Break the Record, Die Trying? Free Diving With Laura McGann’s “The Deepest Breath”

In the long summer months—which in the generally sunny climes where I have lived I regard as May through at least September—I have long made a habit of swimming in as many backyard and club pools as their owners will abide. And since none of the pools are Olympic-sized, I’ve developed a ritual of dipping underwater upon entry, descending to just a few inches from the bottom, and breaststroking from one end to the other, holding my breath for the 15 to 30 seconds various pools might require.

It always feels invigorating to pop up to the surface with a nice exhalation at the end, ready to move some more water around in pursuit of just about the finest whole-body exercise humankind has ever devised.

Some of these pools can get to a depth of five to eight feet, which seems like small potatoes until, say, you dive down to snag fall leaves or a kid’s unfloatable toy off the bottom. That’s when you notice a pressure in your ears, and some kind of force withstanding easy-peasy descent.

And believe you me, she will be descending further, falling, falling, like an elongated sleek stone easing its way to the ocean floor.

Granted, it’s not much problem diving down there repeatedly as I sometimes do, but it’s not nothing, either.

What the “not nothing” is is the “pounds per square inch” (PSI) pressure your body encounters with each additional inch of diving depth. And when you plunge beyond six feet to 16 feet, 60 feet and much deeper still, the pressure builds and your lungs get thirsty for oxygen and things can go south very quickly.

Which is why most people who take up deep diving do so with handy-dandy scuba tanks on their backs and a lot of instruction on how to keep themselves safe, breathing easy all the way.

And then there are the “free divers”—tanklessly descending to astonishing ocean depths the length of a football field and beyond in fierce competitive struggles, breathless all the way down and back up.

Sometimes, they arrive atop the water with their eyes nearly obscured somewhere behind their foreheads, still breathless, and despite the frantic efforts of a waiting crew floating in the water and offering rapid mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and other revival techniques, the diver’s breath never returns.



Before the credits even roll in Laura McGann’s stirring free diving documentary, “The Deepest Breath,” a backseat camera trains on Italian free diver Alessia Zecchini driving a car in The Bahamas and a voice asking: “Alessia, how do you feel about death?”

She answers:

“Honestly, I don’t think about it. I think if someone has to die, they will. I’m not afraid of death. I’ve never thought free diving could lead to death.”

We then cut to Zecchini bobbing atop the water on her back, surrounded by safety divers, medical personnel and competition officials in a free diving event. A 20-second countdown is underway and as the event official intones “Four…three…two…one…” and Zecchini slips underwater grabbing hold of a guide rope, the announcer states her name followed by:

“Four minutes. World record attempt.”

And then we descend along with Alessia into an achingly lovely pale blue world as she—methodically, rhythmically, beautifully—reaches one hand down the rope, the other wholly opposite and extended behind her to minimize resistance. She’s in perfect alignment, pulling herself ever deeper, her amplified heartbeat the dominant sound, her wetsuited body like a benevolent torpedo, fluid and straight, intending no harm, exploring a state of being beyond most imaginings.

Some 50 seconds and 100 feet or so after beginning her descent, she releases the guide rope, having reached a state of “negative buoyancy” due to the volume of air in her lungs being depleted. The good news in this is that it allows for a “freefall” that requires very little additional strength on her further descent.

And believe you me, she will be descending further, falling, falling, like an elongated sleek stone easing its way to the ocean floor.

Her and our world go nearly black now, save for the illumination provided by her headlamp. After one minute and forty-seven seconds, she plucks a card from the underwater disk marking the world record and begins her ascent, her heartbeat and her hand grab of the rope notably slower but still rhythmic and true.

After three minutes and thirty-one seconds, a mere foot or so from the surface and surrounded by two safety divers watching her every move and breath, she pauses, flounders, and utters a choking noise, whereupon four strong hands waste not a second in lifting her to the surface, one of them grabbing her by the chin and barking, “O.K., look at me!”

No response—her eyes unfocused and rolled up, her face slack and zombie-like.

The man immediately begins mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as the movie title appears on the screen and the opening credits finally roll.


Zecchini, between worlds…



That’s the dominant and nearly immediate question on most people’s lips about other people who put their very lives, their precious lives with so many breaths and joys and challenges still to come, on the line for a mere sport.

Sure, it’s their profession, their passion, their ardent, highly charged, perhaps lifelong dream. But there are all kinds of avenues to big fun and extreme challenge in this world that do not involve much if any risk of death, death being a most serious and preferably avoided matter in most people’s lives.

And as we saw above, while Zecchini claimed never to think about death, death most certainly thought about her.

Whether it claims her or someone else in this tightly wound tale of extreme courage, crisis, bravado, romance, lunacy, and ceaseless striving (take your pick from any or all of those) is something writer and director McGann plays close to her vest for the nearly entire 108-minute running time of her film.

There will be tragedy and someone will die is clear from the get-go, but when and to whom can become a kind of guessing game that is nevertheless dwarfed by the raw, spectacular footage of free dives, the romance that blossoms between Zecchini and nomadic Irish safety diver Stephen Keenan, and the spirited competition in which divers use each other for inspiration to set, lose, take back, lose and take back yet again the world record dive, one yard at a time.

Keenan and Zecchini

And this is where the feeling of insanity comes in for viewers less adventuresome than the divers they are beholding (which encompasses pretty much all the rest of the human population). That’s because each successive yard to a new world record depth carries with it an increased chance of death.

“So you just set a new world record, Alessia? Guess what? (Japanese champion) Hanako Hirose just went a yard deeper.”

Back into the water Alessia goes the next day, setting her sights on that yard deeper, the memory still fresh on just how close she had to come to the edge of life and consciousness on her own record dive.

This is what differentiates free divers from say, track sprinters. A sprinter loses her world record by a tenth of a second and she can hardly wait to get back on that track again. But the prospect of her paying for that effort with her very life is next to zero.

Ditto for most other athletes and adventurers in most endeavors.

Not so with free divers.

The closest I ever came to extreme sport was a run across the floor of Death Valley many years ago with my best buddy, each of us running half the 134 miles in a relay format, a half hour at a time. We started at about Happy Hour and ran through the night till late the next morning.

The valley floor at 3 a.m., the stars above and my breath and the plop of my shoes the only sounds, felt strange, rhapsodic, surreal and exhilarating. I loved it, though I never entertained a desire to do an extreme run again.

But here’s the important point: If someone would have told me that fame and fortune awaited at the end (instead of just a few supportive friends with a VW van and some medical supplies, just in case…), but to win all that might cost me my life, I would have looked at them as if they had three heads.

“Risk my life for WHAT?  Are you even crazier than I am?”


In the end, there’s no one reason (and precious few rational ones) for why people gravitate to life-edge extreme sports such as free diving and free solo rock-climbing. (And poetry, for that matter—talk about living on the knife-edge!)

Certainly ego and ambition enter into it, but most everyone has ego and ambitions that don’t gravitate to great danger and discomfort.

Sometimes, though, all it takes is an image, experience or memory that lodges in a person’s’ brain at a young age, as happened with Zecchini regarding free diving, and it drives her entire life.

“I want to achieve my dreams at all costs,” she tell a video camera at maybe 13 years old. “I want to be a famous free diver.”

She did become famous—at least in the cloistered world of free diving—when she set the world record that the movie chronicled at 104 meters (341.2 feet) in 2017.

But it’s the “at all costs” that jumped off the screen at me. A young teenager stating exactly what she will pay everything for.

Should that frighten or inspire us?


“The Deepest Breath” began streaming on Netflix on July 19.


Comments? Questions? Suggestions, Objections, Attaboys? Just scroll on down to the Comments section below. No minimum or maximum word counts!

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied always by lovely photography. 

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, Redlands, California, all rights reserved, contact:

Film photos courtesy of Netflix (except “Zecchini,  between worlds,” a screenshot from home television)

6 comments to Break the Record, Die Trying? Free Diving With Laura McGann’s “The Deepest Breath”

  • mary  says:

    “Wow” “Oh my God” “Who would ever…” are the recurring phrases that keep popping up for me in response to viewing this remarkable film.

    I have never experienced the kind of drive that would take me to such extremes, for which I am a little wistful, and quite a bit grateful, and I am PROFOUNDLY grateful my children never pursued such sports.

    There are so many controversial issues involved in extreme sports, obviously the “Why?” which has been woven through the human race from pioneers, explorers and adventurers from the beginning of time. The risks to an individual are certainly sobering to consider, but also the risks to others, such as the justifiably anxious loved ones, and then the risks to others, such as to the sherpas involved in Himalayan climbing adventures, who have few other ways to make money and are pressured to accompany parties in critically unsafe circumstances, as in “Into Thin Air”.

    Watching The Deepest Breath I was reminded of an another documentary “Free Solo”, where rock climber Alex Honnold is filmed scaling the 3000 ft granite wall of El Capitan bare-handed. Yikes! It’s so completely obvious that in addition to the element of conquest involved, these individuals are privy to rare and wonderful views and experiences of the natural world available to only a handful of brave/reckless? individuals. If we are brave enough to watch we do get to see the footage; courtesy of not just the athletes but also the intrepid filmmakers we are treated to soaring mountain top views and incredible underwater vistas.To not just see it on film but to be one with it in real time, to meet it as an opponent? a partner? I can understand that allure.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      The first part of your comment had me thinking about “Into Thin Air,” Mary, so it was unsurprising to see you mention it a few sentences later. I was thinking back to that heart- and gut-wrenching scene where they hooked the wife into a satellite call with her dying husband who had been one of the guides on the expedition, and they either had a new baby or had one on the way, I can’t remember. Therein lies so much of the rub, as you go on to suggest, with extreme sports participants, where ‘Follow your dreams”/”Be all you can be” runs headlong into being responsible to others, and their dreams and hopes in relation to you as part of a family or community. It’s a conundrum, but I can’t help thinking that the deeper responsibilities that come with family should be a strong consideration in any individual’s pursuit of inherently dangerous activity, even as we know that nothing is without risk, and even walking out off your house in the morn is no guarantee of safety.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    After reading about Alessia Zecchini’s love of deep diving into a state of unconsciousness, I realize how comfortable I’ve become with the boredom of reasonableness. For me, extreme and sports makes about as much sense as sweetening coffee with vinegar. I love looking up at Mt. Whitney from the Alabama Hills, but flying down its peak on a skateboard is way off my radar. I appreciate the beauty and power of Niagara Falls, but I think I might vote for Trump before giving it a ride in a barrel. Well, maybe not. Would I climb El Capitan bare-handed? Hell, I hold onto a railing when I get out of a bathtub. Incidentally I am impressed with your 134-mile relay run through Death Valley. Just driving through Death Valley without air conditioning is my idea of extreme. Thanks for the blog. It only reinforced my acceptance of my own Age of Rationality.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robert, the “Boredom of Reasonableness” could easily make for fine exploration in a book, a blog, or at the very least, incorporation into a bumper sticker. And boy ohhhh boyyyyyy could we use an “Age of Rationality” right about now. Don’t be surprised if you see those phrases popping up in a future post here.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    I watched The Deepest Breath last night. Competitive Free Diving is something I had heard about, but never had much interest in until reading your post today. I confess I was hooked, even though I really don’t get it at all… it bothered me that the film didn’t explain why Steve was 20 seconds late which caused Alessia to go in the wrong direction, it seems like that was a very big deal, but was glaringly not addressed. Competitive free diving is another amazing example the extent we Homo Sapiens will go to find meaning and satisfaction in our lives! However I still can’t really buy into free diving as true sport. From a more cynical perspective holding your breath and diving for depth seems like it has more in common with a hot dog eating contest, but I’m sure that’s just my narrow view of their world. Clearly these “athletes” train like crazy and appear to have created a very supportive-subculture surrounding their passion. Just because I don’t fully grok what they are up to does not mean this “sport” has no validity.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Some provocative questions you raise here, Mr. Feldman! One piece I hadn’t considered but am now, is where free diving falls within the definition of “sport.” I can see your point that boiled down to its essentials, it can be seen as a high-level breath-holding contest, albeit with huge amounts of practice and “training” required. But does it entail true athletic skill along the lines of strength, speed, quickness, explosiveness, balance, coordination, spring, acrobatics—you know: the Steph Curry skill set? I have my doubts, now that you mention it, though I have my doubts about golf and a few other “sports” too, if we apply the same criteria I mentioned above. So: open question, I think, though there is no denying the sheer level of accomplishment of these people and the difficulty of the task they set for themselves.

      As for your question about what was up with that 20-second delay by Stephen, I’m very glad you mentioned it cuz I was sure asking about that myself as soon as it occurred. (Spoiler alert for anyone reading here and not wanting a key story detail revealed): I’m pretty certain the filmmmaker didn’t mention it in the immediate aftermath of its occurrence in the film because her plot kept the unfolding tragedy a mystery until the Big Reveal that Stephen had died in successfully saving Alessia. And when that was revealed, no one knew his reason for delay because he was dead and apparently hadn’t had time or wherewithal to communicate to anyone on his team why he waited. If you remember, the few others on Alessia’s team with speaking parts after his death were all mystified about the delay.

      Fair enough, but another piece the filmmmaker didn’t really reveal other than a brief note at the beginning about “some archival footage” and “re-creation” of certain events had taken place was that Stephen’s death itself was “re-created,” that footage having been shot with Alessia doing the diving years later and then literally “acting” out its occurrence and immediate aftermath. One critic in particular, Sam Adams at Slate, questioned the ethics and basic morality of this ploy, considering it misleading on the filmmmaker’s part, and I suspect he has a point at least worth considering.

      One more unclear detail: I’m not certain about this without watching the film yet again, but it appeared to me that the film implied the tragedy occurred during the “Blue Hole” competition itself, but it was actually during a basic, pre-competition training dive Keenan and Zecchini undertook just to familiarize themselves with the underwater terrain. Hence there were few of the usual safety protocols and resources in place that would have been required in a competition. Would that have made a difference in perhaps averting Stephen’s death? We’ll never know.

      All of which adds up to, I suppose (besides the undergirding tragedy in the death of a good man): one helluva good yarn.

      And: those dive scenes themselves were beauties, eh?

Leave a Reply