Book Review by Sapphire Ng
One Breath: Freediving, Death, and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits
by Adam Skolnick
Copyright January 2016
Hardcover, 336 Pages
A riveting narrative on the esoteric and extreme sport of freediving, and the poignant and fateful death of America’s best freediver, Nicholas Mevoli. This is a compellingly fascinating book which demystifies competitive freediving, uncovers the science of the sport, and reveals the psyche of its risk-embracing practitioners.
This book magnanimously offers a very meaningful and critical lesson for both aspiring and professional athletes. A sustainable athletic career goes beyond merely possessing rare and extraordinary talent. A misleading sense of invincibility and disproportionately overpowering competitive drive could be an athlete’s nemesis. Coupled with impatience, obstinacy, emotionality, blunt detachment from one’s physical body, and flippant attitude toward the intrinsic risks of the sport, the athlete could be well on his path to self-destruction.
Serving as both a cautionary tale and a reality check, this book ought to trigger an earnest self-reflection should an aspiring or professional athlete with specific unhealthy traits mirrored in Mevoli chance upon this book. Those contemplating a career in professional freediving might appreciate this book, with its stark and no-nonsense portrayal of the immense physical and mental challenges, along with the potential dangers, associated with this sport.
Non-freedivers on the other hand, could find the range of content covered in the book remarkably fascinating, for example the medical conditions and injuries commonly associated with freediving. Conveyed through riveting anecdotes, the reader will learn about the dangers of decompression sickness, the pain of perforated eardrums, the peril of deep-water blackouts, the symptoms of hypoxia, and the unfortunate prevalence and occurrences of lung squeezes.
The book engagingly elucidates scientific concepts as pertaining to freediving, namely the function and effect of the mammalian dive reflex, the notion of barometric pressure at depth and its impact on the human body, the antithetical concepts of negative versus positive buoyancy and implications on a diver’s technique, and the fascinating notion of thermocline or the affliction of nitrogen narcosis.
The book excellently weaved in delectable and concise biographies of notable freediving personalities who have accomplished superhuman feats, most memorably the elite Russian Natalia Molchanova—“the Martina Navratilova of freediving,” “an ageless wonder” affectionately referred to as “the Queen,” and an astoundingly uplifting inspiration for older athletes—and the world record holders William Trubridge and Alexey Molchanov, Natalia’s son.
It is entertaining to be let in on the excitement and action, dynamics and mechanics of the various international freediving competitions—depth and pool, team and individual—as chronicled in the book. The book demystifies for example, the 3 disciplines of freediving depth competitions, namely Constant Weight, Free Immersion, and Constant No Fins. And of potentially great interest even for general readers would include techniques and training of the sport, the former including the likes of equalization and development of lactic acid and carbon dioxide tolerance.
The book is overwhelmingly non-chronological; the narrative flitted so frequently between the time after Mevoli’s death and when he was still alive that it is confusing at times for the reader. Worse still, the persistent time traveling between the countless chapters conveys a sense of disruption, discontinuity and choppiness in narrative, and is even mildly irritating.
The book gives the impression of being somewhat of a tribute to Mevoli, and furnishes an extensive narrative of his life from childhood to adulthood. The excessive details about his acting engagements and dreams, multiple romantic interests and escapades, and social life and activities hugely divorced from the freediving world, community, or sport however might be more suited for inclusion in an actual biographical work dedicated solely to Mevoli.
Considering the title of this book and its eclectic coverage predominantly focused upon unlocking the mysteries of the sport of freediving, the reader, and particularly non-Mevoli superfans, drawn to the book for the freediving narrative could be highly tempted to skip superfluous details about Mevoli that distinctly go beyond what one would consider compact and compelling.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.