They call him “the machine,” the undisputed king of the deep, for the punishing depths he dives to in one single breath. Thirty-four-year-old Alexey Molchanov holds 24 world records in the rapidly growing extreme sport of free diving. This past July, 60 Minutes was with him when he broke yet another record, diving 430 feet – more than the length of a football field – while holding his breath underwater for over four and a half minutes without a scuba tank.
Molchanov is part of a growing number of elite free divers who gather annually at Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas to compete against one another in the “Vertical Blue Competition.” Sharyn Alfonsi was there to report on the breath-taking story for the next edition of 60 Minutes, Sunday, September 26 at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
Molchanov has been nearly unbeatable in three out of four free diving disciplines, competing against himself and working to break his own records. He’s far from done, he tells Alfonsi.
“I don’t think [I am finished]. I know with all the skills I have, with all the mind-control I have, I can go deeper and so because I can, then I will,” Molchanov says. “I enjoy finding new boundaries and pushing them further because I know I can. I know through all these years and the thousands of hours of training and diving how well I can use my oxygen, how slowly I can use it and how efficient is my technique.”
Technique is critical as the sport is extremely dangerous. Subjecting the human body to the pressure of water at this depth can cause confusion, blackouts and serious, sometimes fatal injuries. About 60 recreational free divers die each year – although there has only been one death at a free-diving competition in the last 20 years as organizers work to make the sport safer. Competing free divers must grab a tag at depth to confirm their descent and then prove they’re alert within 20 seconds of surfacing for the dive to count. Competitions are conducted using safety measures that include rescue divers in the water.
Molchanov learned his technique from his mother, the former Russian swimmer, Natalia Molchanova, considered the greatest free diver of all time. By the age of 53 she held 42 world records and was on her way to further greatness when she tragically went missing off the coast of Spain while teaching a free-diving lesson. Her death was a blow to Molchanov, but one the sport helped him overcome.
“I felt that free diving is actually the best thing for me to do. It was the best therapy being in the water,” he says. “It just helped me to be, like, in peace and helped to just live through that.”
Molchanov and his wife Elena, a former Olympic swimmer, are carrying on his mother’s legacy. Natalia Molchanova started several free-diving schools before her death that they are expanding, certifying hundreds of instructors in 20 countries.
For Molchanov free diving is not just about the sport, but about the joy and the feeling he gets every time he goes to those depths, telling Alfonsi, “It feels very much like flying actually. Very much like freedom. Just pure joy of flying, staying and feeling no urge to breathe.”