Freediving -- a sport built on diving as deep as possible on a single breath -- tests the limits of human ability in the most hostile environment on earth. The unique and eclectic breed of individuals who freedive at the highest level regularly dive hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface, reaching such depths that their organs compress, light disappears, and one mistake could kill them. Even among freedivers, few have ever gone as deep as Nicholas Mevoli. A handsome young American with an unmatched talent for the sport, Nick was among freediving's brightest stars. When Mevoli arrived at Vertical Blue in 2013, the world's premier freediving competition, he was widely expected to challenge records and continue his meteoric rise to stardom. Instead, before the end of that fateful competition Nick Mevoli had died, a victim of the sport that had made him a star, and the very future of free diving was called into question.
Dean's Blue Hole
Long Island, Bahamas
November 17, 2013
The warm Atlantic sloshed in Nicholas Mevoli's ears as he floated into the competition zone at Dean's Blue Hole. He looked calm, but appearances can be deceiving. When Vertical Blue kicked off he had ambitions for a bronze medal and two more American records. Yet after a year of intense preparation and winning an overall gold in another competition only weeks earlier, plus silver at the world championship a month before that, he'd proceeded to flub every single dive that week. This was the Wimbledon of freediving. Aside from worlds, it was the only competition that mattered to him, and most others in the sport, and Nick was out of juice. Every muscle in his body hurt. Even his lungs hurt, but he wasn't about to give up. It was game day, and he was preparing to descend to 72 meters, or 240 feet, and back on a single breath.
"Six minutes!" announced Sam Trubridge, a theater director from Auckland, New Zealand, and the older brother of William Trubridge, the greatest freediver of them all. Standing on the platform, Sam loomed over Nick, who lay on his back, clipped to the competition line. His eyes stayed mostly closed, but when he opened them they flashed with focus and determination.
The competition zone was delineated by a set of white PVC pipes that formed a 6-meter square within the dark blue of the hole. Inside were a photographer, a videographer, and three judges, including lead judge Grant Graves, one of the longest-tenured professionals in the sport. Also within the zone were five safety divers clad in long bi-fins, led by Nick's friend, Ren Chapman, a former college baseball star from Wilmington, North Carolina. It was the safety divers' job to meet the athletes once they reached a depth of 30 meters while ascending from their dive. That's where pressure underwater shifts, and where lactic acid buildup and hypoxia (lack of oxygen) can begin to cause problems.
Clinging to the floating boundaries were a handful of fans and several of Nick's rivals. Folks like Mike Board, forty-four, the UK record holder and a former Royal Marine. Half-Chinese, half-English, six feet tall and all muscle, Mike patrolled the infamous Baghdad Airport Road as a private military contractor during the Iraq War, and earned good money dodging suicide attacks and ferrying high-dollar clients to the safety of the Green Zone. Afterward, he used his earnings to build a flourishing freedive center in Indonesia's Gili Islands, which enabled him to train year round. In terms of global standing within the sport, Mike and Nick were among the elite national record holders, and both hoped to be contending for world records soon. Also in the water was Junko Kitahama, another national record holder from Japan. She watched him carefully. Their conversation on the beach had thrown her and she was worried.
So were his friends and family. They were aware that Nick was hurting, and they also knew that when others took breaks, he doubled down on training. While many kept a less ambitious competition schedule, Nick Mevoli took every opportunity to dive. That's what made him the best American freediver in less than two years of competition. But mulling past victories wasn't going to help him now. Frustrated, he clenched his eyes tight to silence his brainspeak, to switch off and calm down. He took a cleansing breath and leaned back, submerging his face, stimulating the nerves around his eyes, and sparking the mammalian dive reflex, a physiological response that, if developed, helped an average man become Aquaman, capable of freediving to unheard of depths for minutes at a time, without feeling any anxiety or the slightest urge to breathe.
He inhaled long and slow and exhaled twice as slow, twice as calm. Each time purging his system of negativity and carbon dioxide, the buildup of which spurs that urge to breathe and can turn a relaxed, peaceful adventure into excruciating toil. If a stray bolt of fear bloomed in his mind, he'd slow his breath down even more. That was the only way to lower his heart rate, and keep his demons at bay.
He knew them well, his demons. They'd trailed him his entire life. They fueled him. His broken home, his feelings of inadequacy, his frustration with a society attuned to greed and waste, were what drove him into the water in the first place. They also blessed him with uncommon generosity. On land, Nick wasn't the fierce competitor he was on the line, and beneath all of that anxiety, pain and loss, brainchatter and seawater sloshing in his ears, he knew something else, too: he had one more dive left in him, and he was going to tear that Velcro tag from the bottom plate, come up clean, and claim his record.
He visualized the dive. Something his friend, William Trubridge, a fifteen-time world record holder and owner of Vertical Blue, taught him when they'd roomed together during the Caribbean Cup in Honduras the previous May, where Nick made the dive of his life and became the first American to swim to 100 meters on a single breath. He used a monofin that day. On Sunday, November 17, he would dive without fins, which ratcheted up the difficulty several degrees. Will stood on the beach, barefoot as usual, watching Nick breathe up. Typically he stayed away from the hole when he wasn't diving, but he didn't miss Nick's dives. Nobody in the history of the sport had gotten to 100 meters so fast, and Will knew he was witnessing someone special, someone capable of breaking world records one day and going deeper than any human had before.
As the clock ticked below thirty seconds, Nick's breathing pattern changed and he began sipping the air, attempting to fill his lungs to the limit -- from the depth of his diaphragm to those little-used air pockets between and behind the shoulder blades -- and in so doing, pack as much oxygen into his system as possible. He would need it. If all went according to plan, he wouldn't breathe again for nearly three minutes.
Dean's Blue Hole bloomed onto the freediving scene in 2005 when Will began living and training there. At the time he was not yet a champion, but an aspirant frustrated by the lack of accessibility to deep water and good conditions on a consistent basis. He found both on Long Island, Bahamas, and within a few short years, he became one of the best, if not the best freediver on earth. Freedivers soon flocked to train alongside him, and those that were instructors brought students. That's how Nick found it in 2012, when he was about to come out of nowhere to break his first American record.
Eighty-one miles long but less than four miles across at its widest point, Long Island is splayed like a twisted egg noodle between the frothing blue Atlantic Ocean and the placid, turquoise Caribbean Sea. Etched from limestone by wind, surf, and rain, its stubby hills and plains are blanketed in thick, tropical scrub rustling with wild boar and feral cats, stitched with mangroves, and blessed with a series of exquisite, virgin beaches.
On his maiden voyage in 1492, Christopher Columbus navigated the northern tip of Long Island (he named it Fernandina), anchoring on the Caribbean side of what became known as Cape Santa Maria. A single strip of asphalt leads from there toward the southern terminus, and after about an hour's drive, in the town of Dean's, a gravel and dirt road branches east over low-lying hills and around a bend to Will's beloved blue hole, where the wind is almost always muffled and the current ever gentle, even in stormy weather.
That's because it's sheltered by a concave semicircle of thick limestone bluffs that rise over fifty feet high. Its insides, grooved with giant primordial brush strokes, are drilled with shallow caves and punctuated by phallic stalactites that dangle over a sea so dark blue it has no business being just three steps from a silky white sand beach. Where Will stood, watching, as the clock wound down on Nicholas Mevoli. Sam ticked off the seconds: "10, 9, 8 ... " When he got to zero, Nick submerged, face first with his arms extended. He looked like a human arrow shooting into the darkness.
Dean's Blue Hole is an underwater cavern flipped vertically, shaped like a carafe. As Nick swam, he passed a rugged reef, which sprouted from sloping white sand that led to a ring of sheer limestone 10 meters below the surface. He'd reached the rim of the hole where sand spilled over the edge in a series of mesmerizing sandfalls that look exactly like a photo negative of a waterfall. Within five powerful breaststrokes those cliff walls receded beneath a sloped ceiling where small schools of giant tarpon or silver barracuda often hunkered in the shadows.
After another few strokes and another 10-meter drop there was a second set of cliffs, and the walls receded again. Soon the hole was darker than midnight, and about twice as wide as the entire cove appears from the surface. The rim of the hole has a 35-meter diameter. Below 20 meters, the diameter is estimated at more than 150 meters. Nick had stopped swimming by then. His arms at his side, his chin tucked, he became as streamlined as possible. It was time to freefall. The part of a dive that feels like floating through outer space. He closed his eyes and surrendered to the soft, slow sink into dreamtime.
-- Excerpted by permission from ONE BREATH: Freediving, Death, And The Quest To Shatter Human Limits by Adam Skolnick. Copyright (c) 2016. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Follow Adam Skolnick on Twitter @adamskolnick.