Red Bulletin Magazine New Zealand

Red Bulletin: Beyond the possible

1303_ATDECH_Nitsch_PhilSimha ©Phil Simha

Herbert Nitsch is the best freediver the world has ever seen. A man who could hold his breath for 10 minutes and dive down more than 200m into the ocean. In defiance of medical science, he attempted to break his own world record. What happened was unprecedented.

Herbert Nitsch, a 42-year-old former pilot from Austria, has broken 31 records in a broad range of freediving disciplines. He is the current record-holder in the toughest and most dangerous discipline of all, No Limits, in which the freediver goes as deep as possible into the ocean on one breath, with the help of a powered sled on both the descent and ascent. In 2006, Nitsch set the No Limits mark at 183m; a year later, he improved his record to 214m. On June 6 last year, he planned to improve his record to 244m, diving off the coast of the Greek island of Santorini. Doctors advised him that it would be impossible to dive so deep. 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 during the course of the four minutes you were underwater?
I got down to 244m as planned. I passed out at a depth of about 100m 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 10m 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, the sled and an unconscious Herbert Nitsch ascended to 10m too quickly. The sled stopped automatically and because I had blacked out, the safety divers rescued me so I didn’t drown, because I was strapped to the sled.

From the video, we can see that you came round 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 10m 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 per cent oxygen and 80 per cent 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.

“What happens to champagne when you pop the cork is what happens to the blood”

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. Have any of these, or other problems, manifested themselves?
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, walking sticks or a Zimmer frame. 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.

Are you 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 a primary school kid trying to impersonate an adult, writing every letter differently. I always start brushing my teeth with my right hand to give it practise; I only switch to my left hand when my shoulder gets too tired.

Read the full story in March's issue of The Red Bulletin.

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