In a world where the thrill of human achievement pushes us to break boundaries and defy expectations, there exists a fine line between success and potential disaster. Deep within the azure waters, the mysterious realm of freediving has given birth to a daring breed of athletes who test the limits of their physical and mental endurance.
As they plunge into the abyss on a single breath, they redefine what it means to be alive. But as records continue to be shattered, we must ask ourselves: at what cost does this relentless pursuit of greatness come?
In this article, we will embark on a deep dive into the controversial world of competitive freediving, exploring the tension between athletes’ desire to claim their place in history and the growing concerns about their safety.
Using a combination of statistical analysis and expert opinions, we will dissect the impact of competitive pressure on athlete safety, investigating whether the quest for glory has clouded our judgment in safeguarding the well-being of these extraordinary individuals.
Join us as we navigate the murky waters of this captivating yet contentious debate, shedding light on an issue that has captured the imagination of both the freediving community and the world at large. Are we pushing the limits too far, or is this simply the next chapter in humanity’s indomitable quest to conquer the unknown?
Prepare to have your perceptions challenged, your emotions stirred, and your beliefs questioned, as we unravel the enigma that is the unyielding drive of the human spirit.
Keep reading to learn more about freediving, the current freediving world risks, the dangers of freediving, and the consequences of the competitive pressure on athlete safety.
What is Freediving?
Freediving has a varied history that dates back to ancient times. In ancient cultures, people used freediving as a means to gather food, reclaim sunken valuables, harvest resources, and more. In the simplest terms, any time you go underwater, holding your breath with no assistance, you’re Freediving.
Freediving, competitively, is a sport in which there are nine recognized disciplines, all of which is done while holding your breath and with no assistance from breathing equipment. All disciplines hold world records, and athletes constantly and rigorously train to beat those records. The nine competitive Freediving disciplines include:
- Static Apnea (STA)
- Speed-Endurance Apnea (S&E)
- Dynamic with Fins/Bifins (DYNB/DYN)
- Dynamic No-Fins (DNF)
- Free Immersion (FIM)
- Constant Weight with Fins/Bifins (CWT/CWTB)
- Constant Weight No-Fins (CNF)
- Variable Weight (VWT)
- No-Limits (NLT)
Static Apnea (STA)
The static apnea discipline is measured by duration and involves the diver floating face down with all respiratory tractors submerged, holding their breath for as long as possible. This discipline is typically done in a pool without the assistance of weights or movement. Of all the disciplines, this is the only one that is measured on duration rather than distance or depth.
Speed-Endurance Apnea (S&E)
The speed-endurance apnea is also done in the pool, and the aim is for the diver to cover a set distance in the shortest time possible, all while keeping their body submerged.
The diver alternates between apnea swimming and passive recoveries to get through the stretches of pool length. This discipline can be performed with or without fins, but any fin used must be moved without any mechanism, just the athlete’s muscular strength.
Dynamic With Fins (DYN)
Dynamic with Fins/Bifins is performed in a pool underwater with divers moving in a horizontal position on a single breath. Athletes may use a monofin for DYN or bifins for DYNB as a propulsion aid to cover the greatest distance.
Dynamic No-Fins (DNF)
The dynamic no fins discipline is similar to the discipline Dynamic with Fins in that the aim is to cover the greatest distance possible but without the aid of propulsion mechanisms like fins. Since fins are prohibited, divers use their arms and legs to propel themselves forward. This discipline is also performed in a pool underwater.
Free Immersion (FIM)
Free immersion is performed in open water, with the diver wearing a wetsuit and minimal weights around the hips or neck. The free diver uses a guide rope for propulsion in an effort to reach a target depth on a single breath. Free divers perform this discipline in both a “head down” and “head up” position to avoid pressure-related injury.
Constant Weight With Fins (CWT)
The constant weight with fins discipline is the most common depth version of free diving. The freediver descends to a target depth on a single breath, using either a monofin or bifins, as well as a wetsuit and lightweight.
The free diver is attached to a guide rope via a harness around the waist, but the diver is not permitted to use the guide rope for propulsion. The diver is also prohibited from changing the weight used.
Constant Weight No-Fins (CNF)
The constant weight with no fins is considered the purest and most difficult discipline in the sport of freediving. Like free immersion, the diver wears a wetsuit and a small amount of weight. However, in this discipline, the diver does not use the guide rope for propulsion but rather uses muscle strength to propel them down to a target depth and back up on a single breath.
Variable Weight (VWT)
The variable weight discipline is one of two extreme versions of the free diving sport. In this discipline, the free diver descends to a predetermined depth with the assistance of a heavyweight, typically in the form of a sled.
Once the diver reaches that depth, they ascend to the surface using nothing but their own strength, except for using a fin, if they so choose.
No Limit (NLT)
The no-limit discipline involves a diver descending with the help of a heavyweight and then sending using any method, typically a lift bag or fast counterbalance pulley system. In this discipline, there is no predetermined depth, and the aim is to go as deep as possible on a single breath.
Current Freediving World Records
Free diving is an ideal sport to set various records. There are currently nine recognized disciplines, each with its own world record. Depending on the discipline, the record may be in reference to depth, distance, or duration. Four of the disciplines are traditionally performed in a pool, while the remaining five are performed in open water.
World records in freediving are divided between male and female record holders. As of this article, the world records for freediving include the following:
Static Apnea Freediving Records
|Freediving Record Holder||Discipline||Time (mins)||Year|
|Branko Petorvíc (Men)||w/o Oxygen||11:54||2014|
|Natalia Molchanova (Women)||w/o Oxygen||9:02||2013|
Dynamic Freediving Records
|Freediving Record Holder||Discipline||Distance||Year|
|Giorgos Panagiotakis (Men)||DYN||300 m/ 984 ft||2016|
|Mateusz Malina (Men)||DYN||300 m/ 984 ft||2016|
|Magdalena Solich-Talanda (Women)||DYN||257 m/ 843 ft||2019|
|Mateusz Malina (Men)||DNF||244 m/ 801 ft||2016|
|Magdalena Solich-Talanda (Women)||DNG||191 m/ 627 ft||2017|
Free Immersion Freediving Records
|Freediving Record Holder||Depth||Time (mins)||Year|
|Alexey Molchanov (Men)||126 m/ 413 ft||4:30||2021|
|Alessia Zecchini (Women)||101 m/ 331 ft||3:50||2021|
Constant Weight Freediving Records
|Freediving Record Holder||Discipline||Depth||Time (mins)||Year|
|William Turbridge (Men)||CNF||102 m/ 335 ft||4:14||2016|
|Alessia Zecchini (Women)||CNF||74 m/ 243 ft||3:10||2021|
|Alexey Molchanov (Men)||CWT||131 m/ 429 ft||4:10||2021|
|Alena Artnik (Women)||CWT||120 m/ 387 ft||3:32||2021|
Variable Weight Freediving Records
|Freediving Record Holder||Depth||Time (mins)||Year|
|Walid Boudiaf (Men)||492 ft 1 in.||3:23||2021|
|Nanja Van Den Broek (Women)||426 ft 6 in.||3:00||2015|
No Limits Freediving Records
|Freediving Record Holder||Depth||Year|
|Herbert Nitsch||253 m/ 830 ft||2012|
The Dangers of Competitive Freediving in Open Water
With any extreme sport, there are risks associated with pushing physical limits. In an open water setting, you have the unpredictability of the sea, whether it’s coming into contact with sea life or a shift in the weather, any of these things could profoundly affect freediving. Aside from the environmental hazards, there are conditions or possible injuries associated with freediving on a single breath to deep depths.
Though nitrogen narcosis is typically associated with scuba divers, freedivers that dive to a depth of 85 ft/25 m or more may experience this too. During nitrogen narcosis, nitrogen in the lungs starts dissolving into the blood, leading to feelings of confusion, drunkenness, euphoria, or visual disturbances. While the condition in and of itself is not dangerous, it could lead the diver to panic or make poor decisions, putting their safety at risk.
Decompression sickness occurs when increased partial pressure, due to depth, causes the freediver to take on nitrogen in their tissues. If the gas comes out of saturation too rapidly, bubbles form, blocking or damaging small blood vessels.
Symptoms of decompression sickness include skin rash, tingling, numbness, fatigue, headache, loss of consciousness, paralysis, nausea, vertigo, etc. This condition can lead to a wide range of injuries, including death. Factors such as age, body, fat composition, hydration, fatigue, and medications can influence a diver’s predisposition to decompression sickness.
Middle Ear Barotrauma
If the ears are not equalized properly, it can lead to an injury, referred to as middle ear barotrauma. This injury can occur in two ways. If the Eustachian tubes do not put air into the middle ear during descent, the eardrum can perforate or rupture, causing fluid to enter the middle ear from the surrounding tissues.
If the expanding air in the middle ear cannot enter back into the Eustachian tubes, and into the back of the throat during the ascent, the eardrum may perforate or rupture outward.
Loss of Motor Control (LMC)
Typically loss of motor control will resolve within a few seconds with no adverse side effects. However, during the period when loss of motor control is experienced, there is a risk of water getting into the airway.
During a dive, a freediver can experience a temporary loss of motor control due to insufficient oxygen levels. Symptoms of motor control loss include confusion, spasms, and loss of control over speech and body movement.
Lung barotrauma or pulmonary barotrauma can occur in several different circumstances: if there is insufficient flexibility in the rib cage or diaphragm, the dive depth is near or beyond the residual volume of the lungs, and the freediver is cold or tense. In these cases, blood or fluid will come across the wall of the alveoli to equalize pressure in the lungs.
This condition occurs during ascent and can result in a pneumothorax, alveolar rupture, tension pneumothorax, release of gas in the central circulation, and pneumomediastinum. Symptoms include chest pain, cardiovascular collapse, stroke, unconsciousness, dyspnea, and hemoptysis.
Blackout is a similar sensation to fainting and occurs when the oxygen levels of the freediver are too low from a breath hold. A blackout can occur on the surface after the dive or underwater. The primary danger with blacking out is water entering the airway, possibly causing drowning.
This condition tends to be more on the mild side of the possible injuries during free diving. A trachea squeeze may occur due to negative pressure in the trachea, causing blood vessels to rupture. A diver may experience a throat tickle, mild pain, and is likely to have blood in their saliva. Medical intervention is not always necessary; however, the diver may need to rest for a few days before diving again.
The Statistics on Freediving-Related Accidents & Deaths
Freediving death rate statistics have not been thoroughly researched, likely due to the fact that it is a relatively new sport. Statistics are split between accidents and deaths related to recreational freediving versus competitive freediving. There are also deaths related to training for competitive freediving.
The Divers Alert Network (DAN) analyzed freediving death rate data between 2006 and 2011, resulting in an average of 59 freediver deaths per year. Of the 447 cases of free diving accidents recorded during this time, 308 were fatal, which means there is a 75% chance that a freediving accident is lethal.
DAN also found the average age of death for freedivers to be between 20 and 29 years old, with 90% being male and 10% being female. Of all reported freediving accidents, 90% were in the open water.
Recreational Freediving Versus Competitive Freediving
Despite the fact that many recreational freedivers don’t dive below a depth of 8 to 10 m, the death rate is much higher than that of competitive freediving. Several reasons for the higher death rate and recreational freediving include lack of regulation or third-party governing, lack of equipment, proper training, planning, and safety divers. One or more of those reasons account for the majority of freediving deaths.
In terms of competitive freediving, there has only been one recorded death in over 80,000 competitive free dives globally. The statistic does not include the deaths of freedivers during training for competition.
The incredibly low rate of deaths during freediving competitions is accredited to AIDA or The International Association for the Development of Apnea, freediving authority safety rules. These rules include the following:
- The inclusion of medical professionals, including at least one medical doctor and often a paramedic.
- The inclusion of trained safety divers.
- Specialized gear for medical professionals, including oxygen masks, a pulse oximeter, and more.
- All incidents and accidents are reported and registered.
Competitive freediving is a rigorous sport that often attracts the type of diver that has trained for years to break records, optimizing their bodies through diet and physical and mental exercise. Training that involves the latest technology and technique, like dive computers that can track depth and surface intervals with precise accuracy.
Most often, these free divers are AIDA 2-star qualified or higher. They also utilize the latest and most efficient gear to help conserve oxygen levels, like high-quality fins, low-volume freediving masks, and open-cell wetsuits.
Famous Freediving-Related Accidents & Deaths
This freediver died after failing to inflate the balloon that was to bring her to the surface from a dab of 170 m. At about 120 meters of depth, she became unconscious, and unfortunately, the backup safety divers could not get her to the surface in time. It was later discovered that the balloon did not inflate because the air tank was never filled.
There were a few criticisms over her death and how it could have been avoided. For example, one of the safety divers left their position and returned to the surface before Audrey. Many argue that her death could have been prevented if a real doctor had been present or if there had been more weight on the line, which would have helped the sled move smoothly instead of getting stuck at times.
This 24-year-old free diver died after a ten-day progression of no-limit dives. During that progression, the diver went to depths of 112, 118, 122, and lastly 128 meters. On the last dive, Cyril left the sled and was not on the equipment when it was retrieved at the surface. Unfortunately, his body was never found. His dive was done with only one person as a backup diver, and they were in the boat at the time.
Loic Le Ferme
Much speculation surrounds the death of the diver who was training at the time. The training dive was to be to a depth of 171 meters. After descending into the depths on a weighted sled, Loic attempted to resurface but quickly realized that his air balloon had malfunctioned.
Unfortunately, his team was unable to pull him to the surface, and he drowned. Loic Le Ferme‘s death, in particular, cast a great shadow across the diving world, putting many things into question as Loic was a previous world record holder and considered a pioneer in the sport.
This promising free diver quickly went from a novice to competing in international freediving competitions. It was during one of these competitions that Nicholis made a fatal mistake. After descending to a depth of 68 meters, he began to ascend but changed his mind and decided to push further down, a huge violation of the AIDA competition safety regulations.
Although Nicholas resurfaced and was awake, he quickly fell back into the water after losing consciousness and eventually passed away from pulmonary edema.
This decorated free diver was considered one of the best in the sport, holding 41 freediving world records with 23 gold medals. Unfortunately, in August 2015, Natalie Molcahnova was giving a private lesson in Spain, and after going down to a depth of 40 meters, she never resurfaced. It was presumed that she had been swept away by underwater currents, but her body was never found.
This Irish freediver was overseeing a Dive by a freediving world record holder, Alessia Zecchini. During the dive, she became disoriented, and Keenan rushed to her aid, successfully guiding her to the surface before blacking out and drowning himself. He was found facedown, floating some distance away. His death raised many questions and concerns regarding the Red Sea’s notorious Blue Hole, the most dangerous diving spot in the world.
The Impact of Competitive Pressure on Athlete Safety
In terms of risk, No Limit diving seems to be the biggest concern regarding risk. No Limit freediving aims to dive as deep as possible on a single breath. There is no cap to the depths you can go, which can get precarious when the goal is to break world records. The competitive pressure to break records can put athlete safety into question. What are the limits? How far is too far?
Shortly after his record was broken, Loic Le Ferme tried to push his limits during a training session to regain his title and drowned. Audrey Mestre, who had found some success in no-limit diving, attempted to break Tanya Streeter’s world record dive just six weeks after it was done and died during training. Many of the accidents and deaths in diving are related to No Limit freediving.
Some participants in the diving community have expressed that no-limit freediving tarnishes the nature of freediving and calls for stricter measures. AIDA has already banned No Limit freediving from competitions, saying that No-Limits is a stunt and not freediving, yet they are still open to record attempts, which push divers to push their limits further and further.
Regardless of the discipline of freediving, rigorous training and proper safety measures can mean the difference between life and death. Pushing limits is an integral part of every sport, especially regarding world records, but stretching one’s athletic ability in an extreme sport can have fatal consequences if treated flippantly.