Meet the free diver who made actors

By | November 17, 2022
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Meet the free diver who made actors

LOOKING DOWN AT his watch, Alex Llinas whispers, “One minute.”

I inhale slowly, feeling my stomach expand as it fills with air. Hoooold at the top, Llinas says. I place my tongue against my teeth, making a “tss” sound as I slowly exhale. Llinas, who holds two South American free diving records and finished the 2022 season tied for second in the world in depth diving, is in the pool next to me, exhaling with me. I feel my stomach cave in as the air escapes. We’ve been breathing in sync for the past four minutes in preparation for what’s to come next.

I am wearing a somewhat ill-fitting black wetsuit in a 6-foot-deep pool. As I kneel on a platform, the water reaches my chest. A mask, suction-cupped to my face, covers my eyes and plugs my nose. I am seconds away from slowly immersing my head for a two-minute underwater breath hold. I have always been terrified of water.

Why am I doing this? To understand what it was like for actors like Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Tenoch Huerta, Mabel Cadena and Alex Livinalli to train for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” The movie, releasing on Friday, introduces Talocan, a powerful underwater empire led by King Namor (played by Huerta), that is attacking Wakanda.

It was Llinas who taught the actors how to become sea creatures, how to make water their home (while wearing costumes and makeup). Along with other divers and crewmembers, Llinas helped them nail a perfect scene, hitting the right camera and lighting angles while navigating the three-dimensional nature of water. The first step: feeling comfortable with long breath holds underwater.

Today, on a windy fall day in Princeton, New Jersey, Llinas is giving me the same training he gave the actors during their first few days on the set of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

ESPN writer Aishwarya Kumar was perfectly comfortable with Llinas’ breathing exercises, until he suggested she attempt to hold her breath for two minutes underwater. Idris Solomon for ESPN

We start with stretching and breathwork at a gym, where I tell Llinas I can hold my breath for two minutes on land thanks to my meditation practice. Llinas looks surprised, impressed, even.

Let’s get you to do two minutes underwater, he says.

Never, I think.

Despite the suit and the heated pool, as I prepare to submerge, I shiver. Llinas had warned me about the shivers.

Close your eyes, Llinas says. Go to your sleepy place.

I feel my eyelids getting heavier. I close my eyes. My heart rate slows.

Thirty seconds, he murmurs. We begin purging now.

Five inhales through the mouth and five exhales through the mouth. They create a mild form of hyperventilation, which should make my longer breath hold more comfortable.

After five of those, he asks me to go back to my diaphragmatic breathing.

Ten seconds, he says.

I take a slow inhale, no jerking motions, no exerting excessive energy. I need to signal to my heart that everything is OK.

Then, I slowly lower my head. I am floating in the water, facedown, relying on a person I met hours earlier. A person who, I have learned, has overcome battles with the U.S. immigration system, with cancer, with a near-fatal infection. A person whose life story might very well be as entertaining and poignant as any plotline in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Llinas’ father introduced him to the ocean when he was a newborn. It has been calling him back ever since. “To me, there is no choice but to be in the ocean,” Llinas says. Courtesy Alex Llinas

THE OPENING SCENE, of course, is on the shoreline. Weeks after he was born — in 1978 in Barranquilla, Colombia — his father, a gifted surfer, ran over to the beach and sat Llinas down on the shore as frothy waves kissed Llinas’ tiny fingers and toes. Llinas has heard the story over and over for years.

Growing up on the beaches of Colombia, Llinas spent hours every day swimming and surfing. He won every breath hold, swimming and underwater diving competition in Barranquilla. His father, who was his “sun, my moon, my everything,” raised him on his own, after his parents separated, Llinas says, because of his mother’s struggles with drugs. Llinas rarely saw his mother, and when he did, he didn’t know what to say to her. She was a stranger to him.

The Llinases moved around a lot, from Barranquilla to Medellin to San Andrés, and Llinas sometimes lived with his aunts and uncles when his father needed time to figure out his business ventures. When he was 12, he remembers, life on the Caribbean island of San Andrés got difficult when his father’s rum and spice business floundered.

Then, when he was 15, his father, who spoke to Alex’s aunt in the United States, decided it was time to move to the “land of opportunities.” Leaving behind Llinas, who needed time to procure his paperwork, his father moved to Monroe, North Carolina. A year later, Llinas got on a plane to start his life in the U.S. In preparation, he watched English cartoons every day and begged his cousin to speak with him only in English.

They both arrived in the United States and overstayed their visitor visas. His father launched Mundo Latino, a Spanish newspaper, while Llinas went to school in the predominantly white town of Monroe, where most people thought if you spoke Spanish you were Mexican — and poor, Llinas recalls. The move from Colombia and life in rural North Carolina were hard on the preteen. By the time he finished high school, he had studied in 12 schools in two countries. But Llinas eventually made a few close friends.

Just when he felt stable for the first time in his life, he made a senseless mistake — a mistake that would define his life for the next two decades.

At 19, as an immigrant to the U.S. with no paperwork, he decided to take a trip to Canada.

ARE YOU A U.S. CITIZEN?

Yes.

Alejandro Fernandez Llinas — you don’t appear in our system as a U.S. citizen.

Llinas and his friends had driven from North Carolina to Niagara Falls after his high school graduation, and when one of his friends said, “We should go to Canada,” Llinas thought — well, he didn’t think — and said, Sure. When crossing the border to Canada, Llinas asked the U.S. border official what he would need to get back into the country.

“Your driver’s license,” the official said.

I have that, he thought.

But things escalated. More questions followed. Llinas remembers saying, “I overstayed my tourist visa.”

He remembers being taken in a bus to a location he doesn’t remember. Then he was put in an airplane and flown to Newark, New Jersey, and driven to an ICE detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

He was detained there for a month, and spent a lot of time crying, while ICE began his deportation proceedings. He was surrounded by people from all over the world — people who were caught and detained there “in the most heartbreaking circumstances you can imagine” — and not having the paperwork to prove that they were worthy of being called a citizen of the United States. He made friends with a man from Albania who spent time with him and made him feel less alone.

A month later, Llinas was released on parole. While he worked with an attorney to apply for political asylum, he also applied to Cape Fear Community College in North Carolina to start on his engineering degree. He couldn’t get into a four-year college because of his immigration status, but he needed to get some of his life back.

For the next two and a half years, he traveled from North Carolina to New Jersey every few months to fight his case. Whenever he was summoned, he arrived there, lugging a bag full of paperwork.

In 1999, he was granted political asylum on the grounds of future persecution in his home country. (His uncle and father were vocal critics of the government and other groups in Colombia and faced death threats.) This meant he could live in the United States legally, but there was a catch. Because he had lied that he was a U.S. citizen at the border, he couldn’t apply for permanent residency or citizenship until certain immigration laws were amended.

But he couldn’t go back to Colombia, either, because his asylum status depended on him never going back to his home country. He could travel to other countries, but it required intense paperwork, so he mostly stayed in the U.S. for fear of never being able to return — or, worse, being put in ICE detention again.

As soon as he had the paperwork, he applied to NC State and enrolled in a four-year mechanical engineering program and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, leaving his father and Monroe for the time being.

In 2003, his father went through his own struggles with the immigration system. He was arrested, then convicted, on a charge of carrying a gun as an unlawful resident and was later deported. By the time he saw his father again, Llinas was a new man with a new career and a new passion.

What started as a photo of a friend spearfishing turned into a career-changing event for Llinas. Camilo Diaz

LLINAS VIVIDLY REMEMBERS the photo. His friend had posted it — an underwater shot of the ocean and a person using a spear to kill a fish. It was 2009, and Llinas had quit his unfulfilling engineering job in Los Angeles and moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. The photo spoke to him.

“I was like, ‘Man, I want to do that,'” Llinas said.

His childhood memories of winning underwater competitions in Colombia, spending hours perfecting breath holds and simply enjoying a surfing day with his friends came rushing back.

He ordered some spearfishing equipment and dove into the North Carolina sea. He walked back to shore with a fish. Llinas loved that. There was something rewarding about the act.

He quickly decided to take a free diving course and received his certification. Soon, he was traveling to Puerto Rico three times a year to teach free diving. (The North Carolina coast was not conducive to free diving due to miles of shallow waters.)

From 2010 to 2015, when he consistently taught free diving and trained, he felt the exact opposite of what he felt in his engineering job in L.A. He felt alive. He felt happy. He felt excited.

Athletes he met in North Carolina loved training with him.

“He has this energy about him — everybody wants to be around him,” says Cameron Holman, one of Llinas’ training partners.

When he taught free diving, Llinas focused on safety. People don’t make a lot of noise when they’re about to pass out and die underwater. They just do so quietly. So he’s always watching, anticipating problems.

Free diving is one of the most dangerous sports in the world, with more than 50 fatalities per year. When athletes remain underwater for several minutes at a time, their blood vessels pump blood toward their core — to their heart and brain — and away from their extremities. It’s called the mammalian dive reflex. Their heart rate and blood pressure increase and decrease dramatically, says Dr. Juan Valdivia, the medical director of the U.S. Freediving Federation.

“Free diving is a discipline where you unlock mechanisms that you have in your body to be able to survive underwater for a certain amount of time, and the more you keep doing it, you can end up in a journey of self-discovery,” Valdivia says. “That comes [at] a price, because then the deeper you want to get, as a way to tell yourself that you’re doing better, the more risks you take.”

In 2012, when one of his friends in Wilmington began training for a world record in free diving, Llinas asked to be her training partner. During training, he noticed his times were much better than hers. That was when he realized that he might have a shot at competitive free diving, a sport governed on the professional level by AIDA (International Association for the Development of Apnea) and CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques). Competitions are held all over the world in both the ocean (depth) and in pools (distance/time). Athletes can compete in various disciplines — with no fins, one fin or two, with light weights or heavy weights — and Llinas was drawn to it all.

He had received some money through selling his father’s North Carolina land, and in 2016, he quit his engineering consulting work and decided to give free diving a real shot. His mind, and money, were ready, but his body was not.

Llinas has endured cancer and fought off an infection that threatened his life. But trading free diving for a safer hobby like gardening? Never. Luke Coley

IT SEEMED LIKE a common cold and a pimple, a small and painful pimple, on his right knee. Llinas was a few days into his role as interim safety chief at the 2019 Outdoor Freediving World Championship in Roatan, Honduras, and now a pimple, of all things, was threatening to foil the plans that had already been sidetracked for nearly two years when other mysterious lumps had appeared on his body in 2017.

The others — bigger and egglike on each side of his lower abdomen — had emerged shortly after Llinas returned to North Carolina from a free diving trip to Puerto Rico.

What are these? Llinas thought. Are they muscles? What is going on?

A series of doctor’s appointments, MRIs and X-rays answered his questions: In April 2018, Llinas was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin follicular lymphoma, an incurable form of lymphatic cancer. Treatments worked in that they can prolong life, but the cancer never really goes away. It’s more like a chronic disease.

Doctors advised him to wait until symptoms appeared to begin treatment, so he decided he was going to live — thrive — with cancer in the meantime. His life was in the water.

He persuaded his doctors to allow him to participate at the 2018 Vertical Blue in the Bahamas. He would be a safety diver — he would join the competitors in the water, observe them closely and help if necessary. Once the competition was completed, he persuaded the judges to allow him to attempt his first-ever free diving record.

A 58-meter free dive. The longest dive he had attempted — and now completed. A personal best.

Two months later, after he hurt his ribs surfing in Hawaii, his cancer doctors at UNC Chapel Hill decided it was time to start his treatment.

For the next six months, Llinas underwent chemotherapy every 28 days. He barely had energy to walk. He was forbidden from going anywhere near the water. His immune system was not nearly good enough to resist water-borne bacteria and viruses.

“He was emotional, scared and restless because he wasn’t able to do the things that we had done our entire lives and wasn’t used to just being bedridden or not having the energy to go do something,” says Aaron Vitali, his best friend and free diving partner, who also worked on the sets of “Black Panther” for a few weeks.

After six chemotherapy sessions, Llinas’ doctor sent him in for a detailed scan. He then placed two MRIs side by side, one taken six months prior, and one taken that day. The first MRI had areas of black — indicating cancer — in his ribs, his intestines, everywhere. The second one? The second one showed almost no black masses. Llinas was successfully in remission.

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Two months later, he was in Bali for a monthlong free diving training session.

“To me, there is no choice but to be in the ocean,” Llinas says. “If anything, cancer gave me a bigger appreciation for life and to want to follow my dreams. I am not going to stop living my life, or suddenly start gardening or stay indoors. The other option was not an option for me.”

A month later — an entire year after safety diving at 2018 Vertical Blue — Llinas was made interim safety chief at the 2019 Outdoor Freediving World Championship. He felt prepared for the long workdays ahead of him, planning and executing safety protocols during the championships.

But then, the pimple.

It bothered him enough that Llinas went to a local clinic hoping to get it removed, and was told it was infected. He started antibiotics, but over the next day, his knee started swelling and dark veins ran all the way to his shin. Tests revealed he had low levels of white blood cells, leaving his body vulnerable to germs that he came into contact with in the water.

He developed a fever and chills. He was admitted to a hospital.

The first night there, with an IV in his arm, his teeth chattering and his knee throbbing (“I swear my knee had a heartbeat”), he was scared for his life.

Could this be it for me? After everything I’ve been through?

A few days in, with no apparent improvement, he was airlifted to Fort Lauderdale for treatment. He spent a week in a hospital experiencing some of the worst days of his life.

I am not a smoker. I don’t treat my body poorly. I didn’t deserve to get cancer, and then for all of this to happen.

It took more than a week for his infection to wane, for him to realize he had made it past the worst. A doctor then cut open his pimple and released the pressure, and he distinctly remembered feeling good during the incision. It reminded him he was alive.

For the next six weeks, Llinas slowly worked to regain his strength. In October 2019, he competed in the Oceanquest Curacao free diving competition and finished second in one discipline, setting two Colombian records in the process.

Then “Black Panther” came calling.

King Namor, aka Tenoch Huerta, ordered retakes of scenes without coming up for air. “We were able to do three — sometimes four — shots in a row,” Huerta says. Courtesy Marvel Studios

WHEN ALEX LIVINALLI walked onto the set of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” in Atlanta in early 2021, he knew little about the underwater training it would require to play Attuma, a soldier in Namor’s kingdom.

The Venezuelan American, known for his roles in “The Walking Dead,” “Ozark” and “Chicago P.D.,” wasn’t an elite swimmer by any means, but he figured he could hold his own. Livinalli remembers Llinas asking him to touch the bottom of the 20-foot tank they were working in during their first days of training. It took less than 30 seconds, but Livinalli started “freaking out.”

So Livinalli trained with Llinas for hours every day over the next few months. The first step was to get his heart rate down and feel safe underwater. Then, Livinalli worked to stay longer in the tank.

“[Livinalli] was the sweet man — always had a positive attitude, always smiling, always enjoying,” Llinas says.

A few weeks in, Llinas placed about six sandbags on platforms at the bottom of the tank. Llinas asked Livinalli to take a deep breath, dive to the first sandbag, pick it up, walk on the floor of the tank to the next sandbag, drop the first one, pick up the next one and so on until he got to the last sandbag. Then, he would slowly make his way to the surface to take air.

I’m never going to be able to do that, he remembers saying to Llinas.

Still, he took a deep breath, and dove in.

He doesn’t remember how long he was submerged, but he remembers feeling exhilarated after dropping the last sandbag and coming up for air.

“I did it. It was such an amazing thing,” Livinalli says. “Alex taught me how to relax, how to trust the process, and trust everyone around you, that you’re going to be safe.”

For Huerta, who is introduced in “Wakanda Forever” as the anti-hero Namor, the training was life-changing. He went from not knowing how to swim to a confident underwater king in a matter of months. Huerta had played American football and found the coaching style to be too militaristic, and was concerned that Llinas would use the same method and that it would cause Huerta to be scared and stressed. But with Llinas, training was a peaceful process. Huerta went from holding his breath underwater for 30 seconds in the first few days to five minutes in a month.

Both Huerta and Livinalli went from feeling “really uncomfortable in the water to super comfortable,” Llinas says, and toward the end of training, Llinas would watch them as they began their routine without any cues.

Llinas’ job didn’t end with perfecting the actors’ training regimen. Nothing mattered until the scene was captured on camera. Llinas helped actors with positioning, with coordinating the lighting and stunt folks, with getting the props in place — all of this underwater while being prepared in his blue suit to help the actors.

Pete Zuccarini, “Black Panther’s” director of photography, had previously worked with Llinas in underwater commercials, and, as a dedicated free diver himself, had followed Llinas’ competitive journey. He had wanted Llinas for “Avatar,” but the timing hadn’t worked out.

Llinas was perfect for “Wakanda Forever”: He was a world-renowned free diving instructor, which meant he knew how to handle a range of students, some who might already have a lot of experience in the water and some whom he would have to train from scratch. He was an athlete, which meant he could switch from playing the role of a trainer to a stunt double. He also spoke Spanish, which was necessary to communicate with some of the actors.

“I got to watch him adapt rapidly and well,” Zuccarini says. “You have to hold your breath longer than everyone because you have to get down in position before the actor is brought to you, hold the actor, guide the actor, not get in the way of the shot, don’t let any air out. And then when the scene is over, come up and recover and take air.”

He praised Llinas’ impact on the actors, as did director Ryan Coogler. Huerta, for one, had gotten so good that he would call for a retake of a scene while he was still underwater, holding his breath.

“We were able to do three — sometimes four — shots in a row,” Huerta says.

Livinalli’s aha moment happened when he realized he needed to stop thinking as though it was he, Alex Livinalli, trying to hold his breath in order to play Attuma.

What would Attuma do? Suddenly, he found himself letting go of the stress in his neck, in his elbows. He found a fluidity in the water. The breath hold happened naturally. The scenes felt more organic.

Both credit Llinas for helping them get there. Even as Llinas was simultaneously carving his own path.

Now an American citizen, Llinas’ next goal is to represent the United States at an international competition. Camilo Diaz

HIS HANDS SHAKING, Llinas ran his fingers over the navy-blue booklet. Imprinted on the book was “Passport” and “United States of America,” and inside it was a photo of his face with his name. On an elevator, Llinas jumped up and down, laughing to himself.

It was the fall of 2021, and Alex Llinas — 27 years after moving to the U.S. — was finally a citizen.

Holding his passport, Llinas thought of his father, whom he had visited in Colombia multiple times over the past six years since getting his permanent U.S. residency. His father had died a year and a half earlier in Colombia. He would have been proud of how far Llinas had come.

But Llinas wasn’t done yet. He had his sights on a new goal: to represent Team USA in free diving. A goal he didn’t think would be possible.

He was informed that his first opportunity to wear the Team USA colors would be at the CMAS World Outdoor Freediving Championship in Turkey in October 2022. Soon after production wrapped for “Black Panther,” Llinas traveled to Bali for depth training. And this past August, three years after he was airlifted from Roatan, Honduras, he returned to the country.

He completed a 101-meter bi-fin dive (one fin on each foot) at the AIDA World Championships in Roatan, a personal best. For context, Arnaud Jerald owns the world record at 120 meters. Llinas might be only 19 meters behind Jerald, but it takes years of perfection to get the last few meters of the dive right.

Still, Llinas left Honduras in second place overall in the rankings with a silver medal, a bronze medal, two continental records and four Colombian national records.

With a burning ambition to represent the United States for the first time, he traveled to Turkey. Three days before the championships, he broke his left foot in a scooter accident. Although he ended up tied for second in the 2022 world rankings in all disciplines, his new goal would have to wait.

“I was not in a good headspace for a few weeks — trying to figure out what do next,” Llinas says.

He says he’ll be in Turkey next season representing Team USA. Come hell or high water.

“I feel pressure against my chest, my ribs,” Aishwarya Kumar writes. “My brain is telling my body that it needs to take a breath. Now.” Idris Solomon for ESPN

YOU’RE IN CHENNAI. At the beach. It’s a hot day, and sweat is pouring out of your face, Llinas says during the first few seconds after I submerge. His voice sounds muffled to my ears. It’s soft and drawn out, reminding me of a purring cat.

I can feel Llinas’ fingers on my left elbow. He’s barely touching me, but it calms me down.

My insides feel cold, but my face, my skin feel warm. Like I am somehow both in the pool and in my sweltering hometown at the same time.

Llinas does a body scan. Relax your neck, he says, and I find my neck automatically listening to his voice, as though it’s no longer in my control. We move through my eyebrows, chin, diaphragm, lower back, hamstrings, quads, feet.

At one minute, he taps my shoulder. That’s my cue to put out my index finger. I need to let him know I am alive. I have a small urge to take a breath with my nose, but it passes, and I float on.

You’re doing so well. A minute and 30 seconds in, I hear Llinas say.

I feel pressure against my chest, my ribs. My brain is telling my body that it needs to take a breath. Now.

I can do this.

Llinas is painting a picture for me. He’s saying I am leaving for India — for the first time in three years — and I am packing my suitcase. He wants me to slowly go into my closet, pick out my clothes and place them in my suitcase.

I am listening, but I feel more pressure, a steady constriction, as though two hands are pressing against my chest.

If you feel constriction in your chest, notice it. And move on, Llinas says right on cue.

He taps my shoulder again. I put out my finger.

You’re doing so well, he says.

I don’t hear him call time. But my brain says it has to have been two minutes.

I place my right hand on the pool’s edge. Then, my left hand. No sudden moves, Llinas had taught me. I leave my face underwater, another Llinas trick. It’s a way to trick your brain into thinking you’re coming out of the water. Try staying underwater for a few seconds longer, after you’ve found the edge of the pool, Llinas had said.

I slowly pull my head out of the water. Llinas is holding my upper arm now. He asks me to take deep, forceful breaths with my mouth. One, he counts, his index finger in front of my face. Woosh, woosh, woosh, the breath comes out in bursts.

Are you OK? He asks, a sternness in his voice he hadn’t used when I was underwater. I connect my thumb to my index finger, making the OK sign as free divers do after every dive. I am OK, I mouth.

Guess how much you did? He asks.

I shake my head and remove my mask.

Two minutes and 21 seconds. He brings his wrist toward my face, showing me the time on his watch.

No, I did not, I say, my eyes bulging, water leaking out of my nose.

Llinas is grinning. Yes, you did.

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