The 'why' behind Audrey Mestre
If you're able for a moment to accept the difficult challenge of setting aside the disturbing end to Audrey Mestre's life, an accident so unutterably sad it still makes friends dab away tears even a decade later, it is possible to make it all the way back to the original wonder in Mestre's story: her extreme athlete's mind that refused to accept limits. The individualist who had her own reasons for pushing herself to underwater depths no man or woman had gone to before. But pushing through to that part of her story requires a little bravery yourself.
Because parts of that story are harrowing.
In significant ways, a deep-water free diver like Mestre is no different from other extreme athletes such as skydiver Felix Baumgartner or long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, high-wire walkers Nik Wallenda or Philippe Petit. Each of them is as unique as a fingerprint. And yet, in still other ways, they share a sameness that might surprise you. Because when they inevitably are asked to explain why it is that they do what they do -- or to describe that mystical tipping point when the joy or thrill or love of it overrides any fear or doubt they might have -- it's as if they're speaking the same language across sports and time. Many of them say they feel more comfortable underwater or high in the clouds than on firm ground.
They usually flip the question of "Why go?" and talk about how they can't bear not trying to push the envelope. And after they do go? The feelings and motivations they describe are stunningly alike. They talk in spiritual terms, and even use remarkably similar words and phrases sometimes.
What they're after aren't just measurable benchmarks such as first this, fastest that, longest this. It's a feeling of transcendence. Comparing the universe on the outside to the one inside of them when they push everything until it all collides.
In Mestre's case, the precise question to her was what made her want to try to reset the deep-diving world record by traveling 170 meters underwater and back to the surface again -- all on just a single breath, and all while clinging to a weighted sled that is attached to a cable and was supposed to take her rocketing back to the surface in less than 50 seconds after she opened a small "pony" tank of compressed air. Emphasis on "supposed to."
The quest that brought Mestre to that day is chillingly detailed in "No Limits," an ESPN Films and espnW Nine for IX documentary (premieres July 23 on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET) that revisits her story and how she died at age 28 while attempting her last record attempt during a controversial dive in the Dominican Republic. It also left Francisco "Pipin" Ferreras -- her husband, mentor and fellow world-record free diver 13 years her senior -- accused of everything from abject carelessness to runaway egotism to suspicions of sabotage, even speculation about whether it was outright murder.
Pipin admitted he loved attention, money, records.
But what were Mestre's reasons? As a girl in France, she was enchanted with the sea. As a teenager, she had to wear a back brace in her high school years to cure scoliosis that she feared might never go away. The water was also the only place she could move with blessed freedom in those years -- she often joked she felt like a mermaid, more comfortable down there among the dolphins and seals and manta rays that she swam with after becoming an accredited scuba diver, then a marine biology student in Mexico. Other divers used to remark among themselves how strange it was that sea creatures always seemed to be drawn toward Audrey rather than swimming away from her.
But competitive free diving? That was something Mestre tried at Pipin's urging after they began their whirlwind relationship in Mexico, and she followed him to Miami. Ferreras warned Mestre the deeper she dared go, the more "freaky" it might feel. But Mestre, a natural from the start, said what she discovered instead way down there was, "You meet the other person that lives inside you. The one in control of everything: your mind."
That's strikingly similar to something Nyad said before her second thwarted attempt to make the 103-mile swim from Cuba to Key West in 2011: "Going on takes looking into that mirror of yourself, and finding the soul."
Mestre didn't have a competitive bone in her body, according to friends. Setting records wasn't Petit's aim, either, when the Frenchman set out to make his still unfathomable 60-yard high wire walk between the World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974 after pulling off smaller-scale tightrope capers at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Harbour Bridge in Sydney.
Although the wind that day in New York was whipping the cable that he and his team had snuck in to set up overnight, Petit -- then just a mop-headed 24-year-old wearing a black shirt, black pants and black ballet slippers -- spent 45 minutes traveling back and forth on the cable. His face was a mask of concentration at the start, but his expression soon became one of sheer reverie. He even dared to lie down at one point with one leg wrapped around the wire, luxuriating there with a blissed-out smile on his face. But again, how? How could that be?
Petit, reliving it last year in a riveting TED talk he gave, said he knew he would be stepping on a wire "which sags. Which sways. Which vibrates. Which rolls on itself. ... Which is three tons tight, ready to explode."
He readily admitted that, before he took his first step, "An inner howl assailed me, a wild longing to flee. But it is too late. ... Faith is what replaces doubt in my dictionary. ... Improvisation is empowering, because it welcomes the unknown. It allows me to believe I can cheat the impossible."
Petit would also argue that none of that is reckless. And that's another distinction extreme athletes share. Many of them contend they're not daredevils at all -- not if by that you mean people who conjure up wild stunts and then wing it.
The truth is just the opposite, they say. Which is another reason Mestre's death left Ferreras scorned in the diving world.
Petit spent 6½ years meticulously planning his "coup" that was revisited in the terrific, 2008 Oscar-winning film "Man on Wire."
Nyad, now 62, is in Key West, hoping to make a fourth attempt at her Cuba-to-Florida swim any day now, but still tweaking the myriad details as she goes, with help from a world-class team that includes sailors, meteorologists, a nutritionist, an expert on ocean currents, doctors and trainers who will monitor her jellyfish stings, her liquids intake and 700-calorie-an-hour diet when she's in the water, and whether her lucidity starts to dangerously slip in the 60 hours of nonstop swimming she reckons a completed trip will take.
Baumgartner, an Austrian who now spends significant time in the United States, spent four years marshaling his team of scientists and technology whizzes and medical experts to help him with his 2012 leap from a helium-balloon-powered space capsule he piloted to the "edge of space" 24 miles above the ground. You could see the curve of the earth from where he ascended. The videos of him throwing open a hatch, leaping off the gondola and rapidly shrinking into a speck in the void below were extraordinary.
It looked like a sci-fi movie, not real. "This generation's moon landing," Baumgartner called it. His last words before his jump, which was being watched worldwide on a live video stream, were, "I wish you could see what I can see. Sometimes you have to be up really high to see how small you are.
"I am going home now."
Baumgartner broke the sound barrier while still in his free fall. For a while, his body was completing one 360-degree spin per second. Imagine that. He was wearing a specially designed, million-dollar space suit that was created with help from NASA to prevent the atmospheric changes from killing him as he fell. And then, after all that, he still had to hope his comparatively old-fashioned parachute opened as he neared the ground.
But while Baumgartner believes in moving on to the next goal while he's still ahead -- the more you keep trying dangerous things, the greater the chance something can go wrong, he told CBS earlier this month -- Tanya Streeter, the free diver whose record Mestre was trying to break the day she died, flatly insisted in "No Limits" that she was "not at risk" during her own attempts.
How did she figure that? "A lot of people get scared about things they don't know or understand," Streeter explains, mentioning her meticulous planning, as well. "I have a huge [20-person] safety team.
"I think downhill skiing is bat-s--- nuts."
The day Streeter set her last world record, she had a battalion of 16 safety divers stationed underwater at regular depth intervals, ready to help if something went wrong; Mestre had only two, even though each leg of the dive -- once down, once back -- was equivalent to a 56-story building. Ferreras managed the technical details of all his wife's dives and ran her fatal attempt on a financial shoestring, according to his business partner and right-hand man, Carlos Serra. There were numerous other calamities, too. The "doctor" Pipin had on board the boat? He turned out to be a dentist who was unprepared to handle the condition Mestre was in when she was brought to the surface after more than eight minutes underwater instead of the hoped-for three. By then, she had a faint pulse but was brain dead.
Of course, Mestre herself could have refused to continue the dive that day.
There had been a storm that morning. The sea was choppy. It isn't clear whether she knew of the safety shortcuts Pipin had taken and assented, or whether she just wanted to get the dive over with. But other members of the team knew she was thinking of divorcing him, in part because of his furious temper. He was such an admitted egotist, they wondered how he really felt about the fact she was about to surpass his personal best. Many of the crew members later described how Audrey had been in a strangely morose mood before she began meditating for the dive. "This is not good," Serra thought to himself.
So, why did she let her record attempt go on anyway?
Serra was so upset by Mestre's death that he spent several years reconstructing everything that happened. He was chasing the "why?" too. He talked to the participants, compared stories, pounced on the details and contradictions and new information he found and wrote a book, "The Last Attempt," in which he scathingly criticizes Ferreras.
Serra speculates that Ferreras might have deliberately left the tank that was supposed to bring Mestre to the surface empty so he could have been the hero who rescued her before she surpassed him. Serra writes why else had Ferreras told the crew to prepare a scuba tank for him before Mestre made her descent? Ferreras had never before done that. Why, too, had Ferreras been practicing the quick descents and ascents as Mestre trained for her dive? That was new, too.
Ferreras also wrote a book after Mestre died, and he called his, "The Dive." He did mention Audrey's death was the third on diving expeditions he ran (counting two safety divers in his employ who had drowned on other dive attempts). What he didn't note was, at that point, there had been no deaths in any other No Limits dives.
But near the end of his book, Ferreras does write that perhaps he pushed too hard to have Mestre add tens of meters to her record attempt of 561 feet, acknowledging that advances are usually made in smaller increments. At those depths, the pressure reduces a diver's lungs to the size of oranges; their heart rates often slow to less than 30 beats a minute. They might get loopy from nitrogen narcosis. He allows he could've taken more safety precautions, too. He even concedes his hubris did get in the way, but "isn't that what it's all about? Quien es mas macho?"
Who is more macho?
"It was blind ambition on my part," he wrote, "and blind devotion on hers."
But Mestre had a romance with the sea long before her romance with Ferreras. In the end, it appears both loves sealed her fate. But as anyone who operates at such extremes will tell you, surrendering to such a pull, chasing that intensity, or trying to exhaust a love so great while trying to avoid letting it lead to your own self-extinction, is the point. And the wonder.