band was imitating her: swimming not from right to left, but up and down vertically, following (as she was) a long rope let down from the surface.

She did not bother them because her own movements, as she swam, were those of a fish: her arms extended to a point before her, her legs straight, her chest and back sinuously curving, and attached to her feet a tail-fin like a mermaid’s that she flipped to propel her through the water.
Her diving suit, her own brand, was a mere 1.5mm thick, thinner than fish-skin.
Otherwise, she let the water clothe her.

Such techniques were essential because she was swimming and diving on a single breath, without gas.
In this extraordinary sport, free diving, she had 41 world records.
She could hold her breath, when floating motionless with her head under water in a pool, for nine minutes and two seconds. (see video)

 At the AIDA team world championships in Sardinia, Italy, on Friday the 26th of september 2014, Natalia Molchanova from Russia broke the world record dynamic with a dive of 237 meters.

Swimming horizontally underwater with a fin, she could cover 237 metres.
Diving with the fin alone (as she preferred), rather than aided by a metal weight, she could reach 101 metres.
When she resurfaced, between her measured and grateful gulps of air, she would wink, grin, whoop and wave as another record fell.
After she turned 50 she liked to break diving records on her birthday, to show other middle-aged women what they could do.

Not that many were likely to follow her.
The sport involved extraordinary dangers.
Currents could drag her away, and cold-water layers could hit her like an ice-bath.
Every morsel of energy and oxygen had to be conserved to penetrate the depths of the sea; yet for the first 20 metres or so she also had to fight her body’s natural buoyancy, using energy to do so.
After that, she sank; but, unless she was careful, the fast depletion of oxygen could build up lactic acid in her muscles to a toxic level.
If she tried to reascend too fast, she risked blacking out at the surface.
At the deepest point, her lungs would be compressed to a quarter of their volume and would feel completely empty.

An ocean trance

In short, this was not the obvious pursuit for a scooter-riding Moscow housewife with two children and a divorce to worry about; but, at 40, she read about free diving in a magazine and decided to try it.
When she was younger, she had enjoyed diving for seashells on holiday; she loved seafood, and she had always liked competitive swimming.
That was about the size of it.
No one was more surprised than her when she ended up as an assistant professor of extreme sports at Moscow University, the author of treatises on free diving, a full-time coach and the manager, with her son, of a diving-equipment company.

But then, free diving had surprised her too.
This was not just a sport.
To do it at all, she realised, required much more than physical training in swimming, breathing and timing.
She had to enter a different state, one in which “surface fuss”, as she called it, faded away, and she became one with the serenity of the water.

Her name for this was “attention deconcentration”: an ancient discipline, close to meditation, practised by samurai warriors and, more recently, recommended for Soviet workers with tedious jobs.
In it, the eye ceased to focus on particular objects; awareness shifted to the periphery of vision, or to an imaginary screen in front of everything.
The pulse and heart-rate slowed, and with them the tendency to panic (as when apparently drowning).
Spectators noticed that, before a dive, the usually bubbly Ms Molchanova seemed to be in a trance. She was.

As she dived down, she remained so.
She still knew, as a physiologist of the sport, every chemical reaction that was taking place in her body, but kept that in the background.
As for world records, much as she craved them on the surface, deep down they didn’t matter either:

Unite in silence With the blue tender flow, And come to know Your spirit-law.

 The arch on one breath
Natalia Molchanova and Alexey Molchanov swim through The Arch of Blue Hole, Dahab.

The most intense experience of her career came in 2004 when, on one breath, she swam through the Blue Hole at Dahab in Egypt, a tunnel 56 metres underwater and 26 metres long.
The sapphire water, the craggy grey of the rock roof and the sudden dazzle of the light were intoxicating.
A notice warned divers that it was dangerous; dangerous, that is, even for those with gas-tanks on their backs.

She was careful almost all the time: not diving alone or overdoing her dives, staying aware of wind and weather.
On the other hand, she much preferred the perilous ocean to the pool: the difference, she said, between working a treadmill and wandering in the forest.
She did not like being tethered to the guide-rope by a lanyard, slipping it sometimes.
And her many poems showed her in love with the blue deep.
She felt at one with creation there, in a sacred and primeval space.
Her personality, however merry and competitive, could not get her back to the surface, she wrote; only her spirit could.
Possibly, on that last dive, it felt no particular wish to.

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