Herbert Nitsch, a 42-year-old former pilot from Austria, is a world-record-holding freediver. In the sport, athletes take one immense breath of air and dive hundreds of feet below the ocean surface; Nitsch excels in the most dangerous diving discipline of all -- No Limits. In a No Limits dive, the freediver uses a powered sled to descend and ascend rapidly, going hundreds of feet deeper than a diver who is propelled simply by their own swimming. In 2006, Nitsch set the No Limits mark at 600 feet; a year later, he improved his record to 702 feet.
On June 6, 2012, he planned to improve his record to 800 feet, diving off the coast of the Greek island of Santorini. Doctors advised him that it would be impossible to dive so deep. He made it down to that depth -- but things went awry as he returned to the surface. Here, in his first full interview since the attempt, he recalls a day of triumph and tragedy.
the red bulletin: What’s the last thing you remember about the dive?
Herbert Nitsch: I can’t say. We’ve gone over the video material from Santorini dozens of times since then and my memories get mixed up with what I see there. But the important thing is that we can say with some certainty how the accident happened. And that nothing like it had ever happened before.
What exactly happened in the course of the four minutes you were underwater?
I got down to 800 feet as planned. I passed out at a depth of about 328 feet when I was coming back up. What I’d actually planned to do was get off the sled, come to the surface slowly by myself and then wait at a depth of 33 feet for a further minute. In that case, nothing would have happened. But I blacked out through nitrogen narcosis [increased nitrogen content of blood and tissue, due to variation of pressure], even if doctors think it was the bends [increased nitrogen coming out of solution in the blood, forming bubbles] that caused me to faint. In any case, I ascended to 33 feet too quickly. Because I had blacked out, the safety divers rescued me so I didn’t drown.
From the video, we can see that you regained consciousness once you were on the surface, and dived down again straight away. Why was that?
I grabbed some pure oxygen and went back down to 33 feet to counteract the bends. That you must go back down if something happens is so deeply embedded in you as a diver that you do it unconsciously. I can’t remember anything about those few minutes.
From a medical point of view, you probably had a stroke, didn’t you?
Multiple strokes. To cut a long story short, air is 20 percent oxygen and 80 percent nitrogen. During the dive, the oxygen in the blood gets used up and the nitrogen is compressed. If you resurface too quickly, the nitrogen re-expands, almost explosively, and what happens to champagne when you pop the cork is what happens to the blood, which is no good for you at all. The small bubbles of nitrogen that formed when I resurfaced set off a series of strokes.
Where did those small nitrogen bubbles cause the most damage?
Several parts of my brain were affected, luckily mostly in the lower, rear part of the head and not behind the forehead, as that’s where the personality traits are located. So even if I’m a long way from being the person I once was, when it comes to my personality and character, I’m still the same person. I only come across differently on the outside.
Neurological disorders, difficulty finding words, and memory loss are all typical stroke symptoms. You come across as being very on top of things as we speak. Is that deceptive?
Sadly, it is. I am familiar with those problems and suffer from them. But I’ve become pretty good now at finding another way of saying things when I notice that a word isn’t coming to me. If you ask me a two-part question, I’ll probably answer the first part of it and forget the second. I only just remembered the password for my computer recently, by chance. And names ... I’d forgotten almost everyone’s names. I’d be in a fix if it wasn’t for the fact that I’d typed the company people work for next to their names in my phone.
How about your movement?
I’m back to walking on my own two feet. I don’t use a wheelchair, canes, or a walker. That’s all great progress, but it still looks awkward, as if I’m made of wood. And if I don’t concentrate, my right leg wobbles as if it is dangling off my hip. If I try to run, it looks even funnier, like a cross between goose-stepping and the Lambada.
Your speech only very occasionally betrays a shakiness.
If I try to speak fast or there are more complicated words, it’s too fast for my tongue, or rather, too fast for the nerve conduction between my brain and my tongue. It ends up sounding slurred, like I’m a bit drunk. Oddly, English comes to me much more easily than my native German. I have no idea why. Yes, and in general the right side of my body is still very restricted in what it can do.
And you’re right-handed?
Yes, I am. It would be a complete mess if I tried to pour tea into a cup with my right hand, for example. I’ve had to learn to write with my left hand, even if just for the sake of having a signature again. If I use my right hand, my handwriting looks scrawly, like an elementary school kid trying to impersonate an adult, writing every letter differently. I always start brushing my teeth with my right hand to give it practice; I only switch to my left hand when my shoulder gets too tired.
So you are fully aware of all your physical impediments?
Fully aware -- and not forgetting the loss of memory! I can see, hear, and feel all that with complete clarity. I notice it when I can’t recall the name of someone I’ve actually known for years. It can be embarrassing, too. I once asked a girl I used to go out with if we knew each other. In good moments, humor and self-deprecation help. In bad, it’s enough to drive you crazy.
How does someone who has had tremendous success deal with this frailty?
Sometimes I’m sad that I am so aware of it all. Sometimes I’m grateful. Sad because sometimes it’s very depressing, and grateful because only then can I commit to working to improve things.
It’s been over nine months since the accident. Has your situation improved much in that time?
I’m getting better all the time, but still a long way from being well.
How is your rehab going?
I do a lot of things myself, such as balance exercises like standing on one leg or reading a book to myself out loud at home to improve my pronunciation. For a while I underwent rehab at the Meidling Hospital in Vienna, but they’re not set up for cases like mine. How could they be?
Basically, the clinical outpatient rehab was the same for me as it was for a 75-year-old stroke victim who weighed 220 lbs. and had never done any sports in his life. You build little towers out of colored wooden blocks, or you don’t because you’re not dexterous enough, and the blocks fall off the table -- things that are so easy to do, making it all the worse when you can’t do them. It’s humiliating. Sometimes, you think the patients whose brains are affected are better off. They don’t understand the state they’re in.
What about any feelings of despair, fear, or anger?
No anger. Some fear. Mostly despair. As much despair as you can imagine. It was really bad at the beginning, after I’d stayed at a clinic in Greece followed by rehab in Germany. There were tubes coming out of my body in places where there weren’t meant to be holes. You can hear the doctors and nurses whispering about you. You don’t really want to hear it, but then you can’t be deaf to it either. The snippets that you pick up sound so awful that you think nothing will come of it all. I was incredibly scared that I’d remain in need of total care. I thought if that’s the case, it’s better to just end the whole thing now.
Can you be specific about what you were thinking about?
I sat in my wheelchair on the balcony in the rehab center, looked down and thought: It’s a two-story drop. That might hurt. It was earth down below, not pavement, which meant the chances of survival were unfavorably high. I have a good friend who’s a trauma surgeon. She once told me about people who’d tried but hadn’t succeeded and what they ended up looking like. So I wanted to play it safe and decided to postpone that until I was back in Vienna. I live on the 26th floor there, after all.
How did you stop thinking like that?
A lot of things improved. And I promised my father.
So lust for life was actually a matter of discipline and how much self-pity you allowed yourself?
Yes, it was. My daily life is now a training camp. If I’m on the telephone, I pace up and down, to practice walking. I go shopping to face people. I’ve started going out again in the evening, too; whereas that used to be a pleasure, it’s now part of my training program. I had to prove to myself that I could do it.
Are there things doctors have told you you’ll never be able to do again?
The doctors? Forget them. If their initial prognoses are anything to go by, it’s a miracle I’m where I am today. I’ve decided, for the time being, that someone who doesn’t know anything about the accident can’t recognize the consequences.
Will you ever dive again?
I already have -- on one of the last nice autumn days at the end of September in Neufelder See, a lake near Vienna. Only to a depth of 10 feet, but it was nice. Nothing can happen to you in the water there: You can’t fall over, you can’t hurt yourself. But I really enjoyed swimming. It went a lot better than I thought it would, from a technical point of view. I didn’t know if I might end up splashing about like a dog. My right arm and leg might have been uncoordinated, but I still swam faster than some of the other swimmers.
You took freediving to places that were deemed impossible previously, experiencing things no one had before you. Was it worth it?
Do the highs justify the lows, you mean? My highs were the lows, after all!
But do your career and success justify the consequences of the accident?
No. If I’d known that this is how it would turn out, I wouldn’t have done it. Ever.
Did you simply go beyond a point humans aren’t supposed to pass?
Yes and no. No, because I was always much more cautious and always more aware of the dangers than everyone else. I wasn’t an adventurer. I was a long way from being a risk taker. I’ve given a lot to the sport, especially when it comes to safety. If nothing else it’s what made me so good. You won’t get any better at freediving if you behave more stupidly. You get better the cleverer you are.
So how did you end up overdoing it?
I went through with the world-record attempt in Santorini even though there were bad signs. I shouldn’t have done it. It was a chain of unfortunate circumstances there, Murphy’s Law in its purest form. There was bad weather; the boat broke free because it wasn’t anchored properly; a fishing boat caught our anchor and dragged our boat away; we didn’t have a pressure chamber on site for financial reasons; partners backed out. There were a lot of organizational things in the run-up, unexpected problems with authorities, disagreements with sponsors. For example, at 2 a.m. on the night before the incident, I was up signing a contract. I think I can say if just one of those things hadn’t happened, everything would have been okay. Regular bad luck wouldn’t have been a problem.
You took care of all the paperwork yourself?
The organizational side of things in Santorini was meant to be taken care of by the main sponsor, but after preliminary negotiations, the agreement fell apart and so I had to do it all myself. Some people helped out, like my father, who organized the whole rescue process.
With respect, isn’t spending your time on admin instead of dive preparation entirely unprofessional?
I rarely slept more than four hours a night in the weeks running up to the attempt, as there was so much to organize. On the one hand, I’d planned a completely different set-up for Santorini, but then the sponsor left me in the lurch at the last minute because they suddenly had very different ideas to the ones we’d agreed to. On the other, things had developed in such a way over the years that I looked after my own affairs myself. For me, diving has never been about money. It has always been my hobby. Sponsors came to me; it wasn’t me going to them.
Is it true that the representative from AIDA, the world body for freediving, was with you in Santorini but left before the record attempt?
Oh, that didn’t matter. I didn’t even know that someone had come. AIDA is sponsored by a competitor of my sponsors and effectively wanted to sell my record as their sponsor’s achievement. We reached an agreement at first, but then they backpedaled at the last minute. It wasn’t AIDA rejecting me. It was me uninviting AIDA.
But any world record wouldn’t have been officially recognized?
I couldn’t care less about that. Firstly, there are other organizations, and secondly, I had almost a dozen measuring computers down there with me. Recognition from some association or other makes no difference.
With the preparation on Santorini far from ideal, you could have just said, “Sorry guys, we’ve got to wait a few days.” Why didn’t you?
There were a couple of dozen journalists from all over the world there, as well as the sponsors. So there was pressure in that respect, and also financially, because I had invested $135,000 of my own money in the event. Delaying it would have meant a great loss of money and media interest. I often thought about putting it off.
What finally made you decide to go through with it?
My ultimate goal wasn’t the 800 feet I was going to descend to in Santorini. It was 1,000 feet, which I knew was possible too -- 800 feet was just a staging post, a good practice run. We weren’t even close to the limit. It’s the same as asking Usain Bolt to run 100 meters in under 10 seconds. You don’t need perfect conditions for that. I thought my eardrums would burst, and that I’d have a couple of weeks of pain, tops. It didn’t seem important whether I had a couple of hours more or less sleep at night. That was probably my mistake.
What are your plans for the future?
First, I need to keep working on myself, physically and mentally. But what most people don’t know is that even before Santorini, competitive freediving was perhaps only five percent of what I did. I gave quite a lot of lectures. My experience as a professional pilot and freediver covers a lot: organizational optimization, risk management, crisis management. So that should be one mainstay.
And, because one sledmaker left me in the lurch, a friend and I built my sled together. We did things that were considered impossible, and I learned how to work with carbon and fiberglass in the process. I’d like to use this skill and build a boat I can live on and travel overseas and give lectures. A 50-foot boat -- sporty, economical, environmentally sound -- that can survive for months on solar panels alone. And there are plans for a new type of submarine. There have already been a dozen men who’ve stepped foot on the moon, but only three have been to the depths of the ocean. So that’s a great challenge.
How low did you actually go off the coast of Santorini?
The computers show that I went down to 820 feet, and some other measurements say 818 feet. But I don’t want to boast about that. From my point of view, I failed.
What’s the record now, in your view?
Intuitively, I’m more likely to say 702 feet. But to tell the truth, I don’t care now.
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