The Deepest Breath: The devastating true story

Cameron Frew
Alessia Zecchini and Stephen Keenan in The Deepest Breath Netflix documentaryNetflix

The Deepest Breath topped the Netflix chart earlier this year, and it’s one of the most inspiring documentaries you’ll ever see – so, this is the true story of Stephen Keenan and Alessia Zecchini.

In the opening scenes of the documentary, directed by Laura McGann, Zecchini is asked if she ever thinks about death. “I think if someone has to die, they will,” she says.

It’s a bold, frightening statement on fear that defines The Deepest Breath, which photographs and showcases the world of freediving in profoundly beautiful and terrifying detail; throughout, we see Alessia and co. swallowed by endless darkness, only to rise like angels from near-certain death.

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Zecchini’s “supernatural power” through the water has made her one of the most formidable divers on the face of the planet – but it’s come at a price. So, here’s the true story as detailed in the documentary, including what happened to Stephen Keenan and more.

The Deepest Breath: Who is Alessia Zecchini?

Alessia Zecchini is an Italian freediver who has continually set world records in the sport.

Early in the documentary, her father Enzo recalls how Alessia felt a little out of touch with her classmates in school; it was like they didn’t understand her dreams, which were so fully formed from such a young age.

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She was inspired by Natalia Molchanova, a legendary Russian champion freediver, and from just 13 years old, she knew her life was meant to be spent in the water. When she first met trainer Homar Leuci, she swam 105 meters underwater. Her career quickly ran into a roadblock though, as despite her incredible performances (she went beyond 50 meters in her earl attempts), the country’s federation banned under-18s from taking part in national competitions.

Alessia Zecchini in The Deepest Breath Netflix documentaryNetflix

Zecchini was furious, but she didn’t lick her wounds for long. Instead, she used this time to practice and become one of the greatest divers in the world, eventually making her debut in a 2011 championship in Turin. She faced off against Ilaria Bonin, who constantly bested her; if Zecchini pushed herself, Bonin went one step further. Eventually, she secured gold, which sparked a long friendship between the pair.

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From here, Zecchini escaped the shallow constraints of the pool and headed to the sea, where she pulled off a long series of world records, eventually culminating in her jaw-dropping performance at the Vertical Blue competition in the Bahamas in 2018. She set four world records in all depth disciplines: constant weight without fins with −73 m (−240 ft), free immersion with −93 m (−305 ft) followed by −96 m (−315 ft), and constant weight with monofin with −107 m (−351 ft). The latter discipline is the main focus of The Deepest Breath.

She also competed in several indoor competitions which don’t feature in the documentary, including several gold medals each year at the CMAS Indoor World Championships.

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The Deepest Breath: Who is Stephan Keenan?

Stephen Keenan was an acclaimed safety diver who founded Dahab Freedivers and began training with Alessia Zecchini in 2017.

Keenan was born and raised in Glasnevin, Ireland, where he grew up with a strong urge to be connected to nature, whether it was swimming in the cold sea with his dad or watching endless nature documentaries. His mother Maura died from cancer, and according to his dad Peter, “seeing firsthand how unjust fate could be” made him want to “live for today, for you never know what’s coming down the line.”

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He set off on his own to achieve a lifelong dream: seeing the gorillas in Congo. His expedition was life-changing, but he reached his destination quite quickly, so he decided to travel across Africa. He got into a few hairy situations, including having to hide during a local coup. At his lowest point, feeling lonely without his family, friends, or any sense of purpose, he decided to come home – but he made one last fateful stop.

As he drove through Dahab, Egypt, described as a “mecca for divers”, he felt a sense of “hope.” He met Mahmoud Barracuda, a local scuba diver (with the best name ever, we’d add) and they quickly became friends, with Keenan immersing himself in the Bedouin culture and even learning Arabic. Soon, he was able to make a living as a scuba instructor, with a close circle of “family” around him.

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Stephen Keenan in The Deepest Breath Netflix documentaryNetflix

His father recalled a phone call in which Keenan said: “I’ve discovered this new thing called freediving, and it’s the business.” He fell in love with the sport, but after battling through several blackouts and nearly dying, he realized his true calling: being a safety diver and preventing that happening to anyone else.

In 2013, he was a safety diver at the AIDA World Championships in Kalamata, Greece. Alexey Molchanov, the son of Natalia, was aiming for a world record, but he encountered difficulties during the dive. Keenan was the “first safety”, meaning he had to go deepest and be the first person Molchanov met on his way back up. As he waited at 30 meters, there was no sign of Molchanov. He eventually caught sight of him at 40 meters, and in a move that could have killed him, he swam down and brought him to the surface, saving his life.

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That “act of heroism” made him famous in the diving community, and it gave him the cred to open his own freediving shop: Dahab Freedivers, which attracted some of the best athletes in the world.

The Deepest Breath: What happened to Stephen Keenan?

Stephen Keenan died on July 22, 2017, while overseeing Alessia Zecchini’s attempt to cross the infamous Arch in Dahab.

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Stephen Keenan met Zecchini at the Vertical Blue competition in 2017, considered to be the “Wimbledon of freediving.” He was serving as chief of safety, and Zecchini’s gruelling world record attempts initially put her at odds with him; she kept pushing herself beyond her limits, and all he wanted to do was help her.

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She was told not to dive for two days, but Keenan soon offered to help train Zecchini, and he “inspired trust right away.” Their relationship is a major throughline of the documentary’s back half, essentially chronicling the development of their “amazing connection” and how it led Zechini to Dahab.

Stephen Keenan and Alessia Zecchini in The Deepest Breath Netflix documentaryNetflix

After securing the world record in the Bahamas, Zecchini set her sights on a new goal: diving the deadly Arch in the Blue Hole, a feat achieved by few divers (including Natalia Molchanova). They’d sit down every evening after training for weeks, deciding how to tackle the next day, before going out drinking and dancing with friends. “It was just a really good match,” freediver Lily Crespy says in the film.

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On the day of the dive, the conditions weren’t optimal: according to Outside Magazine, “visibility wasn’t good, and the winds were high enough – 20 miles per hour – that they were pushing the water around, conjuring currents that could push a freediver off course.”

The setup was relatively simple: Zecchini would descend down the line, swim through the arch, meet Keenan at the other line, and they’d both swim to the surface. As Zecchini was swimming, Keenan was late in descending, and they missed each other by around 30 seconds. Keenan managed to find Zecchini after she became disorientated in her efforts to find the way up, and he helped her get to the surface. However, as seen in an extraordinary photo taken by a faraway scuba diver, he used his last efforts to make sure Zecchini was facing up, and he blacked out and fell face down in the water.

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Stephen Keenan and Alessia Zecchini in The Deepest BreathNetflix

After Zecchini came to, she tried to resuscitate Keenan, to no avail. It’s believed he died en route to hospital. “He rescued me, but I couldn’t save her,” she says in the documentary. “I would give my life instead of his,” Enzo also says.

His death brought about a tidal wave of grief in the diving community, with hundreds of divers and other athletes paying tribute to him at an underwater vigil. Everyone held their breath for 39 seconds to represent each year of his life.

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Following his passing, the Keenan Award was established in his honor for safety divers who show exceptional dedication to protecting other divers.

The Deepest Breath: The Blue Hole explained

The Blue Hole – and specifically, the Arch – is regarded as the most dangerous dive spot on Earth, described as more perilous than Mount Everest in the documentary on account of it taking the lives of hundreds of divers.

It’s a sinkhole with a maximum depth of just over 100m, but it’s best-known for its Arch. Located at 55m deep, it is a 26m-long tunnel that’s been described as “diver’s cemetery”, leading to a seaward side with a drop of more than 1,000m.

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While there have been hundreds of fatalities, not every death is the same: some are believed to have missed the entrance to the arch and succumbed to nitrogen narcosis, while others have run out of gas as they swim against the current through the tunnel.

One particularly notable death was Yuri Lipski, a Russian diving instructor who died in April 2000 after an uncontrolled descent into the Blue Hole. When he reached the seafloor at 115m, he attempted to fill his buoyancy compensator but was unable to rise, and he soon drowned. Footage of his dive is available on YouTube.

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The Deepest Breath: Is Alessia Zecchini still diving?

Yes: since Stephen Keenan’s death, Alessia Zecchini has set 23 world records in the pool and sea, with each one being dedicated to Stephen.

In 2018, she returned to the Vertical Blue competition and set four world records, but she didn’t stop there, competing in competitions across Italy, Spain, Turkey, Curacao, the Philippines, and the Caribbean.

The Deepest Breath is available to stream on Netflix now. You can check out our other coverage of documentaries below:

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About The Author

Cameron is Deputy TV and Movies Editor at Dexerto. He's an action movie aficionado, '80s obsessive, Oscars enthusiast, and a staunch Scot. He earned a First-Class Honours Degree in Multimedia Journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University, accredited by the NCTJ and BJTC. He began his career at UNILAD, starting as a Junior Journalist and becoming Entertainment Editor prior to joining Dexerto. You can contact him at cameron.frew@dexerto.com.