Her record in that discipline, in which divers use the breaststroke to swim as deeply as possible on a single breath, is 71m (about 233ft), set in May in Dahab, Egypt.
She can be seen in numerous YouTube videos breaking record after record, both in pools and open water. She was diving without fins at a depth of 90 to 130 feet and may have gotten pulled into a strong underwater current, her family says.
She was the world’s most decorated free-diver of all time, having amassed 20 individual gold medals and two team gold medals from the Free-diving World Championships. “I don’t think anybody would dispute that”.
A search and rescue operation including marine police, maritime rescue and a Helimar 213 helicopter joined by private boats kicked off on Sunday afternoon and is continuing during daylight hours.
By Tuesday, underwater robots were employed, still to no avail.
“She was a free-diving superstar and we all thought nothing could harm her. Nothing could happen to her, but, you know, we are playing with the ocean, and when you play with the ocean you know who is the strongest one”, Kimmo Lahtinen, the president of the global federation for free diving, known as AIDA, told the New York Times.
“She was an inspiration to all freedivers and despite being one of the fiercest competitors in the world, she was always calm and relaxed during competitions”, AIDA said in its release.
Molchanova began her career as a competitive swimmer, shifting to free diving after 40. “The cause of Natalia’s disappearance is unknown, but she was doing what she loved”. Along with being one of the top athletes in the world she has a PhD in Pedagogical Science and has authored multiple scientific articles and two freediving training handbooks.
Molchanova disappeared on Sunday.
Free diving is underwater diving without the use of a breathing apparatus like SCUBA gear.