On the slow drop toward 80 meters, the sound of crackling ice rippled through the water, the barometric pressure cranked up, and it was painfully cold. His job was to accept it all and remain relaxed no matter how awful it felt or what happened next.
He arrived at the illuminated bottom plate, grabbed a black tag, and with an ever-dwindling oxygen supply, dolphin-kicked back toward the hole in the ice.
For the past four years, Alexey Molchanov has been the undisputed best all-around free diver in the world. He came of age traveling the world, from competition to competition, with his mother, who set 41 world records and won 23 world championship titles, despite not discovering the sport until after she divorced at 39 years old. She never sought sponsorship and supported her family by teaching the sport she loved.
By the time she disappeared while free diving near Ibiza in 2015, her curriculum was being taught across Russia and Eastern Europe, and her son already had one depth record, and multiple world championships, to his name. He’d also started manufacturing free-diving gear under the Molchanovs brand. But with his mother gone in a tragic flash, many free divers wondered if he would unravel. And what would become of the brand that carried her name?
Alexey Molchanov did not share his pain. He didn’t seek therapy or confide in anyone, including his older sister, Oksana, which concerned her. She is also a free diver and an instructor, but for two years after her mother’s death, she avoided the water. Molchanov dived more often and brought his mother’s free-diving curriculum across the globe. The ocean became his grief counselor.
“The water, free diving was the way for me to cleanse and recover,” he said. Being underwater allowed him to connect with his mother while also letting go. “It’s thinking about this connection, and it’s also about not letting the tension and all the negative emotions settle in the body.”
The records started piling up quickly. Two years after his mother’s death, in 2017, Molchanov won Vertical Blue, the Wimbledon of free diving, for the first time. The next year, he broke two depth records at the same competition in Dean’s Blue Hole, the home training ground of his greatest rival, William Trubridge. In 2018, he broke his own Constant Weight record, by diving to 130 meters and back with a monofin, and he nabbed Trubridge’s Free Immersion world record, by pulling down a line to 125 meters and back again.