Pools of Death and Invention

by Casey Barrett

The perils and the powers of breath-holding: The troubling case of Shallow Water Blackout and the underwater brilliance of the world’s greatest inventor…

It’s peaceful down there, quiet and still. The dry land world washes by in abstract shapes above and you may as well be on the moon. The bottom of a swimming pool is an alternate weightless reality. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. This might be a problem. A life threatening one. Or it might be the ultimate oxygen-deprived source of inspiration.

This is a dangerous game, and a fascinating one.

If you’re a coach or swimmer and you’re not familiar with the grim realities of Shallow Water Blackout, you might want to listen up. Hypoxic sets are a part of any team, breath holding contests a part of any summer league fun, but pushed too far,  it can turn serious in a silent instant. Yesterday, Swimming World published an eye-opening piece on these “swimmer blackouts”. It told the story of former Arizona State swimmer James Rigg. A breath-holding pro who died a year ago yesterday, after jumping into the ASU diving well late one Sunday night. The cause was “accidental drowning” – not exactly a cause of death you’d expect from a Division I swimmer.

We’ve all played this game. I remember the time my friend and former SMU teammate Blaine Morgan swam 100 yards without a breath. When he touched the fourth wall, he gave a woozy smile, wagged his finger in triumph, then blacked out and sunk straight to the bottom. He was retrieved and revived by his teammates without incident, thankfully, but the breath-holding challenge ended there. You probably have a similar story. Most teams do. It’s plenty dangerous with a group watching over your head. Done for fun, late night, maybe after a few drinks – you’re taking a peak into the abyss.

Fact is, a big-lunged well-trained swimmer might be more at risk of this sort of drowning than a dry lander just playing in the deep end. A swimmer knows how to hyperventilate and get rid of all the CO2 before he goes under. A swimmer knows how to suppress that gagging sensation as the throat constricts and the lungs tighten. In a sick sort of way, it’s actually a pleasurable feeling. As oxygen leaves your body, the mind grows clear.

This is more than mere metaphor. This is fact. There is scientific evidence that prolonged breath-holding can heighten ideas and intelligence. Just ask the most prolific inventor in the history of the world. One of my all-time favorite characters, a Japanese gentleman by the name of Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats. The man holds the patent to some 4,000 inventions. By comparison, some guy named Thomas Edison has a bit over 1,000. A few of Nakamats’s greatest hits? The floppy disk, the digital watch, fuel cells, and of course… karaoke.

How does Dr. Nakamats do it? Through his Underwater Invention Method. Please click that link and watch the video. Hold your breath and prepare for mind to be blown. “Too much oxygen is bad for the brain,” he says. “On the other hand, if the brain feels a shortage of oxygen, the brain reaches maximum activity.” When does this happen? Well, there’s the dark line in the sand… According to Dr. Nakamats, that happens “0.5 seconds before death.”

The muse, it seems, arrives right at death’s door. And she doesn’t stay long. That’s why Nakamats invented the world’s only underwater notebook – so he can scribble down his ideas in those oxygen-free moments of maximum inspiration.

“As close to death as possible,” he says. “I do my inventing balancing death and invention.”

File this one under Do Not Try This at Home. An eccentric death-baiting 84-year-old Japanese inventor might not be the sort of man you want to model yourself after, yet his achievements are indisputable. His Underwater Method is hard to reconcile with the scary realities of Shallow Water Blackout. You may not surface with an idea for world changing technology, but anyone who’s ever spent some long minutes on the bottom is familiar with that heady rush of clarity the moment you surface.

Of course, hypoxic training has been known to improve more than just intellectual pursuits. Safe to say Mr. Phelps and Mr. Lochte won’t become inventors in their next careers, yet you can be sure they spent loads of time under the surface with bursting lungs, preparing their minds and bodies for those devastating final walls when they stay under longer than anyone else.

There are secrets of excellence down there, we know it’s true. Just don’t forget the stakes…