Who Is Natalia Molchanova? The World's Greatest Freediver Went Missing After Diving Near Spain

Russian Natalia Molchanova shows the minus 86 metres tag that gives her a win in the first women's free-diving world championship 03 September 2005 in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Molchanova retained her world champion status. AFP PHOTO JACQUES MUNCH (Photo credit should read JACQUES MUNCH/AFP/Getty Images)
Source: JACQUES MUNCH/AFP/Getty Images

She holds the world record for longest breath held underwater (nine minutes and two seconds), can dive 778 feet on one breath with a monofin, and in September 2009, she became the first woman in history to dive 100 meters with constant weight. So when Natalia Molchanova took a recreational dive on Sunday near Spain, it should have been like a dip in the pool. Instead, Natalia Molchanova, the world's greatest free diver, vanished after her dive and is now, sadly, presumed dead. As rescue workers continue to search for her, the free diving community, and beyond, is looking back on the record-shattering career of Molchanova, a true legend.

On Sunday, Molchanova, 53, hopped off a chartered boat and took a dive into the clear blue waters of the Balearic Sea, off the coast of Formentera, near Ibiza, Spain. According to a statement on her Facebook page, Molchanova was diving without fins to a depth of 30 or 40 meters, a relatively easy task for someone with her experience, when she became separated from her peers and was believed to have been caught in a strong underwater current. According to The New York Times, Molchanova had attached a neck weight of one or two pounds to help her descend to her desired depth.

When Molchanova did not resurface, her diving peers scoured the waters for her before calling in the Coast Guard, who conducted a search until nightfall on Sunday and resumed on Monday. By Tuesday, Molchanova was still missing, and an underwater robot capable of searching 500 meters deep was deployed.

By Tuesday night, her son, Alexey, told the Times he had accepted the difficult reality that his mother might not have survived.

It seems she'll stay in the sea. I think she would like that.

Born in Ufa, Russia, Molchanova began her career as a competitive swimmer, but went on hiatus in order to raise a family. About 20 years later, Molchanova returned to the water as a free diver at the age of 40. Beginning with the 2003 Moscow Freediving Open Cup, she would go on to break one record after another, become a free diving world champion 23 times, and become the most decorated competitive free diver in the world.

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Molchanova holds 41 world records total, including records for static apnea (floating face down while holding one's breath), free immersion apnea (diving without the use of propulsion equipment), constant weight apnea (diving as deep as possible on one breath using a monofin), and diving with and without fins.

At the 2007 World Championships, Molchanova won the static apnea title with her then record time of eight minutes, which was longer than the winning time of the male gold medal winner. In 2013, she would shatter her own record with an impressive time of nine minutes and two seconds. That same year, she made history by becoming the first woman ever to break the infamous 100-meter barrier with constant weight, diving 101 meters.

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Besides competitive free diving, Molchanova holds a Ph.D. in pedagogical science, is the creator and president of the Freediving Federation of Russia, and has taught thousands of people worldwide the sport that she loves, free diving.

In an interview with the Times last year, Molchanova articulated her love for the sport, explaining:

Free diving is not only sport, it's a way to understand who we are. When we go down, if we don’t think, we understand we are whole. We are one with world. When we think, we are separate. On surface, it is natural to think and we have many information inside. We need to reset sometimes. Free diving helps do that.

For the free diving community, and the world, losing Molchanova would be a loss of immeasurable depth.

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