Review: ‘One Breath’ by Adam Skolnick

One Breath: Freediving, Death, and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits. Adam Skolnick. Crown. 324 pages. $26.
One Breath: Freediving, Death, and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits. Adam Skolnick. Crown. 324 pages. $26.

“You can’t lie to the water,” Nicholas Mevoli was warned at the height of his brief but spectacular freediving career. But in his new book, One Breath, Adam Skolnick reveals that Mevoli had been lying to himself for a while. An unknown rookie when he dove more than 100 meters, the first American to do so, he amazed — and alarmed — friends and rivals with his furious determination.

Sadly, on a sunny Caribbean day in November 2013 he set his last record when he became the first athlete to die in an international freediving competition.

Skolnick alternates between retracing Mevoli’s life and explaining the intricacies of freediving, an extreme sport in which the dangers have been downplayed or ignored. A skilled, knowledgeable journalist, Skolnick distills complex information into highly readable prose. Sympathetic to his subject, he introduces us to a subculture that elicits mockery and misunderstanding for its refusal to abide by evolutionary constraints.

Keep in mind that we are talking about apparently sane folks who delight in holding their breath for several minutes while descending a football-field length into the cold, merciless sea. More science experiment than sport, freediving challenges its athletes to find ways to bridge the divide between man and manatee.

Mevoli’s death, however, raised sobering questions about the toll exacted from the human body. The first competitive freediver reached 30 meters in 1949 — a supposedly impossible feat. Received wisdom of the time dictated that lungs could not tolerate the stress. But skeptics were unaware of the mammalian dive reflex, a physiological countermeasure that slows the heart, suspends capillary circulation to the limbs and transfers blood to the thoracic region. With extensive training and preparation, Skolnick writes, the reflex reduces the need for oxygen, allowing an ordinary mortal to turn into the king of Atlantis.

But the deeper you go, the more your lungs shrink. And freedivers keep going deeper and deeper. Remember those 30 meters everybody was aghast at? The current world record is 253 meters.

These bipedal dolphins have been spitting up a lot of blood lately due to something called a lung squeeze, which afflicted Mevoli on a regular basis. Lung squeezes, which occur when the lungs are repeatedly and inordinately compressed, lead to pulmonary hemorrhage.

Skolnick describes it thusly: “Think of pantyhouse stretched to maximum. Those tiny holes [alveolar capillaries — blood vessels in the air sacs of the lung] get bigger and bigger until they rip.”

A study of Mevoli’s lung tissue shows that he never let his injuries heal. He was in too much of a hurry. After a fairly aimless existence, this native Floridian had finally found his passion and wasn’t going to let anything hinder his rise to the top of a sport that offered little fame and no money. In fact, he poured all his savings into his last dive at Dean’s Blue Hole, a seemingly bottomless underwater cavern that looks from above like a monstrous, unblinking black eye.

Skolnick is critical of the doctor who tended Mevoli immediately after he surfaced, clearly in distress. A freediver herself, she may not have followed correct emergency cardiac procedures. The investigation, conducted AIDA, the NFL of freediving, lacked thoroughness. But that is to be expected, for AIDA, like the NFL, prefers to sweep problems under the rug. Lung squeezes are to freediving what concussions are to pro football, and yet AIDA is reluctant to disqualify athletes who manifest symptoms.

Lung squeezes have increased, Skolnick suggests, because many freediving schools have opened, and the instructors are selling their students a bill of goods: You too can be a Natalia Molchanova (the greatest freediver in history) with just a few easy lessons. Like Mevoli, these students lack patience.

But an essential component of freediving is to relax, to expel all anxiety from the mind; the mammalian dive reflex won’t work otherwise. This was Mevoli’s weakness. While he was gifted, he could never put his demons to rest.

Oh, and speaking of Molchanova, a single Russian mother who started freediving at 40 and had broken every world record within 10 years: She was caught in a current five months ago and swept out to sea, never to be found.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.