Guillaume Néry is pushing and dragging a trolley stacked high with luggage down the corridors of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport. His young daughter, Maï-Lou, hangs off his back like a little spider monkey. Alongside them is Julie Gautier, girlfriend, 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. Things have been going well recently for the family from a sports point of view, with 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, ever since Nicholas Mevoli, a video producer and experienced freediver from New York, died while taking part in a competition organized by AIDA, freediving’s international governing body.
In May 2013, Mevoli had become the first American freediver to pass the 328-foot 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.
But on Nov. 17, 2013, in the Bahamas, while attempting a 236-foot Constant Weight without Fins dive, Mevoli reached his depth, began to resurface as planned, but then fell unconscious in the water. He was taken to a hospital, where he died of what was later said to be pulmonary edema: 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-offactly. “Once it sets in, you lose the cool and serenity you need as you fight for every extra meter. In fact, we have to fight so hard for every extra meter 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 trouble. “I dived down to a depth of 262 feet, 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 deepest 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 to compete in this discipline has been strong for Néry, 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.
His focus, in any case, goes beyond setting records. “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.”
For Néry, the attraction to the sport started as a child. “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 hold his breath for five minutes. He was 14 and hoping to discover faroff galaxies, but he would elude gravity by going down, not up.
He’s now set on sharing that wonder with others. Following the online success of the short film Free Fall, which he and Gautier shot together, the duo’s latest short, Narcosis, 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.”