‘The Deepest Breath’ Explained: How Was Stephen Keenan Influential In Alessia’s Zecchini Success?


The Deepest Breath is a fascinating new documentary film on Netflix covering the world of one of the most dangerous sports—freediving. The film particularly focuses on Italian freediving marvel Alessia Zecchini and her extraordinary bond with safety instructor Stephen Keenan. A tale of true passion, courage, and almost fictitious heroism, all presented beautifully in the most effective manner, The Deepest Breath is truly an amazing documentary to watch and is highly recommended to fans of the genre.

Who Is Alessia Zecchini?

Alessia Zecchini is one of the most distinguished athletes in the sport of freediving, holding numerous pool and sea records, including the most coveted record of reaching the highest depth underwater. She is also the central focus of The Deepest Breath, a documentary film that chronicles her attempt to break the record for the highest underwater depth reached by a female diver. Born in Rome, Italy, Alessia was already very used to diving and swimming underwater at a young age. The girl enjoyed these activities so much that she set her target in life very quickly—to become a professional athlete in freediving. But, convincing people around her that this was a serious dream in life that she wanted to pursue was equally difficult for Alessia. Wanting to be a diver who would intentionally risk their lives to reach depths under the sea still seemed like a childish dream to most around her. But Alessia received support and encouragement from her father, and it was he who took her around for training and practice lessons.

As a teenager, Alessia started to train for and participate in various diving competitions, initially at swimming pools inside the city and then eventually at sea as well. On one of her very first attempts at a local pool, Alessia traversed 100 meters underwater in one go, really astonishing the trainer, who admits that he had to prepare for several days to perform such a feat. On her first attempt at sea, she managed to reach a depth of 52 meters, which was also quite a remarkable achievement. It was because of these abilities very early in her life that Alessia was believed to be almost supernaturally gifted in the sport, suggesting that she was naturally gifted in holding her breath and staying underwater longer than usual humans. More greatness was heading her way very soon, but the Italian federation announced the minimum age requirement for divers as eighteen, and Alessia had to take a break before turning an adult legally. She did continue with the practice and her dreams of becoming a diver, though, and returned to the sport as soon as she reached legal age.

From a very young age, Alessia was motivated by Russian diver Natalia Molchanova, who held the majority of the records in women’s freediving at the time. She admits that it was Natalia who she held as her role model, inspiration, and target, dreaming of breaking the legendary diver’s records one day. As soon as Alessia started competing in freediving tournaments, she started to win accolades and started gaining popularity on the circuit. Her first major accolade came when she won the indoor diving championship in Italy and became the best in her country. After beginning to compete in outdoor competitions, too, Alessia had similar success, and the depths of the sea were no tough barrier to her either. Very soon, she had the opportunity to break the record of her idol, Molchanova, who at the time held the record for the deepest dive made by any female athlete at 101 meters. While this record was held by the Russian for a long time, Alessia broke it successfully and created a new record of 102 meters. 

What Are The Exact Rules Of Freediving?

The Deepest Breath provides a fairly good idea about the sport of freediving, which is rather beneficial due to the film’s global outreach. The indoor and outdoor competitions are evidently very different from each other, starting with the fact that the first is held in swimming pools and the second at sea. The very first premise of freediving is that the athlete is not given any breathing apparatus, meaning that whoever can traverse the longest distance in one breath will be the winner. In indoor competitions in pools, divers go from one end of the pool to another and keep repeating until they run out of breath and have to come up for air. The total distance traversed is therefore considered the yardstick of measurement between the competitors. In the case of outdoor competitions in the sea, the sport naturally becomes much more challenging and strenuous.

Since there is no shortage of depth under the sea, divers are made to travel vertically down from the surface of the water to whatever depth they can go in a single breath. In competition, or at least the reputed ones covered in this film, the athletes have to first announce how deep they are targeting to go, and the organizers place a plate with tags at that exact depth. After diving down, the athlete has to retrieve one of the tags and then swim their way back to the surface, essentially meaning that they swim the exact double of the stated depth, once downward and then back up again. A rope is tied down from the surface to the tags, and the diver initially makes use of this rope before being naturally pulled down by the pressure of the water. Near the surface, a team of safety officials, who are also trained divers, are always present to ensure the safety of the athlete, but if the individual has to be helped or is touched by any of these safety officials, even on the surface of the sea, then their particular diving attempt is not counted. Ultimately, whoever reaches the highest depth underwater wins the competition.

Along with the rules and conventions, The Deepest Breath puts enough emphasis on the immense risks and dangers as well, as it is surely one of the most dangerous sports. It is often possible to lose track of the athletes if the tracking equipment malfunctions and the depths of the sea are too dark to look into otherwise. In such a case, there is no way to find the athlete, let alone help them, as it takes a considerable amount of time for the safety personnel and others to go down and reach them. Some specific diving spots also pose their own risks and dangers, and one such spot presented in the documentary is the Blue Hole at Dahab, Egypt, which is one of the most lucrative spots for divers all across the world. A natural marvel where the coral floor has a massive hole on the shoreline, the Blue Hole is perhaps the most challenging diving course, owing to the fact that there is a natural archway at some depth under the water, which most divers aim to swim through. Swimming down to the arch, traveling through the narrow tunnel, and then coming back to the surface from the other side completes the elusive Blue Hole dive, but it obviously involves a lot of risks.

As a grave reminder of the very dangerous possibilities in the sport and the general practice of diving, the untimely death of Natalia Molchanova is also discussed. The extreme sports athlete who held the most records and was simply one of the very best in the sport suddenly disappeared during a dive off the coast of Spain. As something must have gone wrong and the skilled athlete was swept away by the sea, her body was never found, and family members had to be content with her burial at sea.

How Was Stephen Keenan So Influential In Alessia’s Success?

The Deepest Breath also puts a major focus on Stephen Keenan, a successful safety diver who went on to become immensely influential in Alessia Zecchini’s life. Stephen’s life was no less interesting, as the Irishman was always on the lookout for adventure. Having spent his childhood and teenage years in Ireland, often going swimming and diving with his father, Stephen gradually wanted to shape his life’s path differently. Having always been fascinated by a photograph of gorillas in the Northern Congo, he traveled to the African continent with the dream of finding the animals. Over the next few years, Stephen spent his time in many African countries, mostly in forests and wildernesses, and his itch to become an adventurer was definitely gratified.

However, over time, Stephen also had to face the hardships of the continent, most specifically internal warfare, and seemed to have almost a sort of disillusionment. Planning to leave the continent, he first came across the Egyptian city of Dahab and the famous Blue Hole sinkhole. As Stephen’s father states in the documentary interview, the young man fell in love with the place and gradually became one with it. Learning Arabic and assimilating into the culture as much as he could, Stephen stayed on at Dahab and started working as a diving and scuba instructor. It was around this time that he also discovered his love for diving, and the man soon started preparing for freediving competitions. Stephen then went on to attempt a record in Greece, but he met with an extreme accident. As often happens with divers, Stephen lost consciousness on his way up due to a lack of oxygen in his body, and could have very well died. It was because of the safety divers that he got saved that day, and since then, Stephen had changed his professional course one last time.

Stephen Keenan now started training and working as a safety diver and eventually established his own freediving center with some other diver friends. Stephen started to get quite successful at this new profession and established a great reputation after he managed to save Natalia Molchanova’s son Alexey from drowning during one freediving competition. Following this, Stephen was also invited to be a safety diver at the prestigious Vertical Blue championship in the Bahamas, and it was here that he first met Alessia Zecchini. Alessia had been one of the invited participants in the competition, and she initially had a very tough time performing. As each participant was given six dive attempts over a period of two weeks, Alessia’s initial chances were wasted, and she could not cleanly complete any of her dives. It was then that she agreed to train with Stephen during the competition break, and when she returned, Alessia Zecchini was almost like a different diver altogether.

According to all his close friends, Stephen had a clear lack of internal peace for a very particular reason—despite living such an adventurous and fulfilling life, Stephen wanted to settle with someone romantically and start a family of his own. While all his previous relationship attempts had failed, Stephen’s introduction to Alessia turned out to be very special. In the initial stages, their bond grew rather professionally, as Stephen was able to train and help Alessia perform when nobody else could. It was with his help that Alessia trained and mentally prepared for her record-breaking dives at Vertical Blue. Gradually, with time, the two became very close to each other, and Stephen invited Alessia to Dahab, where she would attempt the notorious Blue Hole challenge.

‘The Deepest Breath’ Ending Explained: What Happened at the Blue Hole in Dahab?

By the time Alessia officially attempted the Blue Hole challenge, she and Stephen had seemingly started a romantic relationship. Before the attempt, Stephen also assured one of his colleagues that he would do anything to protect Alessia, and unfortunately, that is how things transpired. Alessia eventually entered the water and started her attempt, which she was also doing without monofins, making the challenge all the more difficult. The exact time she would take to go down to the arch, swim horizontally through it, and then come out of the other side was all calculated, and the plan was prepared accordingly. Stephen was the one supposed to dive down on the other side and wait to receive Alessia as she came out of the arch tunnel, in order to hand her the rope she would use to swim up to the surface.

When he was notified of the exact time when he needed to start his dive, Stephen hesitated and asked for ten more seconds, which in itself was quite unnatural. Perhaps Stephen did not feel his healthiest at the time, and he needed some brief moments to gather himself before the dive. Either way, he went into the water ten seconds later than planned, while on the other hand, Alessia had swum through the arch tunnel faster than predicted, resulting in the two not seeing each other when needed. As Alessia did not see Stephen with the rope, she kept swimming in the wrong direction, hoping to find him. In the extreme last moments, Stephen did spot his lover and, like a true hero, sped towards her to rescue her from imminent danger. As Stephen managed to get hold of Alessia and drag her towards the water’s surface, the woman was saved by a very close margin. Unfortunately, though, there was nobody to tend to Stephen’s situation, and the man could not get on his back as he started to suffocate. Stephen Keenan tragically lost his life at Blue Hole, but he managed to heroically save Alessia, his lover, whom he had sworn to protect.

The Deepest Breath then also presents footage of an underwater ceremony held by divers in memory of Stephen, who was much beloved among every member of the diving community. Alessia continues to participate in and master various diving competitions, still breaking more records. Having set 23 new records following this incident, Alessia has dedicated each one of them to Stephen, her friend and lover, who made an eternal sacrifice for her.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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