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The Depths She’ll Reach

Sunken by grief, Alenka Artnik found herself alone on a bridge, contemplating suicide. Ten years later, she is the world’s greatest female freediver and getting stronger with each record-breaking plunge. How one woman emerged from mental health struggles to push the limits of the human body.

An old fisherman offers a diver some advice. You can go underwater in two ways, he says, taking a bit of coral and tossing it into the sea. Then he cracks a coconut and pours its milk into the water. The coral is still coral but the milk is now sea, he says.

Be not like the coral, but like the coconut.

Adapted from Manual of Freediving, by Umberto Pelizzari and Stefano Tovaglieri

A girl plays with her dolls on a third-floor balcony. It is summer in the mid-1980s in Koper, a small Yugoslavian city by the Adriatic Sea. Beside the girl is a tub of water; fallen petals from her mother’s plants float on top. When she climbs into the tub and splashes water onto the hot tiles, she creates, as if by magic, the sweet and musty scent of rain.

The girl submerges her dolls, one by one, to make them swim — her mermaids. She wants to know how moving underwater feels. Soon she will.

The girl’s father walks her down to the beach and she wades into the tidal pool. She takes a breath, sinks beneath the surface, and propels herself forward with her arms. So entranced is she by this silent and liquid otherworld that she does not see the concrete wall inlaid with seashells. Her forehead slams into it. Blood curls in the salty water.

A woman stands alone on a narrow pedestrian bridge. It is the winter of 2010 in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It is night, and the water far below is dark and very cold. More than two decades have passed since her blood met water in the tidal pool, and she has since endured so much more pain, heartache, and loss.

The woman calls out silently to the universe.

I can’t do this anymore.

If she climbs over the rails and jumps, it will all be over.

A diver floats on her back above a marine cavern with a travel pillow supporting her head. It is July 2021 in The Bahamas. She wears a thin wetsuit, a tiny headlamp, and a carbon-fiber fin that resembles a mermaid’s tail on her feet. She is 39 years old and the best female freediver in the world. Only a few people — all men — have dived deeper into the ocean than she has on just one breath. Someday soon she may surpass them.

The diver’s face is blank, and so is her mind. This is intentional: Thinking burns oxygen and the air in her lungs must take her down nearly 400 feet into Dean’s Blue Hole, where it is so dark that if her light fails she may as well be blindfolded. That same breath must also bring her back up out of the blackness, toward the spears of sunlight bursting through the turquoise water.

For 210 seconds, she will be suspended in the liminal zone between this life and the next. In a place where the water’s weight will wrap her in a strong hug and shrink her lungs to the size of tennis balls. Where her heart rate will slow to 30 beats a minute, and her arteries will constrict to stop blood supply to her legs and arms. Where, if her oxygen runs too low on the ascent, she will black out and rely on the white-vested safety divers to pull her to the surface, call her name, and blow on her eyelids to stimulate breathing and keep her from drifting off further, toward death.

The diver has trained for nine months for this moment. Suffered. Held her breath for so long, so many times — underwater, while walking, lying on her bed — that she imagined when her mouth finally opened again, she’d inhale the whole sky. Dived so deep, so often, she was too tired to even put the key in the lock of her apartment at the day’s end.

But wait — the time frame is wrong.

She has prepared for this not just for nine months but for all her life.

From a platform floating nearby, a safety officer in a pink, wide-brimmed hat begins the countdown.

— Four minutes…
— Two minutes…
— 30 seconds…
— Five, four, three, two, one…
— Top time!

The diver takes one long breath before noisily sipping air, like a fish reeled onto the sand. Eight little breaths, packing her lungs to their limits. Then, gently, she rolls onto her stomach and duck dives, following the guide rope down. She closes her eyes. With a few flicks of her tail, the mermaid disappears.

The announcer calls out again.

— Alenka Artnik
— Slovenia
— 118 meters
— World record attempt!

The Descent

Part 1

Nearly 6,000 people have climbed Mount Everest. Only a few dozen have freedived 100 meters under the ocean. We are land animals, and unless we are taught to swim while young, open water evokes primordial fears. We panic when holding our breath. A sloth can manage up to 40 minutes underwater without coming up for air. The average human might last 60 seconds.

But offer food or bounty or glory and we can go against our instincts. Ancient trash piles of shells found as far apart as the Far East and the Baltic Sea suggest our ancestors dived the ocean shallows for pearls and shellfish thousands of years ago.

Who was first to go considerably deeper, no one can say for sure, but Haggi Statti is a reasonable guess. Diving for sponges had already cost the Greek his eardrums by the time an Italian navy ship lost its anchor near Crete in 1913. Statti said he would find it. He tied a float to one end of a rope, and a stone to the other end, which he clutched in his arms as he dived. On the seabed, 76 meters down, he located the anchor, secured it, and pulled himself up.

For decades, what Statti did seemed miraculous, perhaps even apocryphal. More than 40 years later, a French Navy physiologist warned that a depth of 50 meters was the absolute limit to which a human could descend. And beyond that, doctor? One will be crushed.

But then in 1962, an Italian spear-fisherman named Enzo Maiorca, having overcome his own great fear of the sea, freedived to 51 meters using a weighted sled to speed his descent and an air balloon to help him resurface. He emerged unharmed. Fourteen years later, his French rival Jacques Mayol made it to 100 meters using the same technique. Their exploits inspired the 1988 film The Big Blue, and with it, a generation of freedivers.

The girl on the balcony in Koper is not one of them. Her name is Alenka Artnik, and by the late 1980s, the Balkan state is collapsing.

One morning her mother Vida comes into the room Alenka shares with her older sister Tjasi and tells the girls the war has started. Ten days later it is over, for Slovenia at least, which gains its independence, though the rest of Yugoslavia descends into chaos.

For the Artniks, however, the chaos is at home. Vida was just 18 when she married Franc, a divorcé who, unusual for the time, was granted custody of his infant son, Simon. Handsome and athletic, Simon is 10 when Alenka is born. Before he finishes school, Simon is addicted to heroin.

Because drug use is taboo in Slovenia at the time, Franc and Vida are on their own with Simon’s treatment. They help set up the country’s first commune for addicts and talk about the dangers of drugs on television. They send Simon to rehabilitation clinics in Italy and then, for three years, in Thailand. He is clean when he comes home. His father Franc, who drinks, is not.

Franc has always been a proud, independent man, refusing to be recruited by the Communist Party. During the workweek he runs a successful plumbing business. On weekends he disappears for hours into the woods to pick herbs, wild asparagus, and mushrooms. The pine needles that fall from his clothes upon his return lend the family apartment the smell of forest.

But soon after Simon’s troubles begin, Franc’s drinking gets worse. He is drunk one week, sober the next. Some days he passes out in front of the apartment building. When Alenka, still in primary school, finds alcohol at home she pours it down the drain. Franc buys more. His business flounders and Vida is forced to find work cooking in a factory canteen.

She divorces Franc but they continue to live together. He sleeps in the living room and when Vida returns from work she immediately takes refuge in her bedroom.

At night Alenka hears her mother crying and worries she might kill herself. The young girl hugs her comfort blanket, pretending she is holding her mom, keeping her safe. To escape, she slips a yellow cassette into her tape deck and loses herself in the story of Heidi, the fictional Swiss orphan who goes to live with her grandfather in the Alps.

Simon relapses and police officers knock on the door looking for him. The son and the father, the drug addict and the alcoholic, fight incessantly.

At the beach in Koper where Alenka hit her head as a young girl, there’s a kayaking club. The boats are narrow and unstable but very fast. Alenka is nine when she joins the club. On the sea she forgets her family strife. All that matters is her stroke, her breathing, the water. The now.

The club becomes her second home, a refuge. She trains every day — twice on weekends — and is selected for the national junior sprint kayak team. When she is old enough to be entrusted with a clubhouse key, she starts skipping class to paddle alone.

In 1998, Alenka drops out of school at age 17 and tells her parents that she wants to become a professional kayaker. It is plausible, but bullshit. Really, she just wants to get away.

Instead it is her mother, with whom Alenka has been so close, who leaves to live with another man. Alenka’s sister Tjasi has already moved to Ljubljana, Slovenia’s biggest city, and Simon is who knows where. Alenka is alone with her father.

Though neither of them know it yet, Franc suffers from borderline personality disorder. The rage and psychological violence that he once aimed at his wife and son is now directed at Alenka. He blames her for his unhappiness and failures, shattering what little confidence she has. As she tries to press forward with her life, she internalizes the pressure he puts on her. But she cannot reason with him. She feels helpless, desperate. She considers suicide.

I will jump from the balcony to punish you, she thinks. To show you how much you are hurting me.

Vida’s new life continues to pull her further from Alenka, and in 2001 she remarries. The next year, tired of her father’s emotional abuse, Alenka moves to Ljubljana, where she lives like a student, working in a skate shop to pay for a room in a shared house. She drinks and parties too much — a valve to relieve the pressure of her internalized trauma. She feels alone; a string of romantic relationships fails to pull her from her depths.

One night in 2004, Simon calls Alenka from a detox clinic. Too tired of his struggles and of her own life, she doesn’t answer the phone. The next day, his body surrenders to the ravages of addiction. Vida, meanwhile, is diagnosed with cancer, and after a five-year fight with the disease, she also dies.

Disconnected from her family, Alenka feels unable to mourn her brother and mother properly, and Franc, still in Koper, has been tormenting her with manipulative behavior from afar. The weight of her family’s struggles has pulled her deeper into despair.

She doesn’t realize it, but by that wintery 2010 night on the bridge, she is drowning in grief. Nearly ten years have passed since Alenka first thought of jumping off the balcony to punish her father. And now, alone and looking at the water below, her remaining reserves of self-esteem are nearly spent.

But her distress call to the universe triggers something deep within her. She realizes that the burden of her family’s struggles has pulled her, like a weight, to this dark place, this bottom. I don’t want this; it doesn’t belong to me, she thinks. I cannot hold it anymore.

So, like a heavy backpack, she takes the weight off and simply lets it go. Her troubles are far from over, but Alenka is no longer paralyzed by her past. She walks off the bridge and goes home.

The Turnaround

Part 2

Salvation begins, as it often does, with an act of kindness. Twelve months after Alenka’s night on the bridge, one of her ex-boyfriends invites her to swim with him at a local pool. He has taken up spearfishing and, to build stamina, swims underwater lengths with a group of men.

Alenka takes a breath and slips under the water, pulling forward with her arms. She is a child again, under the sea in Koper. All the noise of the world has disappeared, she thinks. I am alone but also part of something. For the first time in a very long while she feels at peace.

The following day Alenka buys a pair of fins and makes it as far without breathing as the best of the men. Keen to know more about this curious pursuit, she signs up for a short introductory course run by one of the country’s best freedivers, Jure Daić.

Daić considers someone who is able to swim 75 meters underwater, three lengths of a typical pool, by the end of his weekend course to be an excellent diver. On the course’s second day, Alenka swims one length, two lengths, three lengths, and keeps going. At 92 meters one of her fins falls off. Instead of ending her dive she turns around underwater, retrieves the fin, puts it back on, and completes the length. She is angry when she gets out, explaining she wanted to reach 120 meters.

Jaws drop around the pool. Most of the others did not even make it to 50 meters.

Who is this woman?

Daić wonders the same. Alenka seems eager to learn, peppering him with questions about technique. She has also casually told one of Daić’s instructors some extraordinary things.

— I hate my fucking life.

— I am diving to escape the planet.

Curious to know more, Daić asks Alenka about her past and it starts to make sense — her unhappiness and intense drive. Compared to other top athletes he’s trained, she doesn’t seem to be physically extraordinary. But it seems to him that the mental strength Alenka forged through overcoming hardship has given her an obvious edge.

In many sports, 30-year-olds are approaching the ends of their careers. Freediving is different. Divers don’t just need strength, flexibility, and extraordinary breath-hold ability, but also calmness, maturity, and self-knowledge. If they try too much, too soon, they are likely to burn out — or worse.

As the kayak club had been in her youth, the pool becomes Alenka’s sanctuary. Every morning before work, she glides beneath the water’s surface while swimmers churn up waves above. Very quickly — only a little over a year after her first freedive — she is breaking national records during competitions.

Though Alenka’s self-confidence is improving, her heartache endures. Franc’s psychological abuse continues as she starts freediving, but he eventually gives her emotional distance and tells her he is proud of her diving achievements. Soon after, however, he too dies of cancer.

In 2013, Alenka is selected for the Slovenian team, but she soon realizes that being the best in her country is very different from being the best in the world. So she trains even harder — too hard. Before the pool world championships in Serbia in 2015, her workouts are so intense she loses eleven pounds. By the time the contest starts, she is so tired she fails to make the finals. But instead of feeling the disappointment she expected — like when her flipper came off — she discovers she is content with failure.

This new self-knowledge changes Alenka’s priorities. Instead of medals, she wants to make up for the lost years, to live more, to discover who she really is. So she has an idea: Go on an extended solo adventure to a place where she can dive in the ocean. If she’s good at open-water freediving, cool. If not, at least she’ll see another part of the world.

It sounds a bit crazy, she knows. She has only been on an airplane once before. Then again, what is she risking? Besides her sister, her close family is all gone. So, on the last day of 2014, Alenka leaves her job and embarks on a new life.

In the summer 2015, Alenka travels to Vis, an island off the coast of Croatia, where she intends to relax for several weeks. She meets up with some Slovenian friends who organize freediving courses in the sea. One of them is just about to start, they tell Alenka, with special instructors: Natalia Molchanova and her son Alexey.

Natalia, a Russian athlete nicknamed “The Machine,” was a good swimmer from her youth. When she discovered freediving at the age of 40, she quickly dominated the sport. In the pool, she became the first female to swim 200 meters underwater, and the first to hold her breath for eight minutes. In the ocean, she became the first woman to dive deeper than 100 meters. At 53, Natalia is the greatest freediver in history — of any gender — and still holds most of the women’s world records in the pool and ocean. Alexey, meanwhile, is starting to win men’s events at age 28.

Is this the universe talking to Alenka again? She had met Natalia briefly at past competitions, but now she has the chance to know her properly and learn from a master. Alenka scraps some of her holiday plans and enrolls in the course. The two women bond over their fondness for cats. Natalia shares she has just learned to surf and expresses her love of the ocean. Diving in the pool is like jogging on a treadmill, Natalia had once said, while diving in the sea is like running in the forest.

In the island waters, Alenka comes to appreciate this difference. Our bodies are slightly less dense than water, so we float near the surface and need to kick hard to dive down. But the deeper we go, the more the water above squeezes us. As the pressure increases, so does our density. Eventually, it becomes too much, and we start to sink like a stone. There’s no need to kick. Gravity takes us — we’re in free fall.

Alenka surrenders to the pressure, and it’s the most amazing feeling. As she descends, she is nowhere but in the present moment, and nothing above the service of the water — not even her own identity — exists. She is alone, but she feels connected to everything.

I am falling to the center of the universe, she thinks. This must be what flying feels like.

On her deepest dive with Natalia she reaches 49 meters and excitedly tells Alexey, a playful man with thighs like a wrestler.

— OK, but it’s not 50 meters, he responds.

One day I’ll break the record, she jokes.

— Really?

Yes, your record.

After the freediving course finishes, Natalia plans to stay on the island to train, but she receives a call from a wealthy couple requesting private lessons near Spain. Alenka accompanies Natalia to the ferry and waves goodbye. A few days later, Alexey leaves suddenly, too. When the divers on Vis — and around the world — learn why, there is disbelief.

Natalia is missing.

After her clients’ class, she makes a dive — but never surfaces.

Despite a vast search, Natalia’s body is never found. It is believed she was swept away by strong underwater currents.

“Our bodies are slightly less dense than water, so we float near the surface and need to kick hard to dive down. But the deeper we go, the more the water above squeezes us.... Eventually, it becomes too much, and we start to sink like a stone. There’s no need to kick. Gravity takes us — we’re in free fall.”

Two months later, Alenka arrives in the Egyptian Red Sea city of Sharm el-Sheikh with two brand-new suitcases, two wetsuits, and two sets of flippers. It is October 2015 and she is 34 years old. She takes a taxi along the desert coast to Dahab, a former fishing village that is now a diving hub.

Everything there is overwhelming: the desert, the heat, the language, the food. Alenka does not know a soul. But the water is magical. She swims out to the reef, teeming with fish, yellow, orange, purple, and blue. When she turns to face the shore and sees Mount Sinai in the distance and hears the calls to prayer, she feels like crying with joy.

Alenka rents a small, run-down Bedouin house. She seals the leaky sinks with silicon, paints the walls, and buys lamps and carpets in a bazaar. Two stray dogs and several cats move in.

In the mornings, she jumps on the back of a pickup truck with other divers for the short drive to Dahab’s Blue Hole, an underwater pit more than 100 meters deep. From her pool training, she is strong and her breath-hold is good. The question is how she will cope with extreme depth.

A set of evolutionary responses known as the mammalian dive reflex offer us some natural protection underwater. Immerse your face in cold water and hold your breath, and your heart rate will drop automatically to conserve air. At the same time, your arteries will narrow, forcing blood to shift from your limbs to your vital organs. This prevents the lungs from being crushed, as deeper waters put immense pressure on your body.

But there remains the problem of the empty spaces inside us. At sea level, the pressure of water is defined as one atmosphere. Ten meters down, the weight of the water doubles it to two atmospheres. At 20 meters it triples, and so on. Most of our bodies are made up of water or solids, which cannot be compressed. But the empty spaces, like inside our lungs and inner ears, hold gasses and can succumb to the pressure.

As divers descend, the water’s pressure forces their eardrums inward, causing a sharp pain. To avoid this, they must continually shift air into their inner ears as they sink. This pushes the eardrums back to the natural position, “equalizing” the pressure inside their head with the force pushing from the outside.

The simplest way to equalize is to close your mouth, pinch your nose and clench your stomach muscles, forcing air upwards out of the lungs. Deeper down, divers use more physically economical but technically difficult equalization methods involving the tongue, cheeks, and throat.

Experienced ocean divers can struggle for years to master equalization. But Alenka, relying on training partners, online diving forums, and her own intuition for guidance, has little trouble, and every day she goes deeper. By New Year’s Day 2016, when the water has turned uncomfortably cold, her best monofin dive is 77 meters. She now knows she can handle the depths.

To conserve air as she sinks, Alenka must enter a meditative, zen-like state. One day, turning around to start her ascent, an image of her half-brother Simon appears, staring at her calmly, confidently, under the water. It is the face of a man who was never addicted to drugs, of the person he could have become. Simon’s presence gifts Alenka with tranquility, and she uses that peace to smoothly push to the water’s surface.

That night in her house, she tries to process what happened. For years Alenka had resented Simon for the pain he caused the family, especially her parents. Now, in floods of tears, she feels immense sorrow for all that he endured, all that he missed out on.

By the time Alenka leaves Dahab nine months after her arrival, she has dived down to 92 meters, just nine meters off the women’s monofin world record. The 2016 world championship in Turkey is coming up, and Slovenia chooses her to represent the country at the event. She is the only diver from Slovenia to compete.

Still a complete unknown in the competitive ocean freediving world, Alenka stuns the competition by winning the monofin event with an 86 meter dive. In the bi-fin discipline, she also finishes first — and breaks the world record.

The Ascent

Part 3

Freediving comes with mortal risk, mostly for spearfishers and recreational athletes, but also for elite ones, as Natalia Molchanova’s death shows. Push too hard on the way down and you may suffer a “squeeze,” the lung tissue tearing as it is compressed, forcing you to cough up blood. Mismanage the timing on the way up and you may black out as the brain shuts down in order to preserve the little oxygen remaining in the body.

Thankfully, due to strict protocols and the presence of safety divers, fatalities are extremely rare in freediving competitions, though they are not unheard of. In 2013, the American Nicholas Mevoli died from lung injuries while attempting a 72-meter, no-fins dive at Vertical Blue, a competition in The Bahamas that is the highlight of the year for expert divers.

Alenka receives her first offer to dive there in 2018, soon after becoming only the fourth woman to dive to 100 meters, behind Natalia Molchanova, and two athletes also on the Vertical Blue roster, Japan’s Hanako Hirose and Alessia Zecchini, a 26-year-old Italian prodigy who started diving at age 13.

Like pole-vaulters, free divers must announce their targets before they begin. For each competitor, the organizers adjust the length of the rope, at the bottom of which is a plate covered with Velcro tags. For the attempt to be successful, the diver, upon surfacing, must hand a tag to the judge, make the “okay” signal with their fingers and thumb, and remain conscious with their head above the water for 20 seconds.

Alenka starts her Vertical Blue dives with a 100 meter-plunge and completes it easily. A few days later, 103 meters. Then a meter deeper. If she can manage 105 meters, she will equal Zecchini’s world record. On the live internet stream of the dive, the commentator remarks on Alenka’s “perfect control, perfect technique” after she comes up.

Hirose and Zecchini also reach 105 meters. Each diver has another two dives to go deeper. But a voice in Alenka’s head tells her to pause.

You need more time at these depths, she thinks. You are strong enough to stop here.

Hirose pushes on to 106 meters and then attempts 107 meters. On the ascent she blacks out. Zecchini tries for 107 meters and triumphs.

Alenka’s decision to step away after such a comfortable dive puzzles other competitors. Why quit when you have a chance to win, to claim a new world record, and to raise your international profile? Alenka has no partner, no kids, and no job to return to. What does she have to lose?

But Alenka’s personal descent has taught her something: When you’ve been to the very edge of the abyss and found what makes you want to return to the surface — to live — you have everything to lose.

If anyone had asked, she would have answered:

— I feel too responsible to life to do something just because of my ego.

This is why Alenka has never experienced a lung squeeze, why she has been one of the very few competitors to have never felt the breath of a safety diver on her eyelids to coax her out of that breathless, mammalian state. This is why she still, to this day, has never blacked out.

She refuses to become a danger to herself.

But dangerous to her rivals? That will come.

The small sparkly stud Alenka wears beneath the left corner of her mouth is not a diamond. Winning a big freediving contest earns you a medal, admiration, and nothing more. She is burning through cash, and needs sponsorship to continue, so she applies to the Slovenian government for funding. To help elite athletes in sports with low prize money and limited commercial appeal, and in exchange for them promoting a healthy lifestyle, the interior ministry can put them on its payroll. This is how Alenka becomes a policewoman, without ever spending a day on the beat — or more than a few weeks at a time in her own home country.

In fact, Alenka stays nowhere for long and becomes a nomad, training in the tropics for the first half of the year to prepare for summer competitions. It is an enviable but lonely life, going from one place to another, always seeking out new training partners. In early 2019 on Panglao, an island in the Philippines, she meets a Swiss freediver, Florian Burghardt, who has taken a break from his job at a bank to get more serious about the sport.

He and Alenka talk, have coffee, and slowly fall in love. Burghardt spends the season with her, watching as she dives to 113 meters in Honduras, a world record depth matched by Zecchini in the same competition.

A year later, when COVID-19 becomes a global pandemic, the couple are back in the Philippines, stuck in a resort. The beaches are declared off limits so Alenka and Burghardt stock up on tinned tomatoes and pasta and olive oil and adapt their training methods. Alenka goes on what she calls “apnea walks,” holding her breath while dodging the cows on the path.

In the resort’s pool, increasingly cloudy with dirt, she holds her breath for 30 seconds and then swims ten laps — 200 meters — underwater. Lying still in the water she improves her breath-hold personal best to 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

The pandemic quashes the 2020 competition season, but small, one-off events are held. In Kalamata, Greece, Alenka breaks the bi-fin world record, reaching 94 meters, but poor conditions scuttle her monofin dive. So, after a brief stop in Switzerland, where she and Burghardt get engaged, she flies alone back to Sharm el-Sheikh and announces her target: 114 meters.

The contest in Egypt is planned for two days, to insure against problems with the weather or water. Ahead of her dive, Alenka books a flight home for the first night of the competition. Tito Zappala, the Italian safety diver for the record attempt, hears Alenka’s plans and he thinks to himself, fuck, she has it in her pocket.

And he’s not wrong. When Alenka passes him on her ascent she smiles. The ease and control with which she completes her dive moves Zappala to tears. It brings to his mind the story of the coral, the coconut, and the sea.

Alenka, he says, is milk in the water.

“Alenka’s personal descent has taught her something: When you’ve been to the very edge of the abyss and found what makes you want to return to the surface — to live — you have everything to lose.”

How does this happen? How do you go from having no confidence at age 30, to being the most assured, deepest female diver in the world just a decade later? From nearly taking your life, to making elite athletes shake their heads in astonishment at your achievements and lack of ego? From hating life so much to loving it so deeply?

These are questions people sometimes ask, and one part of the answer is that Alenka not only came to terms with her past — she drew strength from it.

— It’s because of the pain, she says. I surrendered to the pain, embraced it; that’s when you get the big growth.

The other part of the answer is simpler. She trains like hell.

Alenka shares a small apartment with Burghardt in Collonges-sous-Salève, a French village near the border with Switzerland. It is winter, late January 2021, and there’s snow on the nearby mountains. The pandemic has closed the local swimming pools, so she must train out of the water.

A contraption of bungee cords hangs from the ceiling of Alenka’s living room. She jokes it looks like BDSM gear — it’s not, but it is designed to deliver pain. She drops to the floor in a plank position, resting on her forearms, and then slides her feet into two resistance band loops that hang 30 centimeters off the ground. Then she kicks, feet together, dolphin-style, again and again and again until her legs burn so much she has to stop.

Another torturous workout device she employs is a half-moon bridge made of wood and typically used in Pilates. Alenka uses it to increase the flexibility of her diaphragm and the capacity of her lungs. With her head almost touching the floor, she slips the bridge under her spine, stretching her back and the muscles between her ribs. Afterward, she lies flat, her knees raised, and inhales deeply, her chest bursting upwards like a balloon being inflated. Then, in an interminable exhale, the air rushes out of her mouth with the hiss of a punctured tire.

Weights. Squats while holding her breath. Lying on her bed with her mouth and nose closed for minutes a time, fighting the impulse to inhale — a technique known as dry static apnea.

In the evening Burghardt returns home from work. He and Alenka prepare dinner: pasta with mushrooms and sour cream and asparagus, a dish her father used to make. A green salad with raspberries on the side. Red wine from a bottle whose label reads Seul l'avenir m'intéresse, translated as “only the future interests me.” An interesting choice, Burghardt points out, for athletes who must stay in the present.

What of the future though? Alenka is 39, becoming stronger, and diving more efficiently each year. The next major milestone for female divers is 120 meters. And while it will not be easy, it is reachable, she says, perhaps even in the forthcoming competition season, which begins with the Vertical Blue event in July. That would take the women tantalizingly close to the men’s record, just 10 meters away. In 2017, the male-female gap was 28 meters, bigger than a six-story building.

The women’s surge is partly due to the rivalry between Alenka and Alessia Zecchini, and partly due to catch-up. In the past there were far fewer serious female freedivers than male; as this changes, women are getting closer to reaching their potential.

Can women challenge the men’s record? Before Vertical Blue, Alexey Molchanov, Natalia’s son, says he doubts it. Freediving’s deepest man says he has not had any strong competition in recent years to push him, and he reckons he has reserves to go 10 to 15 meters further.

But Erika Schagatay, professor of environmental physiology at Mid Sweden University, and an expert on freediving, says they can. Relative to body size, males have the advantage of larger lungs and spleens, which hold a reserve of blood. Females, meanwhile, benefit from a more spread-out fat layer, making it easier to adapt to the cold water found at depth.

More than 700 islands make up The Bahamas but most of its people live in just two, New Providence and Grand Bahama. The others are known as the Out Islands and most, including Long Island, receive few tourists. Rent a car before landing at Deadman’s Cay airport and you might receive an email which also informs you the keys are in the gas cover and you can spot your red Ford Fiesta by looking to the right after the plane lands.

There is one road south, crossed by goats, feral pigs, and vast casts of red-and-black land crabs. Left, right, left, right, crunch. Soon, a dirt track winds its way to a turquoise bay with a dark blot at its edge: Dean’s Blue Hole. Just a few strokes from the shore, the depth plunges to 202 meters, through a gap that opened in the limestone bedrock during a distant ice age.

In early June 2021, with Vertical Blue a month away, the world’s top free divers — 42 athletes from 21 countries — begin arriving at the beach to acclimatize. Alenka and Burghardt fly in from Honduras, where they have been training for four months, and rent a pink cottage overlooking the Atlantic.

It’s hard to keep your depth goal a secret when everyone is practicing on the same rope, but even so there is a buzz of surprise when the opening day’s schedule is published. Alessia Zecchini will attempt 115 meters, one meter deeper than Alenka’s monofin record. Diving immediately afterwards, Alenka will try for 118 meters.

She spends the day before the competition visualizing the dive and watching an old, familiar animated series for children that she has discovered on YouTube. The stories and voices are identical to those she listened to on cassette as a little girl in her bedroom in Koper. She sings along with the theme song.

— Heidi, Heidi

On Vertical Blue’s opening day, the first athlete to dive blacks out upon reaching the surface. After him, a few divers are successful and a few, unable to cope with the depth, turn back before reaching the bottom plate. The beach is soon a tangle of flip flops, fins, and pool noodles, used by competitors as a flotation aid during the countdown.

Before swimming out to the floating platform to wait for their turns, Zecchini and Alenka share a long hug on the beach. The Italian goes first. Her dive is smooth, and when she completes the surface protocol, the athletes treading water around the competition zone slap the water in celebration.

Then the rope is lowered by three meters.

Alenka floats on her back with a travel pillow supporting her head. The pink-hatted safety officer counts down. Alenka prepares to dive. The long breath. The eight lung-packing sips of air. The roll over. The duck dive. With a flick of her fin, the diver disappears into the blue hole, arms loosely by her sides.

Strapped to her four-pound neck weight, a dive watch with five alarms alerts her to the depth as she descends. When the second-to-last beep sounds at 68 meters, she kicks a few final times before submitting to free fall. Water rushes past her face, the guide rope comforting her as it slips past her right shoulder.

Hearing the final beep, the diver opens her eyes, reaches for the tag, and turns around, all in one motion. She stretches her arms in front of her, hands together, and kicks hard.

At the surface, an announcer watching the sonar screen narrates the ascent:

— 80 meters… 60 meters…

The first safety diver swims down to meet her. Now, the second.

— 29 meters. Diver in sight!

The diver bursts through the surface, grabs the rope with her right hand and removes her nose clip with her left. She makes the “okay” sign, and smiles. She takes the tag out of her hood, where she stashed it, and passes it to the judge who flashes a white card, signalling a successful dive.

— Rock ’n' roll, she says.

Alenka celebrates with Burghardt by going for an omelette and coffee at a roadside cafe. She’s happy but not triumphant. The idea that she is better than anyone else because of the record is total bullshit, she says. People cannot understand that for her, 118 meters is just a number, a logical consequence of her training.

​​— The outside world wants egos and fights and titles, she says. It’s not easy to be unaffected. But it’s possible.

Four days later, Alenka becomes the first woman to break 120 meters. Then, on her final dive of the competition, she goes two meters further. In little over a week she has advanced the women’s mark by eight meters, to 122 meters. Only Alexey Molchanov has been deeper at Vertical Blue, extending his world record to 131 meters.

With just nine meters of breathing room between him and Alenka, Alexey now has competition in the monofin event. What she said to him in jest six years ago, at the very start of her ocean-diving career, no longer sounds like a joke.

One day I’ll break the record.

— Really?

Yes, your record.

Hear Alenka break the record

If you or someone you know are in emotional crisis or have had thoughts about suicide, free support and coping resources are available. Certified listeners with the The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are available 24 hours a day, seven days per week at 1-800-273-8255. The Crisis Text Line is a free, confidential texting service, also available around the clock, for people experiencing emotional crises. Trained crisis counselors are available by texting 741741 in the U.S, by texting 85258 in the U.K., and by text at 50808 in Ireland. The Crisis Text Line also offers services in Spanish.

Story by Xan Rice

Editing by John Patrick Pullen and Erin Schulte

Editorial support from Dale Brauner, Kate Gehan, and Dan Eisner

Audience development by Charles Denniston, Diana Elbasha, and Charlotte Rymar

Photos and Video by Daan Verhoeven

Creative Direction by Natalie Matutschovsky

Design by Jacky Myint and Decimal Studios

Production and technical support by EJ Fox

Audio by Goat Rodeo

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