The announcer calls out again:
— Alenka Artnik
— 118 meters (1270 feet)
— World record attempt
On a third-floor balcony, a girl plays with her dolls. It’s summer in Koper, a small Yugoslav city on the Adriatic Sea, in the mid-1980s. A tub of water sits beside the girl, with fallen petals from her mother’s plants floating on top. When she climbs into the tub and splashes water on the hot tiles, she creates the sweet and musty scent of rain as if by magic.
The girl submerges her mermaid dolls one by one to make them swim. She wants to know what it’s like to move around underwater. She will soon.
The father of the girl walks her down to the beach, where she wades into the tidal pool. She inhales, sinks beneath the surface, and propels herself forward with her arms. She is so engrossed in this silent and liquid otherworld that she fails to notice the concrete wall inlaid with seashells. Her brow slams into it. In the salty water, blood curls.
Forward to 2010
On a narrow pedestrian bridge, a woman stands alone. Ljubljana, Slovenia, is in the dead of winter in 2010. It’s late at night, and the water far below is dark and cold. More than two decades have passed since her blood met water in the tidal pool, and she has endured a great deal more pain, heartbreak, and loss. The woman silently addresses the universe. This is something I can no longer do. It’s all over if she climbs over the rails and jumps.
Forward to 2021
A diver floats on her back above a marine cavern with a travel pillow supporting her head. It is July 2021 in The Bahamas. She wears a thin wetsuit, a tiny headlamp, and a carbon-fiber fin that resembles a mermaid’s tail on her feet. She is 39 years old and the best female freediver in the world. Only a few people — all men — have dived deeper into the ocean than she has on just one breath. Someday soon she may surpass them.
The diver’s face is blank, and so is her mind. This is intentional: Thinking burns oxygen and the air in her lungs must take her down nearly 400 feet into Dean’s Blue Hole, where it is so dark that if her light fails she may as well be blindfolded. That same breath must also bring her back up out of the blackness, toward the spears of sunlight bursting through the turquoise water. She will be suspended in the liminal zone between this life and the next for 210 seconds. In a place where the weight of the water will wrap her in a tight hug and reduce her lungs to the size of tennis balls. Her heart rate will drop to 30 beats per minute, and her arteries will constrict, cutting off blood supply to her legs and arms. Where, if her oxygen levels fall too low during the ascent, she will black out and rely on the white-clad safety divers to pull her to the surface, call her name, and blow on her eyelids to stimulate breathing and keep her from drifting off further, toward death.
The diver takes a deep breath before sipping air noisily, like a fish reeled onto the sand. Eight small breaths, filling her lungs to the brim. Then she rolls onto her stomach and duck dives down, following the guide rope. She shuts her eyes. The mermaid vanishes with a few flicks of her tail.
Forward to the Future
Alenka Artnik not only accepted her past, but also drew strength from it. She says it’s because of the pain. I surrendered to the pain, embraced it; that’s when the big growth happens. The other part of the answer is less complicated; she works out like hell.