No Limits, the latest installment in ESPN’s Nine for IX documentary series celebrating women in sports, tells the tale of French diver Audrey Mestre, who in 2002 attempted to break a record of the deepest free dive—with tragic results.
For a sport that requires relatively little movement, no-limits free diving is challenging and risky. Quite simply, the diver plunges into the sea on a weighted sled attached to a line. Once at the target depth, she activates an air tank above her head that quickly propels her back to the surface. The tricky part: it all happens as she’s holding her breath. At the world-record depth, the dive takes a little over three minutes.
Unlike other extreme sports, the risk of no-limits free diving is not injury in the traditional sense, but metabolic stress. At great depths, the sea exerts pressure on the body that affects heart rate, lung compression, and blood shift. This causes many divers to black out during or after their ascent. If they don’t resurface in time before their lungs run out of air, the result can be fatal.
Mestre surely knew about these risks when she became a diver, shortly after marrying Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras, a legend in the sport. A record-breaker himself and an adventurer (and 12 years Mestre’s senior), the Cuban-born Ferreras dazzled her when they met. They soon courted and wed, and she began to join him on his nautical exploits, swimming with marine animals and exploring new seas. One cohort called her “the original mermaid.” The documentary devotes much time to praising her beauty, both visually and verbally. One interview compares their marriage to Beauty and the Beast—though no fairy-tale ending awaited them.
Soon Ferreras was pushing Mestre to set diving records of her own. He was said to be past his prime, seldom able to accomplish a dive without blacking out on resurfacing, and he may have been jealous of British diver Tanya Streeter, who set a record of 160 meters in August 2002. As his protégée, Ferreras was convinced Mestre could—and would—beat that. (“If I’m honest,” Streeter told ESPN, “I think the reason that Pipin pushed Audrey was because Pipin couldn’t do it himself.”)
If the film has depicted Ferreras as fiercely ambitious before this moment in the story, he now becomes a full-fledged, overbearing egomaniac. Rumors fly that Mestre is angry with Ferreras, looking for a divorce, or perhaps pregnant. The day before the dive, a fellow diver notes, she has a tiny bruise below one eye. The morning of, she seems to be in a foul mood.
The film draws a stark contrast between Streeter’s and Mestre’s dives—both of which have remarkable video footage that allow us to watch the women in action, as well as their support staff on the surface. Though Streeter has two small snafus (she packs too much air into her lungs and briefly blacks out before beginning, then in a discombobulated state almost forgets to trigger the air to take herself back up from the bottom of her line), Mestre encounters multiple stumbling blocks. When she gets to the bottom of her line, she pulls the trigger to no avail—the air tank is empty. (Ferreras had allegedly told crew members that he had taken care of it and wouldn’t allow them to touch the tank before the dive.)
One of her safety divers sees the trouble with the air and attaches a new tank to send her back up, but it doesn’t work quite right, and she ascends much too slowly. The biggest problem: compared with Streeter’s 16 deep-water safety divers to help her in case of trouble, Mestre has only two: one at 170 meters and one at 80. So by the time she reaches the 80-meter mark, she’s already in a dire state—she’s let go of the airbag and is floating in the water.
Meanwhile, on the boat, Ferreras sees that the dive has gone horribly wrong when the airbag resurfaces without his wife on board. He dives down to the 80-meter mark himself, where safety diver No. 2 is stuck with Mestre in his arms—having inhaled from an oxygen tank throughout his dive, he can’t ascend himself without first decompressing his lungs for several hours. Ferreras carries his wife to the surface and attempts to revive her. At this point, she still has a pulse, but is passed out and foaming at the mouth and nose. The doctor who everyone thought was on board turns out to be a dentist with no knowledge of hyperbaric medicine; there’s no body board onshore, and the rescuers have to carry Mestre’s limp body to the infirmary on a beach chair. By the time she finally reaches a hospital, she has perished.
No Limits is less a movie about female athleticism than about male domination. The film paints Ferreras as incompetent at best and villainous at worst. Even the characters who defend his intentions stop short of declaring him guilt-free in his wife’s death. No one in the film goes on record to say he purposefully left the air tank empty to murder Mestre (though anonymous Web commentators did after the accident). But many imply negligence or worse, and one even wrote a book, The Last Attempt, positing that Ferreras left Mestre without air in order to get credit for a heroic rescue mission. However, with no comment from Ferreras himself—and no criminal charges having ever been brought—it’s all just speculation.
Mestre’s role in the film is that of a tragic siren, too beautiful for such ill treatment and bested by her equally gorgeous rival only because, of the two husband-managers, Streeter’s took greater care to protect her with thoughtful planning and extra resources.
The story is compelling, even heartbreaking, and it would likely lose momentum with more of a focus on Mestre’s training. Yet in a series on women in sports, one might hope for fewer glamour shots and more discussion of athletic prowess.
No Limits premieres Tuesday, July 23, at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.