“It’s very important that you stay cool,” Artnik said Thursday from her home in Geneva in an interview over Facebook Messenger. “Ego has a very strong role in our life. Here, if you can just imagine this place where there’s peace. In this case, it was at 114 meters, then you can come back. I came to this place and thought, ‘I’m the deepest woman, 113, 114 meters deep, but I still have to come up.’
“This is the end of the dive when you start thinking about that. All these thoughts are burning oxygen, so the key for a successful deep dive is to be completely in the present moment.”
On Nov. 8, Artnik, 39, descended 114 meters (374 feet) into the Red Sea off Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The depth is a women’s world record in freediving, a sport in which the goal is to dive as deeply as possible without the aid of a breathing apparatus.
As the Slovenian surfaced after 3 minutes 41 seconds with an awareness of what she had accomplished, she was serene, describing a calm known only to the most elite athletes.
Euphoria or gasping for breath “cause you a lot of stress, and stress is burning oxygen. You need to be, how you say, cool as a cucumber — super, super chilled. You really need to control your emotions — your ego, basically. In my opinion, the fact that I have a background that was anything but sport gave me a lot of experiences and helped me mature. This kind of attitude helps me in diving.”
Freediving is a relatively new and growing niche sport, having first held its world championships in 1996. It also can be deadly, with perils that include disorientation, blackouts and equipment failure. Natalia Molchanova, considered the world’s best in the sport, disappeared during a 2015 dive off the coast of Spain. Nicholas Mevoli died in 2013 after surfacing in an attempt to set the American record.
Artnik set her world record in the constant weight category, considered the most prestigious of eight disciplines recognized by AIDA, freediving’s governing body. In constant weight freediving, divers cannot use supplementary weights to aid their descent and can touch only the dive line used to guide them when turning around to begin their ascent.
Fifty years ago, scientists believed that a depth of 160 feet was the limit of what a human could endure, James Nestor noted in a 2012 story for Outside magazine headlined “Open Your Mouth and You’re Dead.” That figure, as Artnik’s 374-foot dive illustrates, underestimated the challenges that a human can overcome.
“Freediving is not only sport, it’s a way to understand who we are,” Molchanova said in a 2014 interview. “When we go down, if we don’t think, we understand we are whole. We are one with world. When we think, we are separate. On surface, it is natural to think and we have many information inside. We need to reset sometimes. Freediving helps do that.”
As with many adventure sports, the obvious question is why do it? Part of the reason lies in the challenge, another in how deep dives change the chemistry in the brain, creating nitrogen narcosis or a “rapture of the deep” that freedivers describe in lyrical terms. William Trubridge, a freediving champion from New Zealand, describes an otherworldly experience: “I have a relationship with the depths, they beckon me beyond my means, cold dark vacant pressure, forever night, endless dreams.”
Although Artnik said her “first memories were in the sea,” she didn’t become interested in freediving until she was 30, working as a manager of a ski and snowboard shop when her boyfriend at the time suggested she join a class he was taking in the sport. “I believe that everything happens in life at a certain time. When you are ready, things happen.”
Everything clicked with that class.
“It was love at first sight. For me it was not even a question,” she said. “Every cell of my body felt, ‘This is me.’ I was looking for something in this life for 30 years, and I couldn’t find anything. I didn’t find myself in the school system, in a job, in anything. I always felt that I had some talent, but I didn’t know how to put it out. My first attempt underwater in the pool, I was like: ‘This is me. This is how I can express myself.’ ”
Her parents died in 2009 and 2013, respectively, and the shop she was working in closed. Artnik and her sister sold their family home, and she began focusing more on freediving. “It was time to let the universe do its work,” Artnik recalled. “It was really, really trying to tell me, ‘Girl, it’s time you go now into the world and explore.’ It wasn’t just sport. It was my life.”
What is it like to sink deeper and deeper and overcome the urge to try to breathe? Justin Hoffman described it in March in an Adventure Journal article.
“For the first 25 meters of a dive, our gaseous, fatty bodies resist. We’re buoyant and difficult to sink. Freedivers will often wear weights to sink them to this depth. Beyond it, however, the pressure changes things and a human body sinks like a stone. This is the point at which freediving becomes an almost superhuman feat, far beyond what even the fittest among us can entertain without considerable training. That training requires a serious reining in of thoughts of panic and the urge to breathe.
“Molchanova would enter a state during her dives that she called ‘attention deconcentration.’ Similar to meditation, the idea was to abandon thoughts and to turn completely inward, to be aware of the whole of the body, to lose the outside picture and the distraction of the thinking mind, to embrace sensation, to lose contemplation. In this state, the diver is in touch with bodily processes through feeling, not thinking.”
Although Artnik’s record is not her first — she broke the mark she had shared since last year with Alessia Zecchini of Italy — this year presented a special challenge because of the coronavirus pandemic. It complicated her training and achievement.
“I’m lost for words to describe how I feel, but I’ll start with gratitude,” she wrote on Instagram, thanking her co-divers. “I kept going, keeping the motivation high and my goals clear. Spiced up with some ups and downs but nevertheless successfully accomplished.”
Artnik plans to continue competing after a short break. Just before leaving for Egypt, she got engaged, a welcome stability with the pandemic placing so much in uncertainty. She ordinarily would begin training in January, but a favorite spot in the Philippines is not an option. Perhaps Honduras. She will take it as it comes. Is 115 meters a goal? Not really.
“It is not easy to repeat these dives; that is the magic of the flow state. You can’t just snap your fingers and say, ‘I’m going to be in the flow state.’ It doesn’t work like that. We want to control everything in our lives and this thing doesn’t happen like that."
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