“One Breath” is a book that seeks to tell the true story of the often misunderstood world of competitive freediving. It is also a book about the life, loves and yearnings of American freediver Nicholas Mevoli. In his quest for purpose, place and an ongoing sense of personal achievement, Nicholas tragically died in 2013, while pushing his physiological limits at an elite freediving event in the Bahamas. In his inaugural narrative non-fiction work (apart from dozens of guide books he’s authored for Lonely Planet, and myriad articles he’s written for various top tier news outlets) Los Angeles native Adam Skolnick investigates a sport that appears extreme and inexplicable to an outsider, but that proves to be both spiritually fulfilling and more of a conscripted lifestyle for denizens of the underwater world.
“One Breath” (which is due to be published by Penguin Random House in January 2016) explores what draws such a wide-ranging assortment of characters to the deep. In writing this book it is clear that Skolinick wanted to help reveal the medical mysteries attached to Mevoli’s death, to identify the gaps in the sport & address questions left unanswered, and to provide perspective on a person (Nicholas) who was beloved by many, but truly understood by few, perhaps not even himself.
Posthumously, it’s a tricky thing for an author to accurately portray a protagonist, in Nicholas Mevoli, who not only lived and breathed so much substantial spirit into so many different people’s actual memories, but for Skolnick to not even personally know the book’s main subject but still be able to illustrate what a wonderfully human, intensely complex, kinetic hopeless romantic, and a hungry soul Nick was, against the meandering & often technically difficult (and or technically deficient) back-drop of his journey to find a kind of personal salvation, or at least a home, in the community of freediving and the seemingly hermetic competitive circuit, is even trickier. However, Mr. Skolnick, does just that in his illumination of the story of Nicholas Mevoli in this captivating book.
Full disclosure, as a friend of Nick’s and someone perennially involved in the freediving community, I should mention that I, myself, am mentioned in the book, (having been a player in a few of the incidents chronicled.) I would also present that having lived these events, and knowing all of the characters first-hand makes me hyper-critical of the writing. The truth be told, reading an early-release of this book was pretty emotional for me, and not least of which was the re-living of happier and tougher times from these past few years, but in the end I felt myself pulled into the heady mix of passion, clarity, suggestion and struggle that Adam Skolnick so masterfully wove into his inspired book. In other words, I think “One Breath” is thoughtfully crafted to try to capture the essence of a special person and a truly special & unique sport.
In the first chapter of “One Breath”, Skolnick immediately takes the reader to the fateful day of November 17, 2013 — setting the scene at full crescendo. He then deftly navigates the reader through chapters appropriately named “Punk-Ass Vegans”, “Brooklyn Rising” and “Dive Bum Chronicles” mirroring the tone and eclectic nature of the protagonist. While the anecdotes, conversations and moments-in-time depicted in the book are generally not linear, the facets represented in Skolnick’s writing definitely point to a suggested portrait, a sweet but rebellious kid who grows into an anti-hero of sorts, who finds his niche in tight knit but often nomadic & sporadic connections, be them family, creative endeavors or freediving. The book tries to cover a great deal of ground and therefore doesn’t always provide a complete picture of the many interactions Nick had with friends and loved ones (some important ones never mentioned). But to be fair, it achieves a level of intimacy and a good sampling which conveys the sentimentality that was inherent in Nick, as well as his perplexing desires.
By interviewing Nick’s family members and dozens of friends, as well as his own authentic attempt to fully immerse himself into the cultural phenomenon of the freediving watertribe, Skolnick goes the extra mile to get it “right”. Featuring moments with some of the heavy weights of the sport, such as William Trubridge and Alexey Molchanov, Adam works to manifest the distinct contrast in the individuals & approaches in the sport, as well as underscoring the distance away from the pinnacle that portended to be Nick’s destination — if only he were more patient. Skolnick’s journalistic chops are clearly honed, but what I found even more enjoyable in reading the book, was the effortless way Adam cued in on the “pregnant” spaces (so to speak) and mirrored the intention but restraint and sometimes the all out challenging wrangle Nick faced in his relationships, in his life, and with himself — the longing for love, the friendships and the diverse personalities all jump off the page. In the penultimate chapter “One Breath” winds down with a snapshot of the Vertical Blue competition one year after Nick’s death and the ripple effects felt there. The book eventually closes with an eerily poignant outcome in the beleaguered & bereft relationship Nick had with his father, reverberating the significant, and typically positive, impact the younger Mevoli had on the people who were in his orbit — a Dickensian twist of fate.
I commend Adam for what I found to be an entrancing and well-written book. It is a relatively quick read, and given the subject matter I’m confident a host of opinions will erupt, furthering the dialogue which I believe is always a good thing.
A Quick Chat With Adam Skolnick
We caught up with Adam at DEMA Show 2015 and we’ll be publishing a full Q & A with the author Adam Skolnick in the future but we managed to catch up with him over email recently to answer a small number of questions:
In the book you paint Nick Mevoli as a sort of Chris McCandless figure. Can you expand on that? And what do you feel is Nick Mevoli’s legacy today?
“I think both of them were seekers. The mainstream benchmarks of a “successful” life, at least in terms of the American Dream, didn’t hold much appeal for either of them. They wanted something more visceral and more fulfilling. McCandless sought it out in the wilderness and Nick found it underwater, which is its own kind of hostile wilderness. McCandless was better educated and more intellectual, but Nick was more of an achiever, and a far better athlete. But for all of their softness, their warmth, they were also both quite stubborn. They seemed to learn by doing, which means they had to have a working margin for error or they could get themselves into big trouble. Both pushed limits in their own way and found themselves in circumstances where that necessary margin of error didn’t exist, and they paid for it.
Frankly, I hope this book is Nick’s legacy. I want people to read it and feel his kindness. Maybe, like him they can go an extra mile for a neighbor in pain? Perhaps they can listen deeper and give more, and hopefully they will seek their own place in the world in a way that has nothing to do with consumption. That they will resolve to live a life they are proud of and that fulfills them, whether their great adventure is physical, spiritual or creative.”
Nick’s sister created a hashtag and a saying called #WWND. What Would Nick Do? The idea is that on his birthday (August 22nd), everyone who knew and loved him does a good deed and they share their stories on Facebook. Some folks pick-up a check for strangers, others help friends move. There isn’t any sort of set guidelines. It’s an open-ended thing, and many of those folks think about that (WWND) everyday. It’s a pretty damn good legacy, I think.”
How has Mevoli’s death impacted the freediving community and the sport itself?
“There have been specific rule changes for competitions. For instance, you can’t announce a dive more than 3 meters beyond your personal best, and you can’t recommence descent on a dive. On Nick’s final dive he stopped short of the bottom plate and went head-up to try and equalize so he could reach his goal depth. Now, when a diver stops at depth they must ascend straight away or they will be disqualified. Also, the judges and competitions doctors & medics now have more explicit powers to bench an athlete during a competition. Nick should have been benched and he was not.
Aside from the rule changes, in a broader sense everyone associated with the sport of competitive freediving has a more acute sense of how dangerous it can be to dive with an existing lung injury. That’s something that was shrugged off by many athletes in the past and a subject I delve into in the book, in detail.”
What do you hope readers will take away from reading ONE BREATH?
“That life is to be lived, that we should be kind and generous with each other and ourselves. That in our rush to achieve, it’s important to balance our desire and passion with thoughtful patience. That the ocean and freediving can be healing, life affirming, addictive, and dangerous, all at the same time, and that freediving is the rare sport that is also an art. It’s athletic, poetic, liberating and magnificent. And these athletes are remarkable humans who dare to go where nobody else can, and that will always be compelling.