Writer Adam Skolnick gave the first reading from his new book about American freediver Nicholas Mevoli at last week’s DEMA Show 2015 in Orlando.
Skolnick’s book, “One Breath: Freediving, Death, And The Quest To Shatter Human Limits,” takes an in-depth look at the sport of competitive freediving and Mevoli’s death at the Vertical Blue competition in November 2013.
An open-water swimmer and now a trained freediver himself, Skolnick chatted briefly with DeeperBlue.com about his experiences reporting as a freelancer for The New York Times
on Vertical Blue 2013 and Mevoli’s death at that competition.
Skolnick told DeeperBlue.com that he had met Mevoli earlier in the week of the competition and was struck by the latter’s “kindness and warmth.”
Following the competition and Skolnick’s coverage, his stories won some Associated Press editors’ awards. Soon after, he was talking to Mevoli’s family about the freediver’s life, which led to the idea of Skolnick writing a book.
Now mind you, books and news stories about freedivers in the past haven’t exactly shed a sympathetic light on the competition side of the sport. One example is James Nestor’s book “Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, And What The Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves,” in which Nestor spends a small portion of the book watching freediving competitions and is completely turned off by that part of the sport:
“In freediving, the ego is a deadly goad. It’s also something of a blinder. Most of the competitive divers I met seemed to have little interest in exploring the deep ocean that they had painstakingly trained their bodies to enter. They dived with their eyes closed; nitrogen narcosis struck them dumb; they forgot where they were and why they were there. The deepest divers lolled themselves into a catatonic state that removed any sense of actually being in the water. The aim: Hitting a number on a rope. Beating your opponents. Winning a medal. Bragging rights.
“Yes, they were swimming where no human had been before. But this struck me as maddening, like an explorer arriving in previously undiscovered wilderness and focusing only on his GPS coordinates.”
Skolnick, on the other hand, takes a different view of competitive freediving, telling DeeperBlue.com:
“For me, what it enabled me to do is it made competitive freediving itself kind of a virgin territory. Because [Nestor] chose not to delve into it very much at all — basically he did the [Outside Magazine] story and then he went to something else for ‘Deep,’ and he said ‘OK this is not for me’ — this is broad strokes — ‘but I’m interested in the techniques but I’m not interested in the sport.’
“Because [Nestor] chose that, it made competitive freediving this mysterious world that not too many people have had the opportunity to dissect and expose to the public, and yes, I responded differently. I was there for the worst moment in competitive freediving, and I didn’t throw away the sport because of it. I guess it was my choice at the time; I didn’t think about it too much — I certainly didn’t think of it in the context of other reporters, but it did allow me entry into a world that freedivers themselves don’t feel has been reported very well. They’ve been disappointed in the reporting. And then the world itself doesn’t know much about it, so it enabled me to get in there and look for myself.
“What I found was a sport that is definitely an extreme sport, that is dangerous, and that if people practice this extreme sport, and aren’t conscious of all their choices, there are consequences that are extreme, but that is true with a lot of other extreme sports, and I don’t throw the sport away because of it.
“There is free climbing, there are motocross people who do those ramps, anytime they make a mistake they can die, and so there’s a lotta sports like that, and I think it’s unfair to throw this sport away because this sport is like that.
“It’s also quite beautiful. There is no [other] sport that is extreme but also anti-adrenaline. There’s no sport that includes a meditation component, kind of a real Zen component like this one does. And it gets to places in the water that nobody else goes.
“There’s a reason big-wave surfers love these guys. . . . And it’s not just because they’re risking their ass. It’s because they’re comfortable where nobody else is comfortable, and that’s compelling to me as a writer, and it’s compelling to me as an ocean person. I’m an open-water swimmer and a tech diver and now I’m a 30-meter freediver, it’s compelling. And the people themselves are of course compelling and quirky and interesting and cool.”
Skolnick was taught how to freedive by Performance Freediving International, and shared with DeeperBlue.com his impressions of learning the sport:
“What struck me the most is: I’m a guy who will swim two miles at a time, half a mile offshore, I’ll have whales and sea lions and seals all around me, I do that all the time and I’m totally comfortable. [It] doesn’t mean I don’t think about things but I’ve been caught in currents, I’ve had all sorts of issues and I’m comfortable.
“But yet, with freediving, it took me a long time to get comfortable. So I guess that would be the thing that struck me the most. I had early-urge-to-breathe issues, and I also had equalization issues, so once I got my equalization down . . . I got comfortable. I wrote a Playboy story that kind of describes my experience.”
As for what he thinks the main message of “One Breath” is, Skolnick said:
“I think the main message is, it’s a story about a wonderful, generous soul named Nicholas Mevoli. It’s not a message book, you know? It’s a book about a young man. I think it’s very similar to Christopher McCandless’s “Into The Wild.” [Mevoli is] a guy who’s a seeker, he is looking for something more authentic in a world that is too often commodified; because of that, he’s frustrated where many people accept.
“That makes him interesting. He also lives for other people and he lives for himself, and I think if there is a message, it’s: Live life. Don’t just be a consumer. Live life. Explore. Test yourself. I hope also that people can see what these athletes do and why they do it, and view them as humans that are pretty exceptional, because that’s what they are.”
Skolnick also spoke about how the freediving community responded to his working on the book:
“A lot of people were really generous with their time, and told me their stories. There was a certain amount of distrust at different points along the way. When I first arrived in the Bahamas in 2013, there was a tremendous amount of distrust, because they didn’t know who I was. And then when Nick died and my story was posted, people kind of breathed a sigh of relief that I wasn’t out there bashing the sport when I very well could have, I guess.
“But that wasn’t really my goal — my goal wasn’t to bash a sport I still barely understood. So all I did was focus on telling the story that happened at that moment.
“And then later, because I had that under my belt, I went through the early competitions — I went to Roatan for the Caribbean Cup 2014, I went to Sardinia for the Team World Championships and I went back to Vertical Blue. And those first two competitions because I’d written those first two stories [about Mevoli’s death], that kind of still carried, I still had a lot of people that were open to me.
“There were a few suspicious [folks], but it was pretty much everyone was cool. And when I got to Vertical Blue, the temperature changed a little bit. I think it had been a lot of time had passed since I had written anything [freediving-related] and so that’s just natural. It’s just gonna rise up, that level of skepticism will rise up. And so I dealt with some stuff.
Additionally, Skolnick was the writer The New York Times tapped to cover the death of freediver Natalia Molchanova earlier this year:
“I think I was in a good position because I had spent so much time around the athletes, so by then I was able to explain it in a more complete way, and I think that New York Times coverage drove the rest of the world’s coverage. So I think that that’s good, right? Anytime we can demystify [competitive freediving is good], and I think that’s been freediving’s internal problem for so long, is that they’ve been afraid because maybe they’ve been burned in the past. Some athletes, they’ve been afraid of that transparency and I think that . . . the culture of this sport has been impacted by that, in ways that aren’t all good.
“I think that I just happened to be there at the right moment in time. Because of that, Grant [Graves] tipped me off to Natalia’s disappearance very early on, and because I’d had that experience with the New York Times before, they wanted me to do the story again, and so that’s how that all happened. . . . I think now, having been to Vertical Blue and the Playboy story came out, and then when [Molchanova’s disappearance] happened, I think now, freedivers are comfortable with what I’m gonna say about this sport. . . . I’d say I’m the New York Times’ man vs water guy now.”
“One Breath” will be on sale in bookstores in the U.S. and online on January 12, 2016. Later that month, it will be released in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Poland.