Guillaume Néry is pushing and dragging a trolley stacked high with luggage down the corridors of Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. His young daughter, Maï-Lou, hangs off his back like a little spider monkey. Alongside them is Julie Gautier, girlfriend and mother, filmmaker and Néry’s confidante and freediving partner.
The Néry clan is fleeing the French winter to spend the next four months in French Polynesia: only a 25-hour journey separates them from paradise.
Maï-Lou is now old enough for her parents to get a good night’s sleep and things have been going well recently from a sporting point of view, the one-time world-record holder, having improved one of his many French freediving records at the World Championships in Kalamata, Greece.
But the 31-year-old Frenchman is broody and uncommunicative, as he has been for several weeks, since Nicholas Mevoli, a video producer and experienced freediver from New York, died while taking part in a competition organised by AIDA, freediving’s international governing body.
In May 2013, Mevoli became the first American freediver to pass the 100m mark in the Constant Weight category – diving down alongside a guide line, but not touching it, while wearing fins. Four months later, he won the silver medal in the same category at the World Championships.
On November 17, 2013, in the Bahamas, during an attempt of a 72m Constant Weight Without Fins dive, Mevoli reached his depth and resurfaced as planned. He then fell unconscious in the water during his resurfacing procedure and was taken to hospital where he died, of what was later said to be pulmonary oedema: capillaries bursting under pressure and filling his lungs with blood. “The whole community is in shock,” Néry says.
“Our sport is enormously demanding, from a physical point of view, but I don’t feel it’s dangerous because we have to stick to all these safety procedures. Or should I say I never used to feel it was dangerous? Of course, now I wonder what to do. Does it make sense to carry on? ”Does this mean that one of the world’s best freedivers now fears the deep?
“My only fear is fear itself,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Once it sets in, you lose the cool and serenity you need as you fight for every extra metre. In fact, we have to fight so hard for every extra metre that we can never afford to tense up. That’s the challenge, the art, the fascinating thing.”
A few years ago, in another part of the Bahamas, Néry himself got into severe difficulty.“I dived down to a depth of 80m, doing the breaststroke. When I came back up, I couldn’t breathe, my whole body was tense and I was spitting blood. It was more than five minutes before my breathing returned to normal.”
Unlike Austrian freediver Herbert Nitsch, who suffered the consequences of a 2012 accident, or Loïc Leferme, who died in training in 2007, Néry has resisted the siren call of the ultimate category of freediving, No-Limits, in which aids can be used to dive down next to a guide line, usually a weighted ‘sled’ on the way down and inflatable buoyancy aids on the ascent. The temptation has been strong, but his girlfriend has managed to dissuade him. “She was pretty unequivocal about it. She said, ‘It’s OK if you want to do it, but you have to know you’ll be doing it without me.’”
Néry readily agreed with that ultimatum. “Competing is fascinating, but it’s only scratching the surface. Aesthetics are the really important thing when it comes to freediving. Aesthetics are affirmation; what you do always has to look good.
“When I was a kid, I dreamed of becoming an astronaut and was constantly looking up at the sky. Then one day I saw a documentary about freediving legend Umberto Pelizzari. That was the first time I was confronted with a completely different world.”
Néry and a friend would challenge each other on the school bus: first one to breathe loses. Back in his room after school, Néry would rest his arms on his body and hold his breath for five minutes. He was 14 and hoping to discover far-off galaxies, but he would elude gravity by going down, not up.
Following the online success of the short film Free Fall, which he and Gautier shot together, Néry feels he is more able to convey to others his fascination for freediving.
(Narcosis, the couple’s latest short, is being shown at European film festivals. Gautier operates the camera, following Néry into the depths.)
“The most magical moment is when I escape gravity. It is liberation. It is breaking loose. I fly with my arms open. At those moments I am completely calm. Everything around me becomes one and I become part of that whole.”