Kerry Hollowell's ambitious goal: Dive deeper than any other American woman in history

Alex St. Jean

Kerry Hollowell is aiming to break the U.S. women's free diving record in September by propelling herself with a monofin 279 feet underwater.

Kerry Hollowell sits at a leg-press machine in a gym in Greenville, North Carolina, closes her eyes and transports herself to a sun-splashed Greek island in the Mediterranean.

She pictures herself not with an umbrella drink on a sunning lounge, but in a hooded wetsuit lying on her back on the surface of the sea, her head supported by a flotation ring, her feet wedged into a large monofin like a mermaid's tail.

Alex St. Jean

Kerry Hollowell, 41, ran the 800 and 1,500 meters while on the track team at NC State and didn't begin free diving until her 30s.

She is in a meditative state, focused on her breathing, when she takes one long, deep breath, holds it and starts to slowly pump her legs, simulating the kick that will send her headfirst down 10 meters, 20 meters, 30 meters.

Then she sits still for 1 minute and 20 seconds, still not breathing, picturing her free fall, as gravity pulls her down into the enveloping silence, as if flying in the sea.

All the while she is visualizing a descent that, if all goes according to plan this summer, will be the dive that breaks the women's United States record of 84 meters, or 276 feet, for a fin-propelled free dive. That's a dive on a single breath, with no breathing apparatus -- just her lungs, legs and body propelling her the equivalent length of a 25-story building, and then back up again.

Hollowell, 41, is considered to be the one American woman who currently has a credible shot of breaking that record. It was set last year by her friend Ashley Chapman, another North Carolinian who is pregnant and not competing this summer. After six years of essentially winging it as a competitor in international free diving events, this year Hollowell dedicated herself to a new training regimen that includes a renowned coach, new diving techniques and dryland exercises like the leg presses.

In an ideal world, she would be on a sailboat in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean or the Red Sea with all the time she needs to practice free diving, fearlessly and effortlessly plunging hundreds of feet into the deep blue. In the real world, Hollowell is an emergency room doctor in rural Tarboro, North Carolina, with limited time for deep sea training. She is attempting to overcome the mental and physical barriers that have kept her from sinking below 75 meters, a depth she hit last year in Honduras.

Not that 75 meters isn't insanely impressive. Only a few dozen women in the world have descended deeper. But it's just not enough for Hollowell. So she will compete in a world championship event this week in Roatan, Honduras, aiming to sink to between 75 and 80 meters. And if all goes well, she will attempt to set a new women's U.S. record at the Authentic Big Blue, a competition that begins on Sept. 16 in Greece.

That event is being held in the waters where the cult hit "The Big Blue" was filmed 29 years ago. The movie is credited with spurring mainstream interest in an extreme sport that has since spread to some 35 countries. Free diving continues to attract a growing number of divers and to spin off new competitions each year, though sponsorships and prize money are minimal.

American women are still bit players in the sport. Most of the records and deepest dives belong to women from Europe, Japan, Russia and New Zealand. Only one U.S. woman, Chapman, is ranked among the top 20 females for the fin-propelled dives, known as constant weight. Hollowell is ranked 35th in the world. Their dives are far from the record of 104 meters set by Alessia Zecchini of Italy in April.

If my mind starts thinking about what I'm doing it freaks out a little bit.
Kerry Hollowell

Just how deep Hollowell can go is unknown. But her admirers in the tight-knit community of divers believe she has a unique combination of attributes that are perfect for the sport, including a command of the physiology of diving.

"I think personally she has the talent and the character of a real champion," said Aharon Solomons, a legendary free diving coach based in Eilat, Israel. He started working with Hollowell this summer, introducing her to the seemingly counterintuitive technique of empty lung diving, in which Hollowell breathes out completely and dives 10 to 20 meters, a maneuver that helps fortify her system against lung injury.

"She is a magnificent woman and a damn fine athlete and very mature in her judgment," he said.

That she came to the sport in her 30s, was a Division I track athlete at NC State, and has worked to advance the safety of the sport as the medical director for its governing body known as AIDA (the International Association for the Development of Apnea) "make her one of the more compelling characters in the sport," said author and friend Adam Skolnick. "And she's just a really nice person and a lot of fun, too."

Skolnick got to know Hollowell as he wrote the book "One Breath: Freediving, Death, And The Quest To Shatter Human Limits," about the 2013 death of U.S. free diver Nicholas Mevoli while attempting to set his second U.S. record. It was the sole fatality in 25 years of AIDA competitions.

Alex St. Jean

In the first 20 meters of a dive, Kerry Hollowell uses the air in her mouth to pop her ears in order to keep her eardrums from bursting.

Hollowell took up the sport in 2011 because her then-boyfriend had discovered it, and within a year she figured out how to dive to a depth of 58 meters in her first competition. In recent years, she was stuck at 70 meters before she cracked 75 meters last year. That inspired her to target the national record.

Her biggest obstacles have been maintaining enough air to equalize the pressure in her ears so they don't rupture when she descends -- and overcoming the fears that often grip her deep below the surface. In the first 20 meters, she uses the air in her mouth to constantly pop her ears. When that runs out, she has learned to move more air from her lungs into her mouth to continue her descent. This spring, she made strides in relaxing and being one with the sea during a yoga, meditation and free diving course with Sara Campbell in Dahab on the Red Sea in Egypt.

Hollowell is still working on manipulating enough air for equalization below 70 meters. And she hasn't yet managed to shake the terrifying thoughts deep down that she could die from these dives.

"I know that I'm going to make it back to the surface alive; maybe there's a primal thing, I don't know," she said. "It's like if my mind starts thinking about what I'm doing it freaks out a little bit."

Intellectually, she knows she should be safe, that she can hold her breath for the 2 minutes and 40 seconds that an 85-meter dive should require, that her body genetically responds to water and the deep -- constricting blood vessels in her arms and legs so core organs like the lungs and heart get more oxygenated blood, protecting the chest from collapse by expanding the capillaries around the compressed alveoli sacs in the lungs.

And though her oxygen-deprived legs burn and tingle as she ascends, her euphoria rises, too, as she feels the water passing over her, her lungs and sinuses expanding as if being infused with fresh air.

But Mevoli might still be haunting her; she couldn't dive to even 50 meters in the first competition after his November 2013 death.

"I couldn't let it go," she said. "He followed me down there."

Hollowell is not completely sure she has gotten over that. She's trying to shove out any negative thoughts -- to tune into the beauty and bliss of the deep, the embrace of the sea, the shafts of sun slanting down into the blue, lighting the coral ranges and the colorful fish.

"If I just let go and relax and enjoy the moment, I have a pleasant dive," she said. "If you can choose peace, it's a way better experience."

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