‘The life and soul of freediving’: sport pays tribute to Natalia Molchanova

She pushed the boundaries of freediving for 12 years, her habit of setting world records earning her the nickname the Machine.

But Natalia Molchanova – the Russian considered the greatest freediver of all time – is now feared dead after failing to surface after a recreational dive with friends off the Spanish island of Formentera at the weekend.

The tightknit community devoted to freediving, or diving without breathing apparatus, has reacted with shock. Commentator Stephan Whelan said: “This came as a complete surprise. She wasn’t trying to go for any records, or push herself at all, she was just on holiday, relaxing with some friends.”

Molchanova, 53, holds 41 world records in freediving and can hold her breath for nine minutes. In May, she dived to a depth of 71 metres in waters off Egypt.

“She almost consistently set two to three world records every year. And in 2005, she set nine different world records,” said Whelan. “She was amazing at churning out these freedive records. We had never seen anything like it.”

In 2013, Molchanova swam 182 metres underwater with no fins at the world championships in Belgrade, breaking the record by 19 metres.

At the following year’s world championship in Sardinia she broke the world record with a fin by swimming for 237 metres. In total she won 20 world championship individual golds.

A fierce competitor in the water, Molchanova was described by Whelan as the “most lovely, sweet, charming person who is absolutely the life and soul of the freediving global community”.

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On Wednesday, Alexey Molchanov, her son and a champion freediver himself, told the Guardian that after three days, the underwater search had been called off. The search for his mother would now continue by air.

Friends reported Molchanova missing on Sunday, after she failed to surface from a 35-metre (115ft) dive without fins near La Savina port on Formentera, a small island south of Ibiza. Soon after, the local coastguard, Guardia Civil officers and a helicopter arrived to search the area.

The search continued until sunset, said Miguel Félix Chicón, head of Spain’s coastguard in the Balearic islands. “We combed the entire zone and ruled out the possibility that she was near the surface,” he said.

He noted that the skies were clear and the sea was calm on Sunday, and that conditions had remained similar since then.

Molchanova was diving in an area known for strong currents, where the water temperature can dip sharply once divers get below the surface – something that can affect even the most experienced of divers.

Chicón said Molchanova was believed to be wearing weights, often used by freedivers to help the descent by counteracting the buoyancy of a wetsuit. Rescue workers, having failed to find Molchanova near the surface, believe she did not remove the weights, pushing the search to the depths of the sea on Monday. “The area being searched reaches depths of around 80 metres. And those depths make things very complicated,” Chicón said.

An underwater robot was brought in on Tuesday to widen the search area, working alongside a specialised team from the Guardia Civil who carried out short dives fuelled by a blend of helium, nitrogen and oxygen to survive the depths.

Whelan said an incident like Molchanova’s was practically unheard of. “Recreationally there have been very, very few deaths,” he said. “And there’s only been one reported death in over 20 years of organised competition. That’s one in probably tens of thousands of dives in competition.”

On Wednesday, many in the freedive community paid their tributes to Molchanova, including Sara Campbell, a former world champion and for many years Molchanova’s main rival. “I called her the Queen,” Campbell said. “She is the greatest freediver that the world has ever seen and quite possibly that the world will ever see. It’s absolutely tragedy that she’s gone in this way. It seems to have be freak accident, But she lived for the ocean and ultimately every freediver would be quite happy to go that way.”

The British freediver, who beat Molchanova to a gold medal in her first world championships in 2007, said she was amazed when Molchanova, on her 50th birthday, set the world record to 70m with no fins. “The tragic irony was she lost her life in the same discipline, no fins, but just playing in depths of 30m or 40m. Whether it was the current, or something happened, I just hope they can find her body and some answers as to what caused her death.”

Campbell lashed out at those criticising the sport in the wake of Molchanova’s disappearance. “What makes me really angry is people who don’t know anything about the sport making judgment that we are all stupid, reckless and irresponsible because we are not, and if you compare the safety record of freediving to scuba diving there is no comparison,” she said.

Calling Molchanova a pioneer, Kimmo Lahtinen of the freediving governing body AIDA, said she constantly pushed the boundaries, carving out a path for others in the sport to follow. “Of course people like that are playing with a different kind of risk in their lives, probably because they are curious to know who they are and what kinds of things they can do.”

Few would have ever thought such an incident would befall freediving’s superstar, he said. “But when you are in the ocean, the ocean is the unknown. It’s not about win or lose, the ocean is just bigger, stronger and something that human beings don’t understand yet.”