Natalia, Gone But Not Forgotten
I first met Natalia last year when, in the run up to Vertical Blue 2014, she came to the Indonesian island of Gili Trawangan with Alexey and a group of their students to teach and train. As they arrived off the boat and started kitting up I remember quite clearly how nervous I was. How I hung back, afraid to introduce myself too soon. Just being in the presence of this formidable duo, even on my home turf, was enough to set my heart racing and tie up my tongue. Fortunately for me, the UK’s Michael Board, multiple UK record holder and my friend, boss and mentor at the time, bore the brunt of Natalia’s famous candour. I couldn’t help but smile when she told him bluntly, after watching his CWT training dive to 101m that his duck-dive was “like a beginner”. I also remember her smile, which, even awed as I was in her company, immediately put me at ease.
The World’s Most Successful Freediver
The phrase “freediving royalty” is in no way an exaggeration when applied to Natalia. She set her first freediving world record in 2003 (150m DYN) and by 2005 held world records in all 6 competitive disciplines, a position which 10 years later, at the age of 53, she still maintains. Not that she had it all her own way: Ashley Futral Chapman of the US, for example, managed to hold on to a CNF world record (67m VB2012) for just over 5 whole months before, in 2013, Natalia took it back again. No-one in the history of the sport of freediving, male or female, has come close to this kind of dominance in the competitive arena.
Freediving Physiology Researcher
Aside from being a formidable competitor, Natalia also had a PhD in Pedagogics and for a number of years held the position of associate professor of applied sports and extreme activities at the Russian State University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism. Unfortunately for the English-Speaking community, much of her research has so far been published only in Russian, but her manuals for the Freediving Federation educational system, soon to be available in English Translation, offer a startling insight into her deep understanding of the physiology of breath-holding, and her unique perspective on competitive apnea.
Shortly before her disappearance, in her last post on her Facebook page in English, Natalia appealed to freedivers around the world to complete a short questionnaire as part of a research project lead by Dr Roland Griffiths from the Johns Hopkins school of Medicine:
“We believe our sport is beyond just being a sport or just an outdoor recreational activity, since it can induce a very special feeling of harmony…. Our research is aiming to better understand this effect, and to learn whether it happens to virtually every human, or just a few sensible ones. It is tempting to believe freediving do help to change/improve humans.”
Have a look here to complete the survey. Natalia, and the Molchanov brand as a whole, have always promoted an approach to freediving which places harmony with the natural world, and with ourselves, at its heart. Above all else she always believed that freediving should be fun. Alexey, too, is famous for his enthusiasm, and his coolness under pressure. When I interviewed, see the interview here, him back in 2014 he spoke quite freely about Natalia’s influence on him as a diver: “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.” I’ll leave you with some of her own words in translation, from the Freediving Federation 3rd Wave course in English.
“Freediving gives unforgettable experiences to everybody who tries it: it’s not only an underwater trip into the marine world, it’s a trip inside yourself, an exciting method of learning and self-development. Every new depth you reach brings you closer to your personal limits, and extends them at the same time. When you find yourself alone in a silent underwater world, you’ll end up reconsidering your previous thoughts and attitudes, discovering and perceiving completely new things. Thoughts disappear for few long seconds, and this time of enormous silence has a calming and nurturing effect on our restless souls.”
Rest in peace Natalia. Your loss is a loss to us all.