30 minutes with Alexey Molchanov
Sheltering from the wind in the dark behind a bush outside Rowdy Boys bar and grill, you could be forgiven for thinking that the 4 times world record holder and legend of the freediving world would be anxious to get away from an interview for which he's being paid nothing, but if he is, he doesn't show it. He talks fast and when there's a break in conversation, which is rare, he's all smiles.
So Alexey, thanks for being here, thanks for doing this interview.
You're known affectionately as the Golden Retriever, a name which suits you pretty much whichever way you look at it. Where do you get your energy from?
I don't think everybody uses [that name]. Originally Daan gave it to me first, I think it was just 2 years or one year ago in Vertical Blue so... that's his thing!
But what is it that means you have so much life about you, so much energy all the time?
For me it's normal. It's just what I did all my life and... I guess it just starts from childhood. When I was younger I was always going from one activity to another: Swimming and to chess club and then from chess club to musical school..back and forth, all in one day!
So you've just always been this way?
I've always been this way. (He nods.) I mean... I can't say that I'm never getting tired. Of course if I train hard I want to have a quiet time for rest but apart from that, of course if there's anything cool to do I'm happy to go and do it!
Haha sure, yes. You're known for training very hard, what motivates you to push yourself as far as you do?
I like training. It's the same thing, it grows from the past. I've been doing it all my life and I just don't feel right if I don't train. Even after a competition, after this competition for example, or any big competition, I don't rest for a month or something, I go back and start training straight away again. I like it, I like the process.
Do you have any down-time in the year? Any off periods?
I have an off period from deep diving - it's from December, like at the end of this competition and I probably will not do any more deep dives until April, but I'm still training on land. In Winter I do more pool training and more gym training and in the Spring and Summer I do deep diving and still more gym training and pool sometimes... it depends on the [competition] situation.
Not only are you physically strong, you're mentally strong too, you always seem so relaxed on the line, and your recovery after the accident at the 2013 world champs was inspiring. What goes through your mind before a big dive?
Err.... (He smiles)... I cannot say exactly what goes through my mind. Generally you wouldn't want to think anything about anything specific you would just want to make sure that all is in the right place, your breathing, you check all your gear before... And then before the dive I'm mostly just focusing on my breathing and I'm not thinking about anything. I follow my breathing and put my attention into that and that helps me not to think about anything else. But preparation is different for different people.
Do you get nervous?
Rarely. Like...I might get nervous, maybe a few hours before the dive if I start to think a lot about it. But then [when I get to the platform] I can relax and just skip it, and let it out of my head. It's not exactly easy but with the years it's getting easier and easier. I've had a lot of competition in my life already, still I'm young but I've had a lot of competition: I was competing since I was 4 or 5 in swimming. So I can see that competition is not really important in life...we just put too much importance, usually, on the competition but really...it's like a game.
So you really just do it for fun? It's not about breaking records or winning competitions?
By my feeling I do it for fun. Of course, if you look at it from other perspectives it's a great depth and it's serious - it's not like I'm diving 5 meters or 10 meters - but it helps me very much to look at it as fun, because it takes the pressure off and takes the importance out of it.
You always look like you're having fun as well.
(Laughs) And that helps me to train harder. Because otherwise it would just exhaust me, if I put too much pressure on.
You're 3 times world record holder in the most prestigious of the 3 competitive depth disciplines and 45 times Russian record holder, it can't have always been this easy for you! What obstacles have you had to overcome along the way?
At first, when I started freediving I wanted to get deeper, sooner. I didn't leave enough time for my body to adapt and then I had blackouts in training and competition, not often but I had them from time to time when I overestimated my limits. From one side that was an obstacle, but from another it was a learning experience because with each failure I was motivated to make it right and see what was wrong in this failed dive and, as you see, it worked out that I got the right lessons out of it. I couldn't be here where I am now at this level without all these unsuccessful and failed dives in the past. So they're all just steps and it's all to do with the perspective you have on them.
Do you ever get accusations that you are taking drugs? Have you ever heard anything like that? No, I've never even heard of that. I think it's a natural thing. When someone gets so good people think there must be something going on...I've heard people say that about you.
Yes I've heard rumors – about freediving in general, but it's very little compared to other sports. I didn't hear anyone say anything about me, but I've heard that about other athletes.
Do you believe any of it? To me it seems like there's not enough at stake in freediving to make it worthwhile...
Yes... there is not enough at stake and... I don't really think about it. If I hear someone accusing another freediver, like one of my friends - it's a very small community - I don't pay any attention to it because there is no hard evidence for anything. They're just chatterboxes really.
Yeah, it's just chat. Ok so... How old were you when you did your first competition, and how deep did you go?
I started freediving when I was 17 and so it was too early to be in any competition so I was just training. (He smiles) No actually it was too early for any international competition but in Russia they allowed me to dive when I was 17 so I did my first comps in the pool. I did 154m...I think? In dynamic...and it was enough for a Russian record.
So in your very first competition you broke the Russian record?!
I broke the Russian record. So I liked it! Then 1 year later in 2005 after I had been freediving for 1 year and a half I was diving in the world championship already in Nice for depth diving and in the pool as well in Lausanne in Switzerland, and I got two medals there! It was 134m No-Fins and, I think 199m dynamic I can't remember exactly.
I was hoping you were going to say 40m Constant Weight and give us all some hope!
(Laughs) and then after that we went straight to Nice and it was 83m Constant Weight.
I've heard enough now thank you.
Have you always known you wanted to be a freediver? It sounds like maybe not...
Before I started freediving I never heard about such a thing as a freediver so as soon as I knew there was such a sport I started freediving. When I was small, when I was still a kid I was swimming but we still were breath-holding: We did dynamics and I was collecting mussels and sea-shells on the bottom of the sea, right? So I was doing that from a very young age, from 4-5 years old. We were diving in the Black Sea in Russia and I really like that.
Is that cold?
In the summer, no it's 20+ or so...
It's hard to estimate...(laughs). Very much, for sure. With her methods of training it was so much easier, that's the thing. For me it was combined experience: it was my experience as well. As a swimmer I also knew... like how to train and everything. She started freediving one year earlier than me and so of course she helped me a lot in the beginning and then [as time went on] we would plan and think about our trainings together. Sometimes I will say "I think [this or] that" and then she will go and check it. There is a department of extreme sports in Russia and now she's an associate Professor but she's working on becoming Professor there, so she's doing all these researches on freediving and there's a freediving discipline at the university. So... it's nice because we have all the equipment to check stuff like if we need to see if one preparation breathing is better than another... So without her... I'm not really so much into all the science and doing all the methodology. She loves it a lot, she works all day writing a thesis for her doctorate degree... So it's hard to say exactly what her influence has been on me.
It sounds like it's more the two of you working together...
Yeah, she doesn't say me directly what to do, I don't tell her either but for sure, we help each other a lot. Still we have a little bit different approach: She does more training in the water, she's a bit more consistent than me, I do more dry training, I like gym and she doesn't so still a little bit different.
How many countries have you been in so far this year?
This year? Ah! It's hard to say! (He starts counting on his fingers) If you start from the beginning of the year then I've been in... Dubai Emirates then there is Egypt training, then Honduras for the Roatan cup and then I was travelling in Europe like in Italy Rome and Bari, Latvia, the world championships in Sardinia as well then Egypt again in the summer, Bali Indonesia, Bahamas and then the United States on the way, so then 8! And a bit of time in Russia as well... Right! So Russia as well..9...seems like 9 this year!
That's not bad is it?
It's not bad (laughs)
How do you maintain this lifestyle? Is it through sponsors? Your share in the Freediving Federation [The Molchanov's Freediving School] ? Prize Money? How does it work for you?
It's all together. It's the freediving school, that helps a lot. I do a lot of teaching and...er...sponsors partially, like for the World Championships we get sponsored. I don't get sponsored for all competitions, partially because I teach a lot so I can afford to go around and do all the competitions without sponsorship, that's why I was a bit lazy on finding sponsors, but I should because I've put lots of work into this sport.
You can mention your sponsors if you want...!
Actually for Vertical Blue I didn't have any sponsors at all.
I just paid myself. But I am slowly going to there. I will go in this direction because...I should try it. To promote freediving as well. We have also the freediving shop selling [molchanov branded] monofins, equipment and so on. At first that was an infrastructural need, because our students needed it. But then...I'm an engineer, right, I'm a software engineer. I like to just look at things and make them better. So I like to take a monofin and test it and just...improve it.
Yes I've seen your enthusiasm in getting people to try things out and seeing what they think...
(His face lights up) Yes I love that! I ask people to try it and then I take opinions and..
What's your favourite place in the world to dive?
For deep dive? It's hard to say. Like in Bahamas, here, it's really nice, I'm not worried about any currents or any waves or anything... but it's bad visibility. So for me I would say I still prefer Egypt, the Red Sea so far or...the Mediterranean sea like Greece or Italy, I like these places a lot. Thermocline, I love it!
Yes. I love it. And I just like the colour of the sea better. In Egypt the colour is better than in the Mediterranean sea. So Red Sea probably wins for me. You need to spend some time finding a good spot for that, like, the blue hole is not very deep [a mere 90m] so you have to go outside the blue hole and then it depends a little bit on the waves and the sea conditions but if its good conditions then it's just great!
Actually I loved it in Gili too [Indonesia]. There was no current, no waves and very deep. The only bad thing is you need to drive far from the shore. So... it's hard for me to say. I've spent a lot of time in Egypt in the Red Sea so for now that's what I would say I like best. For the conditions, and for the joy I get from diving there.
Can you tell us about your goals for next year? You don't have to... if you want to keep it secret!
For me it's simple. I have a few main competitions in the year. For me the world championship is the most important competition in the year. Vertical Blue is also important but a bit less important than the World Championships. So I'll be getting ready for both the world championships next year, that's the thing. It will be challenging because there will be two of them. So for the first part of the year I'll be getting ready for pool and then the next part of the year for depth. In fact there might be no depth competitions next year before the world champs because vertical blue is in April. That actually devalues this competition a little bit for me a bit because I will not be able to show my best. So I don't even know if I will be able to schedule it. I would love to come here but I will focus on the pool and depth World Championships.
Is it more important to win a competition or break a world record?
Win a competition, for sure.
Alright, thanks and so... just one final question. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's noticed the incredible size of your thighs. (Laughs) Do you have to put something on them to stop them rubbing together or...
I don't feel they rub together! I walk normally. No no, they don't rub. If I feel they start to rub together then I try to cut down on the carbs. Alexey Molchanov is the current world champion, 4 times world record holder and 45 times Russian record holder. His freediving school, Freediving Federation offers courses worldwide in Russian and, from next year, in English.
Check out Natalia Molchanova and Alexey Molchanov's world records: