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THE SPORTING SCENE
THE DEEPEST DIVE
How far down can a free diver go? BY ALEC WILKINSON
The earliest free diver of renown was a Greek sponge fisherman named Haggi Statti. In July of 1913, he presented himself to the captain of an Italian Navy ship, the Regina Margherita, whose anchor had been lost in deep water off Karpathos, an island between Rhodes and Crete. For a little money and permission to fish with explosives, Statti would find the anchor and tie a rope to it. According to notes made by the ship's doctor, Statti was thirty-five years old, five feet seven inches tall, and a hundred and thirty-two pounds, and had in one of his ears the remnants of an eardrum and in the other no eardrum at all, the pressures of depth having burst them so often. He said that he could go down a hundred and ten metres while holding his breath, and linger at shallower depths for seven minutes.
Statti dived by holding a stone that was tied to a float, then pulled himself up the rope. He made several exploratory dives, submerged again, and reappeared after about three minutes, having found the anchor at seventy-six metres. Fifty-six years passed before anyone made a dive as deep.
Modern free diving is a sport in which divers, on a single breath, descend hundreds of feet, into cold and darkness, and often pass out before they return. It is frequently described as the world's second, most dangerous sport, after jumping off skyscrapers with parachutes. There are eight disciplines, three of which are conducted in a pool; the rest are called deep disciplines. The pool disciplines are static apnea, which is holding one's breath; dynamic with fins (swimming underwater as far as one can, sometimes with flippers or with a monofin, which looks like a mermaid's tail); and dynamic without fins. The five main deep disciplines are free immersion, which involves pulling oneself up and down a rope in open water; constant weight, in which a diver wears fins and a small amount of weight; constant weight without fins; variable weight, in which a diver descends on a metal device called a sled and swims to the surface; and no limits, in which a diver rides a sled and is then pulled to the surface by an air bag. Competitions are not held in no limits or variable weight, because they are so dangerous; divers can only attempt records. No divers have died in free-diving competitions. (Death by free diving usually occurs when spear fishermen who dive alone stay down too long. A few years ago, one drowned when he speared a huge grouper that fled into a hole; the fisherman's spear gun was tied to his wrist and he couldn't get free.) Divers, however, have died trying to set records in no limits. The most famous case was that of a twenty-eight- year-old Frenchwoman named Audrey Mestre, who drowned in 2002, during a poorly supervised dive with her husband, when her air bag didn't inflate, leaving her too deep to reach the surface.
The most prestigious discipline is constant weight—the diver must return to the surface with the weight that he or she wore to descend. The women's record for constant weight is ninety-six metres, which took three minutes and thirty-four seconds. (The men's record is a hundred and twenty-two metres.) For women, a hundred metres is a barrier something like the four-minute mile used to be, and the diver who is the first to accomplish the featwill have a prominent place in the annals of the sport. Only two women are thought to be capable of it. One is Sara Campbell, a British diver who lives in Egypt, and the other is Natalia Molcha-nova, a Russian who lives in Moscow. Campbell set the record of ninety-six metres in April, in the Bahamas, breaking Molchanova's record of ninety-five, which had broken Campbell's record of ninety. Five days after Campbell reached ninety-six metres, she dived to a hundred, returned to the surface, took two breaths, and passed out. (A safety diver caught her.) The rules governing record dives require that a diver remain conscious for sixty seconds after surfacing, so Campbell's dive was nullified.
A few weeks after her failed attempt, Campbell announced that she would try again, in May, in Egypt, at a competition in Sharm al-Sheikh, on the Red Sea. I met her for dinner at her hotel the night before the dive, and we sat in a big dining room surrounded by families, most of whom appeared to be Italian—dark-haired men and blond women, and children who were subdued after a day in the sun. The tables were too tall and the chairs too short. "Egyptian carpenters," Campbell said.
Campbell, who is thirty-seven, and compactly built, is just under five feet, with gray-green eyes and grayish-blond hair cut short. Her features are small and sharp. The day before, she had come down with the tourist complaint Pharaoh's Revenge, although she had lived in Egypt for four years. When I asked whether she would be able to dive, she said that she would decide in the morning, or make a less ambitious dive, so that "I haven't wasted my legs then, and can try again the next day," she said. "I really don't know what to expect."
Campbell had a plate of rice and some vegetables, but she didn't touch them. "Psychologically, the dive is a very big deal," she said. "At the moment, the hundred is pretty much mine. I did the dive, and I surfaced. If I do the dive tomorrow and am not entirely well, then the burden of coming back to try a third time would be very difficult. It's not like I'm running a hundred metres and I fall short of my personal best. If I don't make it, I'm passing out twenty metres beneath the surface of the ocean."
The day before a competition, a diver announces the dive that he or she will attempt. This gives the judges time to send scuba divers to set the rope at the proper length and to leave at the bottom a plate with a tag that the free diver brings back to the surface. The diver attaches a lanyard to the rope with a carabiner for safety, but if he pulls the rope with his hands, except within a certain zone at the bottom, he is disqualified. Many divers, Campbell among them, don't like to wear goggles or a mask during competition and so dive with their eyes closed most of the way. 2 (As for knowing where the surface is, Molchanova has written, "It is possible to a feel the thickness of water layer above and below you, in front of you and behind.") I asked Campbell whether she could announce a hundred-metre dive, then, once she'd started, decide whether she could complete it. She shook her head. "You commit to a dive or you don't," she said. "If any part of my mind has an awareness that I can turn, I probably will turn. For me, the process of a dive starts a week before the dive. If you start training yourself to think, I'll announce a hundred, but maybe turn at eighty, well, it takes only a split second to grab the line for a negative thought, and that's your dive."
An Egyptian diver named Ashod Papazian, who runs a watchmaking business in Cairo, stopped by the table and asked how Campbell was feeling. "I slept for three hours," she said. "It was like I was stapled to the bed," and she threw her arms to each side and flung her head back, like a dancer.
Campbell did not dive the next day, which was Saturday. On Sunday morning, in the white-hot Egyptian sun, I went with her to the Hyperbaric Medical Center, in Sharm al-Sheikh, a small building with glass doors. The biggest object in the office was a hyperbaric chamber the size of a small house trailer—it looked like a propane tank—for treating scuba divers suffering from the bends, which is caused by excessive nitrogen in the tissues and blood. (Free divers do not typically get the bends, apparently because there is not enough nitrogen in a single held breath to provoke it.) The doctor, a heavyset Egyptian, asked Campbell about her symptoms. She said she felt a little better. The doctor made some notes, and then he said, 'You shouldn't compete. You shouldn't risk your life."
Campbell exhaled, and her jaw seemed to tighten. 'You will have a chance to do it again," the doctor said soothingly. "Although probably not before your rival does."
Natalia Molchanova excels as a fin swimmer and a breath holder. Deep diving, however, has "more to it," she told me when I called her in Moscow. "It's deeper in psychological terms, and more sensual than swimming in the pool. It's definitely more dangerous, but it gives extra satisfaction to go with the danger." She spends winters practicing in a pool and summers in the sea, including the Red Sea, either at Dahab, where Campbell lives, or at Sharm al-Sheikh. The two towns are about an hour apart and about a four-hour plane ride from Moscow.
Molchanova is forty-seven. She is small and lean, with broad shoulders, a wide face, and fine shoulder-length hair. She teaches in the department of applied sports and extreme activities at the Russian State University of Physical Education and Sport Tourism in Moscow. I first heard about her from a woman named Lotta Ericson, a Swede who lives in Dahab. Ericson was a judge at the competition in Sharm al-Sheikh, and she runs a free-diving store and school in Dahab with a partner, an Italian named Linda Paganelli. Ericson came in second to Molchanova at the 2007 underwater-breath- holding competition in Slovenia; Molchanova set the world record of 8:00, and Ericson did 6:49. "Her mind is like a rock," Ericson said of Molchanova. "They used to call her the Machine. Sara is the first one who managed to challenge at all. For sure, Molchanova's going to want to be the first to do one hundred."
An interviewer once asked Herbert Nitsch, an Austrian who has made the deepest free dive, riding a sled to two hundred and fourteen metres, what he thinks about as he dives. "When Fm going down, I hope I come up," he said. To still the unbidden apprehensions that might interfere with her dive—what she describes as "the subjective feeling of empty lungs at the deep"—Molchanova uses a technique that she refers to as "attention deconcen-tration." ('They get it from the military," Ericson said.) Molchanova told me, "It means distribution to the whole field of attention—you try to feel everything simultaneously. This condition creates an empty consciousness, so the bad thoughts don't exist."
"Is it difficult to learn?"
'Yes, it's difficult. I teach it in my university. It's a technique from ancient warriors—it was used by the samurai- it was developed by a Russian scientist, Oleg Bakhtiyarov, as a psychological- state-management technique for people who do very monotonous jobs."
I asked if it was like meditation.
"To some degree, except meditation means you're completely free, but if you're in the sea at depth you have to be fo-cussed, or it will get bad. What you do to start learning is you focus on the edges, not the center of things, as if you were looking at a screen. Basically, all the time I am diving, I have an empty consciousness. I have a kind of melody going through my mind that keeps me going, but otherwise I am completely not in my mind."
Molchanova is being coached for her next dive by Bill Stromberg, who heads the International Association for the Development of Freediving, which oversees and verifies record attempts. When I called him in Milan, where he lives, and asked what he does for her, he said, "Our friend Natalia is so supreme. What I am helping her with is strategy, helping her take on the depth, deciding where in the dive do you want to do what, and having the energy to come back up. You have to build a fundament, you have to put a lot of things in the bank, because there will come a day when you have to take them out."
Stromberg added, "It's about how well you know your body, and you don't get that for free. There is a big buffet of things to use to become a free-diving machine. When you talk about training Natalia, you're talking about the tip of the spear."
Sara Campbell does not have a coach. She relies on techniques of meditation that she has learned in yoga. Her method of training has been to dive every few days and then allow her body time to recover.
There are few cash prizes in free-diving competitions. Judges' expenses are covered, but they donate their time. Campbell has two sponsors—Bremont, a watchmaker, and Linden, an environmental company—which display their logos on her wetsuit. She is also from a prosperous family. "If I were honest," she told me, "I'd have a wetsuit that said 'Daddy's Girl.'"
Campbell came to Dahab in 2004 on a yoga holiday, before she was a diver. She says that she woke up on the second day feeling that the place was home, and decided to stay. She had been working in London in public relations for small technology companies and living a life that she couldn't sustain. "I would eat very little all day and dinner would be four Bloody Marys, and invariably I got sick," she told me. An acupuncturist told her that she ; should begin yoga classes. She tried one and hated it. She changed jobs and hoped she was getting better, but her illness, which turned out to be colitis, never im-! proved. The acupuncturist suggested yoga again. "I told him I would try it, but if I didn't like it again he wasn't allowed to use the y word anymore," she said. "I went on this holiday, in Greece, and there was a gentler older lady teaching yoga. One day she said, We're going to do some chanting,' and I said, I'm sorry, I'm British. I don't do chanting.' She said, You can just listen in,' and she wrote down the words, and of course it was the most peaceful feeling." Campbell eventually became a yoga teacher.
In 2006, Campbell started taking classes at Ericson and Paganelli's diving school. "She was quite average—normal beginner student," Ericson said. 'You couldn't say that wow, she was going to be a star. She was being very graceful in the water when she was moving, but she would go down ten, fifteen metres and feel out of breath. Then, at some point, that block was gone."
From the doctor's office in Sharm al-Sheikh, we drove back to the hotel, and that afternoon I borrowed a wetsuit and a mask and flippers and added myself to a small procession of swimmers breast-stroking toward a platform that was floating about a quarter of a mile offshore. Most of them wore wetsuits with hoods, so they looked like a line of bowling balls bobbing on the water. Two judges, one of them Lotta Ericson, stood on the platform, and the area where the competition would take place was marked off by lines and floats. I looked back at the shore and saw Campbell walk down to the beach and put on her wetsuit and monofin and get into the water. She swam toward the float, kicking like a dolphin, sometimes turning on one side. When she arrived, she said that she was going to do a forty-metre dive, just to take part.
Ashod Papazian, the Egyptian diver, treaded water at the judges' feet on the platform. One of the judges began counting out the time, from ten down to one, and then Papazian took a deep breath and dived. I lowered my head under the surface and watched him until he vanished into the deep blue. He was gone for what seemed a very long time. His disappearance, as if he had been absorbed; the passing time; and the inhospitable quality of the deep made it seem impossible that he could return. When I could see him again, he appeared to be struggling to rise, as if some force held him back. He finally broke the surface, and a man leaned over him from the platform and yelled, "Breathe!" The effort seemed to make Papazian's head rise and fall from the water. "Keep breathing!" the man yelled. Papazian took off his nose clip and showed the tag for seventy metres, and everyone ap- ; plauded. Someone shouted, "An Egyptian record!" Ericson, now in the water, lifted the weight off his neck. Looking into his eyes, she yelled, 'I'm not joking— give him oxygen now!" Later, I asked why she had been so concerned. "He was very pale and bluish," she said. "He keeps, breathing and looking really tired, and I see a horror feeling in his eyes."
Papazian climbed laboriously onto the platform, and sat, slumping forward slightly, breathing oxygen from a clear plastic mask. After a moment, he lowered the mask and said sheepishly, "I popped my ear." Someone else said that he had also suffered a compression of the lungs called a lung squeeze.
Campbell made a token dive to fifty metres, then swam to shore. I swam back along the edge of the reef, looking at the fish. I took off my wetsuit, and when I got to the stand where I had borrowed it I saw Papazian, who was talking on the phone I and had a wad of cotton in his ear. He lowered the phone and said, "I call the doctor now, to take something for the pain." Later, he told me that he had heard his ear pop five metres from the plate. "Even so," he said, "seeing the tag, I had to get it."
What allows a person to hold his or her breath and dive to severe depths is an autonomic process called the mammalian diving reflex, which is activated when the nerves in the face come into contact with water, most effectively with cold water. (It doesn't work so well if the water is warmer than seventy degrees.) First, the heartbeat slows; if you were to put your face into a sink of cold water for thirty seconds, your heart would slow, too. Under pressures of depth, blood withdraws from the arms and legs and concentrates in the chest. This is called the blood shift. Meanwhile, the lungs compress, halving themselves after ten metres, ther reducing by degrees until, by a hundred metres, they are something like the size of a fist; free diving is the only sport in which the lungs shrink and the heart slows. The blood shift prevents the chest from collapsing. In theory, however, a depth could be reached after which the chest became so compressed that the heart could no longer beat. This doesn't happen to the scuba diver, since he or she is breathing.
Divers don't usually feel their lungs shrinking. A few may feel the blood withdrawing from their hands and feet. Campbell doesn't, though. For her, the mammalian diving reflex is inferred. "It takes a while to accept the physiological tmths of a free dive, which are that your body knows how to conserve oxygen on its own," Campbell told me. "When you start, you don't necessarily believe that your body will take care of you at fifty and sixty metres. The reason you have to believe your lungs are the size of lemons is that, if you don't, the dive reflex won't kick in—it can be inhibited by stress. The reflex slows your heart, but the physiological response to stress is a quickening heartbeat. The faster your heartbeats, the more oxygen you use. In the early stages of learning to dive, it's very much What the hell am I doing?' You're getting to about six metres and racing back to the surface, because it feels so foreign. You're in a very irrational environment, being so far from the surface. It's human endurance, but you're doing it in a place where you shouldn't be able to prove human endurance."
Shrunken lungs give a free diver a sense of having plenty of oxygen, because it is concentrated. If he suffers nitrogen narcosis—also called "rapture of the deep"—which is sometimes reported in the deep disciplines, and is intoxicating, he may indulge this sensation by remaining at depth for longer than is sensible. Lung squeezes occur when the pressure is so great that blood is forced into the small spaces of the lungs, the alveoli. It is possible to drown from too much blood leaking into the lungs, but that is rare. As a diver turns toward the surface, his lungs expand, more oxygen is consumed, and suddenly he feels as if he hasn't got enough to reach the surface. He might feel that he needs to breathe, then suffer convulsions and black out. Campbell feels no urge to breathe at depth, which is unusual.
As pro free divers go, Campbell is not good at holding her breath, and she doesn't much like doing it, either. Her best time in the pool is a little more than five minutes, far less than Molchanova's eight. Holding one's breath competitively is a violent pastime. For someone holding his breath, the urge to breathe comes not from a lack of oxygen but from the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood as the oxygen is used. To disable, or at least delay, that trigger, free divers hyperventilate before competing, to wash the lungs of carbon dioxide. Breath holders know that the body's initial insistence on breathing is a bluff-—it begins a few minutes before the lungs are empty. They resist it, aware that, shortly, contractions of the diaphragm resembling spasms will arrive. These they tolerate, too. When they have run completely out of oxygen, they will lose consciousness. Blackouts come so suddenly that someone holding his breath can drown in water that he could have stood up in.
According to Kirk Krack, a highly regarded free-diving coach and teacher from Florida, what's called the Rule of Nine governs blackouts for free divers. "Ninety per cent will happen on the surface within the first three breaths," he told me. "Nine per cent will happen at fifteen feet or shallower, and one per cent will happen at eighty feet or shallower." Campbell has blacked out three times, and regards it as a not entirely unpleasant peril. "The first time, I was close to the surface, and next thing I was lying in an alpine meadow—I spent a lot of time in Austria as a child," she said. "When you have a blackout, the first thing to come back is your hearing, and all around me were men whispering sweet nothings in my ears." The men were other divers, urging her to wake. Sight comes back next, Campbell said. Returning to consciousness is a little like two identical transparencies passing over each other. "Suddenly they agree, and you think, I'm back in my body," she said.
Few divers enjoy blackouts. "I heard people say they think they're nice," Lotta Ericson told me. "I don't think they're nice. As a beginner, you don't know your body. You're diving, going up and down, and nothing ever happens, so you think you're invincible." Ericson blacked out during her second competition, in 2002, below the surface of a lake. "They dragged me to the platform, and I'm still not awake," she said. 'They still took another thirty seconds before I was conscious. I remember this feeling—you're waking up, and everything is strange, and I don't know where I am. There is a face in front of me—it is the doctor, but I don't know who it is, and I'm there for, like, fifteen seconds without knowing what's going on. Then I got a terrible headache."
Surfacing, free divers frequently suffer something called a samba, described in a medical paper from a free-diving symposium as "a bilateral motor tremor, eye gaze deviation, and fine head bobbing." Sambas, which last less than a minute, sometimes begin underwater and are often a prelude to blacking out. (As a rule, Campbell doesn't have sambas. "I typically go straight to blackout," she says.) Divers also experience temporary disturbances of speech called mooglies. Dr. John Fitz-Clarke, a Canadian emergency physician who has studied free divers, told me that mooglies were like the word salad characteristic of strokes and certain brain injuries. On rare occasions, free divers have passing weakness on one side of their bodies, or their skin tingles or burns. They might have temporary trouble remembering things, and difficulty concentrating for a short time afterward. Brain scans have shown evidence of "bright spots" in the brains of free divers, Fitz-Clarke told me, but so far there is no evidence of permanent brain damage from free diving.
Another brutish impediment to diving deep is burst eardrums, which causes vertigo. "Around thirty or thirty-five metres, your lungs have become so small that there is no air left in them to force into your ears, and that's called your failure depth," Campbell told me. "Mine is roughly thirty-six metres, so around twenty metres I begin something called the mouth fill." This involves forcing air from her lungs into her throat and mouth, then closing her epiglottis and using that air to equalize the pressure in her ears. "It's hard to learn. If the epiglottis opens, the lungs swallow the air, you have nothing to equalize with, and you have to turn." Moreover, free divers, especially those making a number of dives in a day, can be subject to agitation, convulsions, severe fatigue (Campbell slept for two days after her first attempt at a hundred metres), pains in their joints, and, rarely, cardiorespiratory arrest.
"If you understand what free diving is, it's normal that you suffer something," Campbell said.
This is how a dive works: Because of the air in our lungs, we are buoyant on the surface and remain so until about fifteen metres. The weight that a constant-weight diver wears around the neck helps him or her overcome the resistance at this depth. (Campbell wears about four pounds.) Between fifteen and thirty metres, most people are neutrally buoyant, and after thirty metres they are negatively buoyant, which means they sink. "Deeper than thirty metres, nobody swims," Marco Nones, a dive instructor in Sharm al-Sheikh, told me. "Fall down, fall down. Every diver slips."
At the bottom of a deep dive, a diver is very heavy, because the lungs are so radically contracted. To return to neutral buoyancy, he must labor against this. Sometimes, on no-fins dives, he actually sinks while gliding between strokes and has to work to recover lost ground. 'You have to be able to trust yourself—It's O.K, I've done a dive almost like this before, four metres different, Til be able to get back," Campbell said. "It feels like a long way up, but it's always going to. I don't look up until I sense that I'm ten or fifteen metres from the surface. While I'm rising, I'm concentrating on kicking, and I'm thinking how strong I am, I'm fine, I have enough oxygen. Often, there is the thought—and I'm lucky I can have this thought—I'm the best in the world."
Molchanova was planning a dive in early July at a competition in Greece, for which she was training near Dahab, at a reef called the Blue Hole. Campbell was planning another attempt before Molchanova's dive. Toward the end of June, I called Bill Stromberg and asked if he thought Molchanova would reach a hundred metres in Greece, and his answer surprised me. "Our friend Natalia was training very much," he said. "She was aiming for a hundred metres, but she got an infection in her ear in Egypt, just yesterday, maybe from air-conditioning, or a bad pool. She cancelled her training and will return to Moscow and try to handle this A.S.A.P., and we will try to go forward, because she is in very good fitness now, and she has to keep it up."
I called Campbell. "Somebody told me she had an ear infection, and somebody else said it was a burst eardrum," Campbell said. "At the Blue Hole, we were training alongside each other. I did eighty-five or so and was sort of hanging around to spy on her dive, but I don't know how deep she went."
I asked if Molchanova's misfortune might influence Campbell's plans, and she said no, she was preparing for her dive as if nothing had happened.
Molchanova, when I reached her, was still in Dahab. It was evening there, and she was washing dishes. She spoke quickly, as if the end of each sentence were a signpost she saw ahead of her and she was trying to reach it efficiently, but her manner was gracious.
'Were you planning a hundred-metre dive in Greece?"
"Last year I did one in training," she said, "in Sharm al-Sheikh, and I wanted to go that deep again, but it's impossible for me now. Maybe Sara will do it."
"Do you mind Sara's possibly going first?"
"Nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet" she said. "There is an intrigue in the fact that somebody does something first, second does something else—that's the sport."
I asked whether she would try for a hundred metres soon. T don't plan," she said. "I live by the moment. At this moment, I need to cure myself, become O.K., and whatever happens then will."
To prepare for her dive, Campbell began doing dolphin-kick swims across the bay and walking in the mountains outside Dahab with her dogs. "If I do that every day for a week, I can also do some sprints to seventy, eighty metres," she wrote to me in an e-mail. "I know I can do the depth; I don't need to train for pressure, and the pressure difference between seventy and one hundred is not that great."
As Campbell practiced, she began to feel excited—"fired up and confident," she wrote to me. "For whatever reason, that feeling has been missing recently." Her progress was uneven, though. She planned a dive to eighty-five metres but had trouble equalizing her ears and turned at seventy metres. The next day, she reached eighty-seven metres. "Felt easy," she wrote. "No narcosis and very clear on the surface, so very happy!"
In the following days, she made dives to ninety-two metres and to ninety-five, while trying to make her ascents faster. Even so, the dives were getting longer. Her record ninety-six-metre dive had taken 3:34, but her practice dive to ninety-five took 3:47. I'm pushing four minutes," she told me on the phone, "which is a little less than I can hold my breath in the pool, so it's a little ridiculous, swimming my way up and back in the same time frame."
Campbell made her third attempt at a hundred metres on June 25th, a Thursday. When I reached her by phone, about an hour afterward, she sounded exultant, and I said, 'You made it," and she said, "I didn't. I went down to a hundred, I got the tag. Coming up I felt a little lightheaded, but I was thinking, Just hold it together, and the next thing Im lying on the surface and people are holding me."
She had passed out about two metres down. "It felt like a deeper blackout than the ones Id had before," she told me. "I had a dream again. I can't remember what it was, but it makes me feel the blackout was deeper. Everyone's saying I had a technical problem with the line and that slowed me down, so maybe I would have done it, but I didn't."
Campbell was still at the Blue Hole, having tea and packing up. I could hear voices in the background. Someone said something to her that I couldn't make out, and she said, "I must have been narced. I can't remember that at all."
From calls I made to her safety diver; to Linda Paganelli, who had helped her train; to Bill Stromberg, who was the head judge; and to Marco Nones, who was serving as her coach on the dive, I found out what happened. According to the safety diver, a man named Tom Steiner van den Ouweelen, her lanyard kept catching on the markers attached to the rope every five metres and she lost "fifteen or twenty seconds to freeing it, both up and down, which is very much for such a long dive." Because she was "quite narced," he said, she didn't remember struggling.
As Campbell appeared from the depths, she had looked uncertain. "From twenty metres I see her—very slow," Nones told me. "She looks tired, too slowly. In Italian we have a phrase: hard legs, heavy legs. I say, 'I don't think she can enjoy the surface.'"
"I was so sure she would make it," Paganelli told me. "I heard Marco say, 'She's going to switch off,' meaning have a blackout, but Sara always looks like that in the last twenty metres. She's different from other people. She slows down, and she doesn't look so much in control; she looks like someone who's about to fall asleep.' "At ten metres, she had a samba," Nones said. "And at two and a half she blacked out. She was really close, really, really close to do it. The trouble with the carabiner makes her take too long. A little bit shorter on the dive, and she got it."
On the platform after she woke up, Campbell coughed twice into her hand, and there were two small spots of blood "about the size of a coin," she said, meaning that she had also suffered a lung squeeze.
"A hundred right now is just very, very close to her absolute limit, and to fix that she needs not only an extremely good day, she needs luck," Stromberg said. "It's a very extreme dive, and she's a very small girl. She compensated very well with pure inner strength, and she had all the mental capacity, but the mental capacity right now is stronger than her physical, because, you know, it's a long fucking swim up."
Stromberg and Paganelli told Campbell that, instead of trying to reach a hundred metres, she should try to break Molchanova's record of eighty-five metres in free immersion. "Mentally, it's going to be much easier for her," Paganelli told me. 'You want, anyway, to break a record that is not your own."
'The hundred's not a mental block for me—I feel I can get there, it feels manageable—but I need to be faster off the bottom," Campbell told me later. "I've never felt better than I did on Thursday. Everything seemed to work, but I guess I was slow. It was a fast descent, 1:32, but it took me two and a half minutes to get to the surface. Between sixty and fifty metres took me eighteen seconds, almost twice as long as it should have. I don't know what I was doing." She had seen a video of the dive, and it "freaked me out," she said. I'm feeling pretty gutted at the moment, actually."
She paused. "I keep having the thought, which comes in for a few seconds, and I block it out, but it's What am I chasing here?"
I asked whether she had considered breaking the free-immersion record.
"I didn't want to do the free immersion," she said. "It's not about free immersion. I could care less about the free immersion right now. It's about the hundred. It's about being the deepest swimmer in the world."
THE NEW YORKER, AUGUST 24, 2009