On a clear September morning, a Russian diver bobs gently on the sparkling blue surface of the Mediterranean, next to a support raft off the shore of the French Riviera. At 5ft 11in and nearly 86kg, Alexey ‘the Machine’ Molchanov is sheathed in a golden wetsuit, his feet snug in a sleek, black monofin. He looks far larger than the lean safety divers who surround him in the water, waiting for the world’s reigning freediving champion to begin his descent.
Molchanov wraps his fingers carefully around a dive line descending from the floating platform beside him. Inhaling and exhaling slowly, he prepares for the single breath that he plans to hold for nearly four minutes underwater. His target: a metal ring lined with white tags, suspended at the seemingly impossible-to-reach depth of 130m. That’s a round trip roughly equivalent to two and a half football fields. His goal is to grab a tag and swim back to the surface before his lungs expire, or his muscles give out – or both.
‘Three minutes,’ a judge shouts from the raft. With that, the countdown to Molchanov’s gold-medal attempt in freediving’s premier open-water competition, the AIDA Depth World Championship, begins.
Competitive freedivers – those compelled to dive as deep, or as far, as possible on a single breath – have several ways to distinguish themselves: with or without fins, the assistance of a dive line, or weights, or even hitched to a heavy sled. Today’s event, known as constant weight, is Molchanov’s speciality, and while most divers wear a weight belt to aid their descent, he relies solely on the weight of his monofin and his powerful, merman-style kick.
As the time ticks down, Molchanov slips on his nose clip, which has been hanging cross-like around his neck, and adjusts its tiny, metal arms over each nostril. With a minute to go, he begins ‘packing’ – a breathing technique that looks like the desperate cheek-flapping of a fish out of water – filling his lungs in spaces most of us will never put to use.
To the casual observer, freediving can seem like an unforgiving sport. It’s not uncommon for divers who push beyond their limits to suffer short blackouts from a lack of oxygen, or end up with blood in their lungs from the extreme pressure. Just a couple of days earlier, in another discipline, involving diving to more than 90m with no fins at all, Molchanov blacked out briefly as he surfaced and was struck by a hypoxic fit, or loss of muscle control, known in the sport as ‘samba’.
The mishap didn’t discourage him from continuing. Among his favourite sayings is that these extreme competitions are ‘just a game for adults’– it’s as though he wilfully ignores the potential for disaster. Over the past decade, Molchanov has kept that mindset while continually raising the peak of human performance. Before fellow divers called him ‘the Machine’, he was known affectionately as ‘the Golden Retriever’.
At age 34, Molchanov is now ranked at the top of most of freediving’s open-water disciplines. Among active athletes, he has set more world records and won more championships than any other diver, yet he still heads out every year to compete – if only against himself. At a competition in the Bahamas in 2018, he pushed the world record in constant weight (held by none other than Alexey Molchanov) from 129m to 130m. The depth goal today is the same, but the water is much colder than in the Bahamas, making this a more demanding dive.
When the judge gives the signal, Molchanov waits 10 seconds and then dips his body, hovering on the surface for a moment before flipping head first into a duck dive, his monofin hitting the water behind him with a single delicate slap. The dive may test his physical limits, but he is chasing something beyond records. By continuing to venture as deep as possible, he is able to explore more of this majestic, otherworldly realm. For most of his life, figuring out how such submersions affected people was
a family quest – until it led to a loss that he never expected, one that has only driven him to go deeper.
Born to Swim
Molchanov’s parents loved the water before they loved each other. Both children of the cold war, Natalia andOleg met as teenage swimmers. Later, after they were married, they moved toVolgograd, along the Volga River in south-western Russia, to start a family.
Before the age of five, young Alexey set a national record in his age group with his performance in the 500m backstroke. Soon, he was a champion in the freestyle and the butterfly, too. And on holidays to the Black Sea, he donned archaic diving gear that towered over his frame and began to explore the deep.
As Alexey neared high school, his parents separated, but his mother made sure his training continued uninterrupted. He was accepted into the Raduga Swimming SportsSchool of OlympicReserve, a special school for Russians who had gold-medal aspirations. Then, in 2002, Natalia told Alexey about a new sports he had discovered that combined their shared interests and skills: swimming, competition and the sea. It was called freediving.
In 2004, Molchanov entered his first freediving competition and won, setting the Russian national record in a back-and-forth pool discipline known as ‘dynamic’ at158m. That same year, he travelled to Cyprus to watch his mother in an open-water competition. There, he ventured 30m down through the royal-blue water to examine the MSZenobia, a wrecked ship with propeller blades longer than a man, entirely in one breath. ‘I was following her, and she took me into this exciting world, which looked like a dream,’ he recalls.
Holding one’s breath to dive deep into the sea is something that humans have been doing for milliennia. The story of freediving as a competitive sport, however, starts in 1949, when the Hungarian-born Italian air force captain Raimondo Bucher dived some 30m to reach the seabed off the coast of Naples to win a bet against a fellow diver, Ennio Falco. Bucher astounded those who had been convinced that the water’s pressure would simply crush him to death.
By the time AIDA – the InternationalAssociation for the Development ofApnea – was founded in the early 1990s in southern France, pioneers such as America’s Bob Croft, Italy’s Enzo Maiorca and France’s Jacques Mayol had pushed depth records to more
than 100m. The sport even got the Hollywood treatment with Luc Besson’s The Big Blue in 1988.
These early freedivers also served as guinea pigs in the still-developing study of underwater human physiology. Researchers found, for instance, that Croft’s body adapted to conserve more oxygen underwater and that Mayol’s heartbeat decreased from 60bpm to 27 bpm during his dives – a phenomenon discovered previously in Tibetan monks in meditation.
Studies such as these expanded our understanding of the mammalian dive reflex in humans. This physiological reaction, which occurs in all aquatic mammals, is triggered by immersion in water – particularly of one’s face – and apnea, holding one’s breath. The reflex allows divers’ bodies to adapt to extreme depths, if they can learn to harness it.
Race to the Bottom
For the first 20m below the surface of the Mediterranean, Molchanov works hard. He fights against his body’s buoyancy with a steady pulse of dolphin kicks. His arms are extended and snug against his ears. He enters the depths with his eyes closed, wearing no goggles, blind to his surroundings. At 20m, he floats his arms down to his sides as, under the sea’s pressure, his lungs are compressed to a third of their surface volume. Now negatively buoyant, he enters the opening stages of freefall and starts to sink. The fight, for the moment, is over.
Molchanov is moving at roughly 1m per second. To maintain his speed, he needs only to give himself a slight boost, a kick every 10m – which he does with an uncanny accuracy, as if on autopilot. This is Molchanov at his most beautiful: smooth, fluid, at peace. Mid-metamorphosis, he glides as his body mutates, his stomach hollowing out as the air in his lungs divides into still-smaller fractions.
Clipped securely to the dive line by a cord attached to his wetsuit, he focuses not on navigation but rather on diligence. The main task: the transfer of air between his mouth and his sinuses to equalise the pressure in his body’s cavities, in the hope of avoiding a squeeze, a pressure injury to the lungs, ears, or sinuses. As he does so, he holds his mind in a rigid yet gentle state of extreme calm, keeping at bay the syrupy embrace of nitrogen narcosis, an effect of nitrogen saturation that can cause panic, giddiness, or both, depending on the dive and the day. The rapture of the great depths, Jacques Cousteau called it –or, in scuba talk, getting narc-ed.
Risking It All
Within a year of discovering freediving, Natalia Molchanova had become a self-taught expert, with several national and a few world records to her name. And her son was on her heels. Over the next decade, the Molchanovs rose quickly through the ranks of competitive freedivers, trading national records for world records, world records for new world records.
By 2005, Natalia was living in Moscow, leading the Russian Freediving Federation and running a freediving programme at a university. Alexey had moved there, too, in pursuit of a software-engineering degree. With a training course that Natalia developed, they would certify more than 100 freediving instructors.
Natalia also dedicated herself to researching the potential effects and benefits of the sport. ‘She would give a lot of love, always,’ Molchanov says. ‘She was always taking time to talk to people, to explain, to help with advice, about anything.’
In 2009, off Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, in the Red Sea, Natalia became the first woman to pass 100m, diving to 101 in constant weight. Three years later, on her 50th birthday, she broke the world record for a no-fin dive by reaching 66m. The next year, she smashed a half-dozen more world records. ‘Many people, when they reach 50, they think life is over,’ she told the writer Adam Skolnick for his book One Breath: Freediving, Death, and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits. ‘I want to show them, there is more they can do.’
Deep dives always involve risk. But while dozens of freedivers, including spear fishermen and recreational divers, die each year, fatalities are rare among competitive
freedivers. The tragic 2013 death of Nick Mevoli, the subject of One Breath, remains the sport’s only death in official competition circumstances.
Close calls, however, are more common. Yet Natalia and Alexey grew comfortable with the trade-off. The same year that Mevoli died, Molchanov went to Greece for a then-world-record attempt of 128m in constant weight. He had recently suffered a cold– a punch to the sinuses – but he was feeling confident and strong. On the way up, though, at a depth of 110m, he was struck by a reverse block (an injury to the middle ear that scrambles a diver’s spatial awareness) and became disoriented.
At 30m, he passed out and a safety diver, the accomplished Irish freediver Stephen Keenan, had to drag him to the surface. Such deep-water blackouts can be catastrophic, but Molchanov escaped the ordeal with no more than a severely squeezed lung, which left him coughing up blood. In One Breath, Keenan recounted how, afterwards, Molchanov thanked him but downplayed the accident, as if he were ‘in total denial’. Six days later, Molchanov got back in the water and set his world record. ‘It just shows his resilience and determination,’ said Keenan, ‘and the psychology of the strongest freediver.’
On 2 August 2015, just one month before the annual AIDA Depth World Championship, Natalia was in the water off Formentera, an island near Ibiza, giving a private dive lesson to two students. During the lesson, the students watched as she disappeared below the surface in a dive later estimated to have been a little more than 30m in depth. It should have been routine for the Russian champion – at 53, she was now the most decorated athlete in freediving history, with 41 world records and 23 world championship titles. They waited for her to resurface. And waited. They saw no signs of her ascent, and an underwater search was launched. Natalia never resurfaced.
When Molchanov received the call, he flew to Ibiza and heard the report from the search party out on the water. But he knew there was little hope: going missing at sea is almost always a death sentence. There would never be an official statement, the final word on what happened to his mother – many speculated it was a powerful current or an injury – but Molchanov felt one sickening certainty. ‘If I had been there,’ he said years after his mother’s disappearance, on a podcast called The Freedive Café, ‘most likely nothing would have happened.’
When the search for his mother was called off, Molchanov flew to Egypt, to the waters of the Red Sea, his and Natalia’s preferred practice ground. Instead of paying his respects to those waters and hanging up his fins, letting sadness or fear derail his career, he was driven to do the opposite. He trained with the Russian national team. A month later, he went forward with his plan to compete in the championship.
He came home with two gold medals. In 2018, in addition to breaking his own world record in constant weight, he set the world record in free immersion, and in 2019 he set it in another, bifins. In 2020, Molchanov pushed the bifins depth still further and earned a Guinness World Record for longest recorded dive under ice – nearly 183m.In March, he donned his monofin and an extra-thick wetsuit to plunge below the frozen crust of Russia’s Lake Baikal, setting another record, for the deepest dive below ice. And he plans to best himself once again at the AIDA world championship this month.
Before his mother’s disappearance, Molchanov had been a fierce competitor and a promising young diver. After, he became the world’s best. He has become something else, too: a kind of millennial evangelist for his sport. On Instagram, where he has more than 114,000 followers, his posts demystify and destigmatise freediving through stunning underwater vistas, free advice and quippy captions. (‘Work-life balance,’ he wrote under a photo of himself in scrubs, cradling both his newborn son and his smartphone.)
As he shares his mother’s philosophy on diving, he’s also developing his own. ‘You can have a very unique experience underwater, like that you are very small, that the ocean around is very big,’ he says. ‘It allows you to rethink your scale, how small you are in this universe.’
As stress-inducing as the sport may seem to the uninitiated, freediving, when paired with mindfulness practices, can reduce anxiety and aid with depression and trauma. This kind of work has helped Molchanov understand why he felt so inexorably pulled to the water after his mother vanished. Put simply, it was – between the sensory deprivation, the elemental immersion and the simultaneous control and surrender – an escape. His form of therapy, his way to process the loss. ‘Intellectually,’ he says, ‘I was realising what I need to do, what I have to do, to continue her legacy.’
After Natalia disappeared, Molchanov continued running one side of the freediving business they had started together. In 2018, he and two other big names in the sport, Adam Stern and Chris Kim, who co-founded the business, decided to relaunch Natalia’s training protocols as the Molchanovs Freediving Education System. Its courses, available in English, are similar to other freediving programmes: you start at the basics and work up to longer breath holds and bigger depths. You get certified to teach; so far, more than 500 instructors have been minted.
With training, competitions, his business ventures and a growing family, Molchanov shares the same stresses as any top athlete. But in the time I spent with him, he would stop to play tricks on his fellow competitors, splash around in the shallows, or enjoy copious oysters. ‘He doesn’t reach high levels of performance by being this hyper-intense person,’Kim says. ‘He reaches it by being a hyper-focused person, who is also very relaxed.’
Stern chalks this up to Molchanov’s ability to keep the intensity of competitions separate from the rest of his life. ‘I had been told that he was just a machine of a person, and as a diver, he is,’ he says. ‘But as a person, he’s a big cuddly teddy bear.’
A Breath of Air
At 129m, Molchanov feels for the marker that will indicate he has reached his depth. Below this is the metal ring with its white tags, gently waving in the water. He grabs one and turns skyward. Unlike the journey down, a task that eases with depth, climbing out of this high-pressure zone is constantly demanding, as divers fight against their negative buoyancy with bodies shot through with lactic acid and carbon dioxide.
Rather than think about whether he’ll make it or not, he trusts his body’s muscle memory to pick up the slack. As he once put it, ‘You need to be just performing. You need to clear your mind and you need to focus on the things you know how to do.’ As he rises, Molchanov switches back to manual, oscillating his body and fin in varying rhythms, responding to the water’s every stimulus.
Twenty metres from the surface, the buoyancy catches Molchanov, and his legs calm. It’s just one, two kicks and then his arm is up, on the line, above water. He completes the necessary surface protocol to prove that his body and brain are functioning correctly: the removal of his clip, an ‘OK’ sign with his hand, and then, between deep, rattling breaths, the verbal ‘I’m OK.’
Once he dislodges the white tag from where he has tucked it away in his hood, several officials floating in the water in front of him grin to one another before flashing the white card. Molchanov’s protocol has been approved; his dive is valid. The crowd on the raft erupts in applause. He has matched his record; the gold medal is his.
By mid-afternoon, Molchanov is back on shore, sitting in the competition’s open-air cafeteria. Everyone has been talking, all day, about his dive. Now, in this rare moment of free time, he wants to see what all the fuss is about. So, with the day’s live stream cued, his iPhone propped against his water bottle, he watches. When the dive is done, he presses pause. Smiling, he says that it’s strange to see the difference between what one thinks one looks like in one’s head when one dives, and what one actually looks like. ‘What do you look like in your head?’ I ask. ‘Better,’ he says with a laugh. When surface life fades away, anything seems within reach.
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