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Free diver from Pinellas died doing what he loved (w/video)

More than 223 feet below the surface, just a few feet from a new record, diver Nicholas Mevoli paused.

Days earlier, an upper respiratory issue had forced him to abandon a dive.

On Sunday, in the waters off the Bahamas, the 32-year-old Pinellas County native faced a choice: break the American record or return to the surface.

Mevoli was at peace in the water. He could swim at 18 months old, learned to hold his breath and sink to the bottom soon after. When spearfishing in the Florida Keys, he'd go deeper and longer than anyone.

In May he broke an American record for free diving, in which participants descend as far as they can on a single breath.

Now, another record in sight, there was little question about what came next.

He headed deeper into the blue.

• • •

Mevoli was 8 the first time his uncle, Paul Mevoli, a St. Petersburg dentist, took him spearfishing in the Keys. While the uncle showed him the ropes, Nicholas made the sport his own.

"When it came to being in the water," Nicholas said in a YouTube video posted in August, "that was where I really shined."

He netted lobster no one thought he could reach. He dived for minutes at a time, popping out of the water with a fish on the end of his spear. He never gave up.

"I think he thought he was invincible," Paul Mevoli said.

He also loved the calmness of the deep.

"You're down there in your own thoughts, and you're witnessing things that most people don't have a chance to see in complete serenity and quietude," he said in the video.

Nicholas Mevoli started hiding in the water when he was 3 or 4 years old. When his mother tried to call him out of the pool, Mevoli would cling to the underwater ladder to hide, the uncle said.

Nicholas spent his childhood in Seminole and Largo and moved to Tallahassee with his mother when he was a teen. After high school, he moved to Brooklyn to pursue an acting career but ended up working with props in the TV industry.

He discovered competitive free diving about three years ago, said his sister, Jennifer Sharpe, 41, of Orlando. In free diving, participants must learn to relax their bodies, minimizing oxygen consumption and allowing them to stay longer underwater.

"It offers you an interaction with nature that few sports offer, but you need to be aware of your vulnerabilities," said Bill Van Deman, owner of Abyss Freediving in Tampa.

Mevoli invested in equipment and watched contests. He traveled to Greece and Honduras.

He was a natural. In May, he broke the American record for constant weight dive — a dive using one fin to kick down — by reaching a depth of more than 328 feet.

The diving scared his sister but she understood. He was doing what he loved. "He was a competitor," Sharpe said.

On Sunday, at a competition called Vertical Blue, he attempted to break a record for a dive without fins for propulsion.

At 223 feet, 10 feet shy of the record, he stopped.

"I'm sure in that moment, I don't know what was going through his mind, but he was going for it," said his sister.

Mevoli reached his goal, staying underwater more than 3 1/2 minutes before surfacing.

Moments later he lost consciousness and began coughing up blood. Rescuers tried to revive him, but Mevoli was pronounced dead about an hour later.

• • •

Before Mevoli died, his uncle said, he'd completed a fourth draft of a screenplay about a young lobster fisherman.

In the story, the teen abandons cellphones and video games and finds solace in the water. The boy wins a competition, gets rich and gives his fortune to save the Keys.

"He basically was writing his own script," Paul Mevoli said.

Nicholas Mevoli died of depth-related injuries, according to the Swiss-based governing body of the Vertical Blue competition. A more detailed review of his death is under way.

To honor Nicholas, Paul Mevoli said, he hopes to make his movie. "Of course," he said, "we're going to have to change the ending."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press. Claire Wiseman can be reached at (727)893-8804 or cwiseman@tampabay.com. On Twitter: @clairelwiseman

Free diver from Pinellas died doing what he loved (w/video) 11/18/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 19, 2013 8:45am]
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