Imagine taking a single breath of air and then plummeting hundreds of feet down into the ocean on a weighted sled. Now imagine that as you're doing this, your lungs are contracting to the size of oranges, you're struggling to clear your sinuses, your blood is shifting from your extremities to your core, you are beginning to suffer from nitrogen narcosis (a kind of under-water drunkenness), and you can't allow yourself to think about anything other than the three things you need to do when you reach the bottom: pull the pin to detach from the sled; open the valve of an air tank; and hold on for dear life as you rocket back to the surface. Welcome to the extreme sport of No Limits Freediving.
Before starting this film, I had never heard of No Limits Freediving. When I Googled it, the first thing that came up was a YouTube video of Audrey Mestre's death during her 2002 No Limits record attempt of 170 meters (558 feet). The footage was deeply disturbing. To be honest, the "sport" seemed crazy at best, maybe even stupid. What, I thought, was the point of holding your breath and plummeting to depths that had crushed submarines in World War II? The very name of the sport, "No Limits," seemed ridiculous. Of course there were limits! Certainly Audrey Mestre had discovered them - and paid the ultimate price.
As I began doing research, I quickly discovered that the freediving community was deeply divided over Audrey's death. There were those who considered it a tragic accident and those who considered it a deliberate act of malfeasance. Ten years later, there are still active websites where people post opinions and cast blame. And much of the blame is directed at her husband, Pipin Ferreras, a world record freediver himself who was also Audrey's coach and manager. By all accounts, Audrey would have broken the record she was shooting for - if not for one small detail; her pony tank, her lifeline to the surface, was empty! How could she have been sent down to such a depth without someone making sure that she had the air in the tank to bring her back? Who was responsible? Was it an accident? Or was there something more nefarious at work?
Something about this story got under my skin and I couldn't stop thinking about it. I read "The Rapture of the Deep," the Sports Illustrated article by Gary Smith. I read about the Ama divers of Japan, women with a long tradition of freediving. (Amusingly, there was a long since debunked myth that women could hold their breath longer than men because they had breasts.) I watched Le Grand Bleu, a semi-cult feature film loosely based on the lives of Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca, the two men credited with making the sport competitive. While I didn't consider the film to be any masterpiece, I found it hypnotic - a blue world of siren dolphins luring amphibious men to lethal depths. After the Enzo character reached 50 meters (a depth laughable by today's 214 meters record) he slapped his depth marker on the table and said, "Let them try!" And they did. Who were these people? What compelled them to do this? Then I met Tanya Streeter.
Tanya, to this day, holds the women's world record for No Limits Freediving. In fact, it was Tanya's record Audrey was trying to break when she died. In talking to Tanya, I began to truly understand the sport. There is something unique in the human psyche that drives us to push ourselves well beyond our comfort zones. It is what we learn about ourselves in doing so that is really the ultimate goal. Tanya also became for me the living embodiment of Audrey - a window into the spirit of the women (and men) who challenge themselves in this particular way.
Interestingly, No Limits is one of the few sports where gender dynamics are relatively neutral. Though the sport was initially male dominated, women slowly crept in, then burst onto the scene in the 1990s. While men have a slight physiological advantage due to larger lung capacity, the capacity for mental focus plays a much bigger role. Divers cannot allow any thoughts to enter their minds, lest, due to nitrogen narcosis, they become disoriented and forget protocol.
Safety is key. And Tanya's record dive of 160 meters (525 feet) was textbook and buttoned up by her manager and husband, Paul Streeter. I also found it interesting that there are a lot of husband/wife teams in this sport. I suppose if you trust your life to someone else's judgment, it best be the person who loves you the most.
The two hardest components in making this film were: 1) convincing the divided community to talk about it on camera and 2) how to treat the footage of Audrey's last dive in a respectful way. For the first problem, thankfully we did not have a rushed production schedule. I was confident that once we started getting some of the interviews, the others would follow. In fact, we eventually filmed with everyone except for Pipin Ferreras. Although he refused all interview requests, I do think his position is fairly represented by his many defenders in the film. As for the second problem, that was more difficult.
How do you include the footage of someone's death in a film and not have it seem sensational or gratuitous? Early on, I decided to show the footage in split-screen and real time. This approach would work well for both Tanya's and Audrey's dives. It would enable the viewer to experience the dives and yet, at the same time, keep a bit of visual distance. The witnesses of the dives comment within the split-screen during the dives, connecting them to the event in a visual way.
What struck me about a lot of the freedivers I spoke to was that many of them have taken their experiences and morphed them into environmental work. Tanya Streeter is currently working with The Plastic Oceans Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping resolve the problem of plastic waste on our planet. I can't help but think that Audrey Mestre, had she lived, would have also turned her love of the ocean and marine biology into something to serve the planet. As such, her loss is even more profound.
NO LIMITS premieres on July 23rd at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN as part of ESPN Films' and espnW's Nine for IX series.
This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post and ESPN, in conjuncture with the latter's 'Nine for IX' film series, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Title IX was a landmark legislative victory for justice that prohibited discrimination by gender in schools and sports. To see all the posts in the series, click here. To learn more about 'Nine for IX,' click here.