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Freediving record-breaker recounts the death of her safety diver in Netflix’s Deepest Breath

Stephen found me and heroically brought me to the surface. He managed to position me on my back to prevent water inhalation. However, in doing so, he exerted his last bit of strength. Failing to turn himself over, he remained unconscious, face down in the water, with no one to assist him.

  • 3 weeks ago
  • May 24, 2024
6 min read
Alessia and Stephen celebrate past victories before the accident. | Photo courtesy of Dann Verhoeven Alessia and Stephen celebrate past victories before the accident. | Photo courtesy of Dann Verhoeven
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Alessia Zecchini, born in Rome, Italy in 1992, is a distinguished freediver who began her career at the age of 13. Throughout her career, Zecchini has shattered over 30 world records across various freediving disciplines and has secured 16 gold medals at world championships, marking her as a leading figure in the sport.
background information
Freediving, recognized for its tranquility and freedom, has various disciplines all completed on a single breath, gaining global popularity both recreationally and competitively. Key disciplines include Constant Weight Apnea, where divers reach maximum depths without rope assistance; Constant Weight without Fins, requiring divers to use only their muscle strength; and Dynamic Freediving, focusing on horizontal distance in pools. More extreme forms include Variable Weight Apnea and Freediving without Limits, where divers descend with heavy weights and ascend by any method. The sport’s challenges and achievements are highlighted in the 2023 Netflix documentary “The Deepest Breath,” directed by Laura McGann, which explores the lives and the poignant story of freedivers Alessia Zecchini and Stephen Keenan.

DAHAB, Egypt — Throughout my career, I broke every freediving record I aimed for, and some I never imagined. Standing at the water’s edge, I often doubt my abilities, aware of my limits and the daunting challenge of diving into uncharted depths. In the recent Netflix documentary, The Deepest Breath, I revisited the critical moment when my safety diver Stephen Keenan rescued me.

It reminded me that the unresolved troubles we carry on land do not dissolve with the ocean’s embrace. Every dive reminds me of him, my training partner and safety diver, who tragically died saving my life. His spirit accompanies me in the sea, a place we both love deeply.

Read more freediving stories at Orato World Media.

Freediving passion: “I calibrate perfectly to conserve the oxygen I lack underwater”

I started freediving at 13 and trained for many years before they allowed me to legally compete. Initially, I practiced in swimming pools, but eventually developed a profound connection with the sea. Five years later, I began entering competions.

My relationship with the ocean is rooted in pure love and respect. When I look out over the water, its vastness overwhelms me. I feel a deep understanding and a compelling urge to embrace that powerful connection. As soon as I dive, my movements become almost automatic. Years of training honed my ability to dive without conscious thought, allowing me to flow deeper, guided only by the rope.

I clear my mind of any emotions that could throw off my focus. With every heartbeat and slight movement, I calibrate perfectly to conserve the oxygen I lack underwater. All I need to do is be fully present and let go. Below the surface, the world turns into shades of blue at various depths. Hints of green blend perfectly, and the deeper I go, pitch black begins to take over. It’s a mesmerizing world.

Despite the increasing pressure exerted by the water as I descend, I barely feel it—my training ensures my lungs and muscles adapt. In those moments, I am one with the sea, moving in its natural rhythm. Descending into the depths, everything grows darker and the colors lighten. From 35 meters, I am no longer alone; the safety divers begin to appear, and their presence instinctively reassures me. This became especially true when my safety diver Stephen was there, until the tragic accident on July 22, 2017.

Freediving tragedy at the Blue Hole challenge in Dahab, Egypt: “He sacrificed his own life to save mine.”

On that day, I aimed to conquer the Blue Hole challenge in Dahab, Egypt. The task was to dive beyond 50 meters and navigate through a tunnel beneath a massive rock, emerging on the other side to ascend. Filled with the usual excitement and apprehension for such a formidable challenge, I felt ready. Stephen and our team prepared extensively, and he awaited me at the tunnel’s exit to ascend together. 

I dove with my typical serenity, merging with the water. Inside the tunnel, while swimming horizontally, I felt an unusual strain but remained unfazed. Though it felt challenging, I emerged on the other side. However, in the dark, I failed to locate the guide rope or see Stephen waiting. Disoriented, I swam in the wrong direction. This unfamiliar sensation of not knowing my position, combined with dwindling oxygen, led to my losing consciousness—as had happened before. It felt as though everything just shut down.

Stephen found me and heroically brought me to the surface. He managed to position me on my back to prevent water inhalation. However, in doing so, he exerted his last bit of strength. Failing to turn himself over, he remained unconscious, face down in the water, with no one to assist him. He sacrificed his own life to save mine.

Immediately after the accident, I felt completely devastated. I considered quitting freediving. For weeks, grief overwhelmed me; I felt devastated and devoid of the strength to continue. However, I eventually realized that engaging in the sport I loved was the only way to move through the pain. I believed this is what Stephen would have wanted—it felt like the best way to honor his memory. Continuing to dive keeps our connection alive; it feels like a tribute to him.

The Deepest Breath on Netflix: “Delving into what happened with Stephen felt like reopening a wound”

Sometimes, I want to change the past, but I know that is impossible. All I can do is accept it and try to understand what happened. Stephen made a sacrifice for me, and I owe it to him to ensure it wasn’t in vain. This sense of responsibility isn’t a burden but a commitment. To keep moving forward, I try not to let the tragedy dominate my everyday life. However, participating in the 2022 documentary “The Deepest Breath” felt like one of the most challenging things I ever did. 

Delving into what happened with Stephen felt like reopening a wound. Every word revived that moment and felt excruciating. I struggled to hold back tears as I narrated my memories. Feeling as though I may never fully process everything, I generally avoid discussing it. I understand this pain remains a part of me and always will.

Since Stephen’s death, I feel less afraid of my mortality but more apprehensive of losing others. In recent years, the passing of many loved ones intensified this fear. When my time comes, I accept it. Sometimes, as I gaze at the horizon, I think dying at sea would be fitting—it’s my element. It’s comforting to believe that Stephen, too, would have chosen to die doing what he loved.

I strongly feel that Stephen dives beside me, continuing to protect me. This sense is intense and visceral. In the past, he met me in the final meters of my ascent, but now, he accompanies me throughout the entire dive. Occasionally, he appears in my dreams, though not as often as I wish for. In those dreams, I feel his warmth beside me. Each night, as I drift to sleep, I hope to dream of him once more.

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