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Hope fades as search continues for lost free diver Natalia Molchanova

A recreational dive turned tragic and possibly deadly for Natalia Molchanova last weekend. Ms. Molchanova was widely regarded as the world's best free diver.

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    In this Aug. 26, 2005 file photo, Natalia Molchanova of Russia reacts after she set a new world record, holding her breath underwater for 7 minutes and 16 seconds, at the first Individual World Freediving Championship in Pool, near Lausanne, Switzerland. The search for free-diving great Natalia Molchanova was set to resume Wednesday with little hope remaining she would be found alive more than two days after disappearing off Spain's Balearic islands. Molchanova was among the most decorated competitors in free-diving, a sport in which participants swim as deeply as they can while holding their breath.
    Fabrice Coffrini/Keystone via AP/File
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For record-setting Russian free diver Natalia Molchanova, plunging headfirst into 100 feet of water with a weight tied around her neck could hardly have seemed like a daunting task. She had dived double that depth in May, setting the world record for the deepest dive without fins, and had once held her breath while lying face-down in a pool for more than nine minutes, Agence France-Presse reported.

But the 98- to 130-foot dive Ms. Molchanova attempted Sunday off the coast of Formentera Island near Ibiza, Spain ultimately resulted in her disappearance, according to a joint statement issued by her family and the international diving organization AIDA.

Spanish rescue forces have been searching for her since the peers she was diving with radioed for help, and they will continue searching until a full week has passed since her disappearance, Spain’s Guardia Civil police told AFP.

But as of Wednesday, Molchanova was presumed dead, and the search moved from underwater to the surface, the Washington Post reported. Molchanova’s family hired a submersible robot that will keep searching underwater while official forces redirect their efforts.

“She was a free-diving superstar, and we all thought nothing could harm her,” AIDA president Kimmo Lahtinen told the New York Times. “Nothing could happen to her, but, you know, we are playing with the ocean, and when you play with the ocean, you know who is the strongest one.”

In the joint statement, AIDA and Molchanova’s family say Molchanova “was separated from her peers” and was probably caught by a “strong underwater current.”

The 53-year-old mother of two holds 41 world records and 23 world championship titles, the statement said, making her the most decorated free diver in the world. According to the Times, she is also the only female diver ever to plunge deeper than 100 meters (about 328 feet), which she did at the world championship in Greece in 2013, the same year her son, Alexey Molchanov, set a men’s depth record at 128 meters (about 420 feet).

“The world has lost its greatest free diver,” Will Trubridge, who holds 15 world records in free diving, told the Times. “I don’t think anybody would dispute that.”

Though “the cause of Natalia’s disappearance is unknown,” the statement said, “she was doing what she loved.” Molchanova told the New York Times last year that free diving helped her “reset.”

“Free diving is not only sport, it’s a way to understand who we are,” she said. “When we go down, if we don’t think, we understand we are whole. We are one with world. When we think, we are separate. On surface, it is natural to think and we have many information inside. We need to reset sometimes. Free diving helps do that.”

Despite the shock of the tragedy, Mr. Molchanov told the Times that if his mother is no longer alive, it is fitting that she died while diving.

“It seems she’ll stay in the sea,” he said. “I think she would like that.”

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