“I definitely felt like I belonged there in that moment,” Artnik said. “It felt so right.”
Yet by the time the alarm on her dive watch chimed at 109 meters, five meters above her target depth, she’d been underwater for almost two minutes. She opened her eyes, and when she reached the end of the line at 114 meters, grabbed one of the fluttering tags at the end it, turned and started her ascent toward the surface. To reach light and air again, she’d have to swim against the weight of the water, which feels like swimming against a current.
Her next breath was still almost two minutes away.
Artnik didn’t discover free diving until she was 30 years old. At the time, she was managing a skate shop in Slovenia, and lacked purpose. “I was drinking quite a lot and sort of sabotaging myself,” she said. “I felt that I had something more to give.”
In December 2011, on a lark she jumped into a pool workout where a group of seven beginners and intermediate free divers performed underwater laps. She held her breath and joined them. She was hooked immediately. She took her first free diving course in the open water the following spring and reached 28 meters (92 feet) in the Mediterranean Sea.
After her father died in 2013 and the skate shop went out of business in 2015, Artnik sold her family house and traveled to Egypt, training in deep water full time. Back then her personal best was 49 meters (161 feet).
That’s advanced, not elite.
When Molchanova disappeared, she was the only woman to have surpassed 100 meters, setting the world record at 101 meters (331 feet). Her death left a void at the top of the sport, especially among women. But in May 2018, Alessia Zecchini of Italy pushed the mark to 105 meters (344 feet). Later that year, Artnik shocked much of the free diving world by matching it. Days later, Zecchini extended the record to 107 meters (351 feet).
In August 2019, Artnik broke Zecchini’s world record for the first time at the CMAS World Championships in Roatán, Honduras, with a dive to 111 meters (364 feet). By the end of that event Artnik and Zecchini held the record together at 113 meters (371 feet).
The two have become close as they have electrified women’s free diving by hitting depths even the great Molchanova never approached. They were expected this year to continue to push the limits of the sport and one another. But the pandemic forced the cancellation of competitions from Europe to Asia to the Caribbean. Nationwide lockdowns made training difficult.