The Profile Dossier: Alexey Molchanov, The World's Most Daring Freediver
"I enjoy finding new boundaries and pushing them further because I know I can."
During a regular dive in the sea, Alexey Molchanov can go 131 meters deep (or about 43 stories) while holding a single breath for nearly five minutes.
In that period, his body experiences more gravitational stress than an astronaut during a launch into space. Molchanov is considered the best freediver on the planet. He often overrides his body's automatic impulses (to take a breath) and pushes past limits no other human can reach without blacking out or worse.
"I enjoy finding new boundaries and pushing them further because I know I can," he says. "I trust my skills, I trust my body, I trust my abilities, and I trust the environment. That's the combination that allows me to break the records."
And the records are many. Overall, he has set 24 world records and has earned 27 combined gold, silver, and bronze individual and team medals at world championship events.
Molchanov is known in the diving world as "The Machine," when he is underwater as he is the undisputed king of the deep blue sea. But when he's on land, his nickname is "the Golden Retriever" because he's known for his easy-going, fun-loving demeanor.
That's likely because he has an extraordinary ability to compartmentalize who he is as a competitor and who he is as a father, husband, and friend. “I had been told that he was just a machine of a person, and as a diver he is,” says freediver Adam Stern. “But as a person, he’s a big cuddly teddy bear.”
Molchanov comes from freediving royalty. His mom Natalia set 41 of her own world records and won 23 world championship titles. She was indisputably the greatest freediver of all time, having first entered the sport when she was 40 years old. She would say: "Freediving offers us happiness from nothing more than a single breath of air."
Then in 2015, tragedy struck. Natalia was diving off the coast of Spain when she never resurfaced, vanishing into the sea. After a several-day search, her body was never recovered.
It was she who got Molchanov into the sport, she who accompanied him to every competition, and she who developed the very breathing techniques he uses today.
After Natalia disappeared, he continued free diving, appearing at the world championships only a month later. "I felt that freediving was actually the best thing for me to do," he says. "It was the best therapy being in the water because it helped to be in peace."
To Molchanov, freediving feels "very much like flying," and it's a sport that requires equal part mastery of the mind and the body.
"I love freediving for its constant self-improvement process where you learn how to relax or learn how to handle your fears," says Molchanov, who trains all year-round. "My preparation never stops."
Here's what we can learn from the king of freediving about taking control of our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
On becoming the king of freediving: Today, there is one diver who goes the deepest, who blends the physical and metaphysical like no one else in the sport — Alexey Molchanov. Seemingly anyone else attempting what he does would die. Considered the planet's best freediver, Molchanov says mindset is everything. This profile offers a fascinating look into his deep blue world.
On turning risk-taking into recovery: After his mother's tragic disappearance, many found it unusual that Molchanov found solace in the very sport that killed her. But as anxiety-provoking as the sport may seem, freediving has been shown to reduce anxiety and help with depression and trauma. This recent research has helped Molchanov understand why he still felt so inexorably pulled toward the water after his mother’s disappearance. Put simply, it was — between the sensory deprivation, the elemental immersion, and the simultaneous control and surrender — an escape.
On pushing past your limits: How does Molchanov condition his mind to go deeper? "In freediving, you have to be physically fit, but if you haven't fine-tuned the skill of relaxation, you cannot handle the physical pressure," he says. Before going into a dive, Molchanov reminds himself that reaching new limits will allow him to gain new skills. "These moments are a test of your skills, and you have an opportunity to execute at the highest level," he says.
On training the body and mind: This Religion of Sports episode follows Molchanov and several other freedivers as they compete at the 2018 Vertical Blue competition in the Bahamas. We see him up close on his dives as he pushes the limit, goes for more records, and tries carrying on his mother’s legacy. This is an absolute must-watch.
On competing in the world championship: Only one month after Molchanov's mother died, he had to compete in the freediving world championship — the first time to do so without her. This documentary follows fellow freedivers as they prepare for the championship and overcome their biggest fears and insecurities.
On breaking a world record in a single breath: Researchers who study Molchanov estimate that he takes in roughly 2 gallons of air before a single dive. It's a result of what he calls "lung exercise," a technique he learned from his mom. In this 60 Minutes interview, Molchanov explains how his love for the sport propels him to do the impossible time and time again.
Relaxation is a skill that can be fine-tuned: To be a successful freediver, you need to be able to relax under pressure. While that sounds contradictory, Molchanov says it is a technique that can be learned. He has a simplified two-part process on how to master this. First, breathing is an indicator that tells us whether we are calm or stressed. "A very easy test is to try to observe your breathing pattern," he says. This will tell us if we have smooth, deep breathing or shallow, panicked breathing. Second, he says our anxiety elevates when we see a problem as a life-or-death situation that needs to be solved. Instead, Molchanov recommends changing your perspective to see it as a challenge that you will enjoy overcoming rather than a situation you must suffer through. "Try to feel pleasure through the process," he says. Third, focus on one task at a time. Rather than seeing a problem as a big complex tangle of varying tasks, Molchanov says you can calm yourself by asking, "What is one single task I can focus on accomplishing in this next moment?" Remember, competence and calm are built one breath at a time.
Practice the soft gaze: Molchanov uses a concept called, "the de-concentration of attention," which requires a focus with the mind, not the eyes. The point is to be aware of the environment as a whole rather than paying attention to the individual details. It's similar to the yoga practice of the "soft gaze," which refers to finding a point of focus while holding a pose for a longer period of time. Rather than an intense sort of staring, the yogi is encouraged to keep a soft gaze where the eyes gently rest on one spot. Remember, successful people don't get distracted by the volatility of everyday life. Instead, they adopt a long-term focus, stay patient, and avoid taking action impulsively.
Learn how to play with perspective: A dive is either super hard or super successful based on Molchanov's perspective. The secret is to snap his attention back to the present moment and to train his brain to almost physically overcome his thoughts so that he can stay in the present moment without being dragged to the past or the future. That practice is what allows him to go so deep and lowers his heart rate without worrying about all the things that could go wrong — or potentially kill him. In his GQ profile, the reporter writes, "If you can learn to handle that trial, you can learn to focus your way through a penalty kick or a presentation to the partners or a live TV appearance or a job interview. We can remind ourselves that we've put ourselves in that position, said yes to the opportunity, pushed ourselves to the outer limits of our comfort zone, and done so willingly." As a result, the nerves, butterflies, and fears before a big moment disappear. “With a big event,” Molchanov says, “instead of focusing on the importance of an event, I switch to focusing on how much I enjoy deep diving, and how much I enjoy the process. I'm doing this because I like it, and I know how to do this really well. I'm diving with this reason in mind."
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"Competence comes from practice."
“Freediving is not about fighting the urge to breathe, it's about relaxation."