Nicholas Mevoli, a 32-year-old free diver from Brooklyn, N.Y., died over the weekend while trying to complete a 72-meter dive in the Bahamas.
Mevoli made his dive at Vertical Blue, an officially sanctioned championship event in the sport of free diving. Adam Skolnick of The New York Times was covering the event, and described the scene in yesterday's edition. Mevoli briefly halted his dive at the 68-meter mark, leading some to believe that he was aborting, before plunging further into the water and eventually reaching his targeted depth.
Still, Mevoli shot to the surface under his own power, after a dive of 3 minutes 38 seconds. That's when the scene turned nightmarish.
Mevoli ripped off his goggles, flashed the O.K. sign and attempted to complete the surface protocol that would make his attempt official by saying, "I am O.K." But he wasn't. His words were garbled, his eyes wide and blank. He tipped backward into the ocean and lost consciousness, which, while alarming, is not unheard-of in a sport in which almost all the top athletes have lost consciousness at one time or another, though usually for only a few seconds. Mevoli was not so fortunate.
"There's a problem with his lung," shouted Marco Cosentino of Italy, one of the safety divers who meet the competitors at various stages to help bring them to the surface if they are in distress. They turned Mevoli onto his side, and blood began pouring from his mouth and pooling on the platform before dissipating into the sea.
Mevoli's faint pulse faded completely after 15 minutes, and repeated attempts to revive him failed.
Mevoli died trying to set the American record in the constant weight without fins category of free diving. This is the most difficult kind of dive one can attempt, as it requires one to reach a targeted depth and then resurface without the aid of fins. In May, Mevoli became the first American to break the 100-meter barrier on a constant weight dive, which allows for divers to use a monofin.
Free diving is a sport that has produced tragic deaths before. The most famous was the 2002 death of Audrey Mestre, who died while trying to set the record for a no-limits apnea dive, which sees the diver carried down to a much deeper depth by a weighted sled and then brought back to the surface by an inflatable bag. The details surrounding Mestre's death, which was caused by a combination of equipment failure and shoddy planning, were laid out this July in the ESPN documentary No Limits.
It's not yet clear what the exact cause of Mevoli's death was, but it is made all the more grim by a posting he put on his personal blog in June. In it, he describes his attempts to make a 91-meter constant weight dive, and speaks plainly about pushing himself beyond his physical limits:
I was promptly reminded what happens when one does lie when I attempted an 88m free immersion dive during the competition, which would have been a new US national record.
I thought that I was ready for the dive, even though I'd never trained the discipline. I was an arrogant fool to think that I could pull it off by just letting go. In this case the letting go was the easy part. I felt comfortable and relaxed in my sink phase, my head position was right, my body streamlined and it felt good up to the point of reaching the plate.
That's where my lack of training left me open and exposed to the water…at 88 meters. I felt the effects of nitrogen narcosis at depth and at the same time realized that it was a long way up. I felt extremely vulnerable without anything on my feet (I can hear Grant Hogan snickering about my dependence on 'flippers').
My mind got the better of my body and my emotions took over. I panicked and raced to the surface instead of relaxing and accepting the vulnerability. I burned through all my reserves and had to be rescued at 28m, nearly 100 feet, blacked out and experienced a major lung squeeze. The squeeze shut me down for the rest of the competition and kept me from making dives in other disciplines. It kept me from attempting another record. I was really angry with myself for being so reckless and arrogant. You can't lie to water, a hard lesson to learn.
On Friday, Mevoli tried to set another record by attempting a 96-meter free immersion dive, which has the diver pull himself along vertical guide rope while diving and resurfacing. According to The New York Times, Mevoli aborted that dive at 80 meters and emerged from the water with blood dripping from his mouth.