A fatality spurs an inquiry into an extreme sport, illuminating the risks—as well as the rewards—of free diving.
After writing a couple dozen guidebooks for the Lonely Planet series, Skolnick shows sharp reportorial instincts in this multilayered narrative beginning with the 2013 tragedy of Nicholas Mevoli, “the first athlete to die in an international freediving competition.” The obscure sport tests the limits of its athletes, who dive as deep as 100 meters or more, holding their breath for some four minutes, risking blackouts from the pressure or worse. “Their feats dazzled because with each dive they were risking their lives,” the author writes of one such competition. “No one knew where that unknown limit was.” Interspersed with an examination of the sport of free diving—loosely organized, self-governed, with most of the athletes spending considerable sums without sponsorship—is the story of an athlete considered remarkable well before his death and who lived his life with an uncompromising purity—though he always attracted romantic attention, he committed to celibacy for as long as four years—and who made it his priority “to live, not merely exist.” Parallel tracks show Mevoli’s life as he pushed himself toward an early death that quite possibly could have been prevented and the development of the sport as it gained the perspective of mortality that his death underscored. “Nick’s was the first fatality in more than 35,000 dives,” writes Skolnick. “Afterward, they were forced to admit that nobody could say for sure how repeated depths impacted the body….This wasn’t a matter of conflicting science; research was almost nonexistent.” This is a page-turning book about how and why Mevoli died (with a suggestion that a doctor shouldn’t have cleared him to dive), but it’s also about the competitors drawn to the sport, the ones for whom “freediving is both an athletic quest to push the limits of the body and mind, and a spiritual experience.”
A worthy addition to the growing body of literature on adventures that test the limits of nature and mankind.