The freediving world championships occur at the outer limits of competitive risk. During the 2011 event, held off the coast of Greece, more than 130 athletes assembled to swim hundreds of feet straight down on a single breath—without (they hoped) passing out, freaking out, or drowning. JAMES NESTOR reports on the amazingly fit, unquestionably brave, and possibly crazy people who line up for the ultimate plunge.
JUNKO KITAHAMA’S FACE is pale blue, her mouth agape, her head craned back like a dead bird’s. Through her swim mask, her eyes are wide and unblinking, staring at the sun. She isn’t breathing.
“Blow on her face!” yells a man swimming next to her. Another man grabs her head from behind and pushes her chin out of the water. “Breathe!” he yells. Someone from the deck of a boat yells for oxygen. “Breathe!” the man repeats. But Kitahama, who just surfaced from a breath-hold dive 180 feet below the surface of the ocean, doesn’t breathe. She doesn’t move. Kitahama looks dead.
Moments later, she coughs, jerks, twitches her shoulders, flutters her lips. Her face softens as she comes to. “I was swimming and…” She laughs and continues. “Then I just started dreaming!” Two men slowly float her over to an oxygen tank sitting on a raft. While she recovers behind a surgical mask, another freediver takes her place and prepares to plunge even deeper.