Tragedy in coaching dangerous sport

I’ve just finished reading (and crying through) Ferreras’s ‘The Dive: A story of love and obsession‘ which is based on his own tragic experience of losing his wife and free diving protege in the process of breaking the free diving record, October 2002.

The book was recommeded to me by my PhD student Carl Thomen because as I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently writing a book chapter on ethical issues in coaching dangerous sports. This real life case exemplifies many important questions regarding the responsibility of those coaching (and implicitly encouraging) other’s participation in something that has a high degree of risk attached.

Pipin Ferreras is a world champion free diver who taught his wife, Audrey Mestre, to sink to unimaginable depths on a single breath of air. Though Audrey found a desire and euphoria in the sport of free diving, it was arguably Ferreras’s competitive spirit which pushed her into making the fatal attempt of diving to 170 meters. Ferreras’s unrelenting drive shows up time and time again;

“So why not break my record?” I suggested. “Why not go for one sixty-three? If you do that now, you won’t have any trouble at all on October twelfth, when we do it for the books.”
“Gee, I don’t know,” she said, nibbling at her nails. “I don’t know if I’m ready.”

Later, Ferreras thought that she should try for even deeper:

I began to think that we were selling ourselves short. I didn’t understand why Audrey couldn’t shoot for 170 meters.

And after a successful 170 dive, he pushed for more:

I’d been obsessed with [diving] all my life, and I was suddenly more obsessed than ever.
“Audrey,” I said. “Why not go for one eighty-two? Six hundred feet even.”

In reading the book it is obvious that Pipin adored Audrey, and it is also clear that Audrey loved the sport itself and consented to the dives she made. However, there is also a sense that Pipin’s bravado and competitiveness was the ultimate force that led to Audrey’s death. It is telling that whilst she says several times that she is not interested in competition or breaking records, Pipin on the other hand, can’t stand the thought of others being better than him. And it is after he suffers from one diving accident too many which puts his diving on hold, that his focus on records becomes more dependent on Audrey. This is illustrated when he says to Audrey, “If you make it, I make it. You’d be doing it for both of us.”

Pipin Ferreras was twelve years older than Audrey and they met when she was 21. He was already an internationally renouned sportsman with high profile sponsorship and media coverage. She was finishing her degree in Marine Biology. One might say that Audrey was awed by Ferreras’s achievements and dominant personality. Ferreras himself concedes that perhaps her belief in her diving ability was solely founded in his own boundless confidence in her.

Nevertheless, despite all these reservations that one might have as to Ferreras’s role and responsibility in her death, it should not be forgotten that ultimately it was Ferreras himself that lost out. Audrey was as competetent as any adult could be in making decisions about her own life, and she was the one who freely consented to travelling down that 170 meter line. Whilst Audrey is no longer able to introspect on what-if, Ferreras will be reliving the event for the rest of his life. Yes, one might argue that Ferreras coerced an impressional young woman into attempting a deadly activity that he himself wouldn’t risk, but this to me seems to neglect the most important facts. We are all impressionable to some degree, we all have an achillies that if pressed in the right way by the right people, might make us do things we wouldn’t at another time. But then without this we wouldn’t be human and we wouldn’t be the person we are. And the picture that we get of Pipin and Audrey from Ferreras’s book shows human personalities in their most radiant of colour.