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By Neil Hartnell
NASSAU (Reuters) - A record-holding diver died during a freediving competition in the Bahamas on Sunday in what officials said was the first fatality in the sport's 21 years of official competition.
American diver Nicholas Mevoli of Brooklyn was conscious when he surfaced from his 72-meter (236-foot) dive, done without oxygen or fins, but blacked out about 30 seconds later, according to a statement by Vertical Blue, which runs freediving events in the Bahamas.
"At the moment we are all extremely shocked and saddened and trying to establish what happened," reads the Vertical Blue statement posted on Facebook. "Competition freediving has an enviable safety record but the sport can never be risk-free, something understood by all freedivers."
His death appears connected to lung damage suffered during the dive and marks the first time a competitor has died during an officially sanctioned event in 21 years of more than 35,000 competitive dives, according to the Switzerland-based Association Internationale pour le Développement de l'Apnée, which governs breath-hold diving events worldwide.
Freediving is an extreme sport in which divers attempt to reach those depths without oxygen assistance, and in some cases with no fins or other aid.
AIDA does not keep statistics on amateur breath-holding dive incidents, but a report by the Divers Alert Network in the United States said some 34 fatalities were reported in 2006, the most recent study that was immediately available. The DAN report of breath-hold dive related fatalities includes people who were snorkeling, spearfishing, collecting and freediving.
The sport was rocked in 2002, when Audrey Mestre, one of the world's top female freedivers, perished off the coast of the Dominican Republican during a record attempt widely criticized for planning errors. Her death sparked new safety regulations in the sport.
Her husband, world-famous freediver Francisco Ferreras, quit after her death but recently announced plans to return to the sport.
Mevoli was a talented diver who completed his dive successfully but appeared to have trouble breathing as he recovered on the water's surface, according to a statement issued by AIDA.
Mevoli was trying to set an American freediving record on Sunday, according to the New York Times. He made the depth and resurfaced after three minutes and 38 seconds on a single breath and flashed the "OK" sign to safety officials, according to the Times, which had a reporter at the scene.
Signs of trouble came almost immediately, as the 32-year-old's eyes were blank and his words incoherent, the Times reported. He was dragged onto a nearby platform and began vomiting blood into the sea, the Times reported.
"He lost consciousness, and in spite of great efforts by the doctor and paramedic on site, failed to recover after reaching the local hospital," the AIDA statement said. "Nick appears to have suffered from a depth-related injury to his lungs."
Mevoli, who officials said had set a freediving record shortly after taking up the sport competitively in 2012, was described by AIDA as an "extraordinary talent."
This year, Mevoli took second place in the inaugural Caribbean Cup in Roatan, first place at the Deja Blue competition in Curaçao, and a silver medal at the AIDA Depth World Championship in Greece, the organization said.
His uncle, Paul Mevoli, said Nicholas took an interest in diving during trips with him to the Florida Keys. "He was a natural in the water," he said By telephone from St. Petersburg, Florida. "He was very talented, mentally tough and physically fit."
Paul Mevoli said his nephew moved to New York hoping to become an actor. Nicholas worked as a prop technician on several television programs including "Chapelle's Show," he said. "He was a simple, carefree guy who loved life," he said.
Mevoli was competing in the 2013 Vertical Blue competition outside Bahamas' Long Island, an annual challenge in which divers attempt to hit record depths at Dean's Blue Hole, the world's deepest "blue hole" or underwater cave.
The event, in its sixth year, featured nine days of competition with a prize pool of about $25,000, according to Vertical Blue
The competition was halted after Mevoli's death.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Gray in Miami; Writing by Karen Brooks; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Chris Reese)