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DAN Member Profile: Mehgan Heaney-Grier

CREDIT | Text by Patricia Wuest

Freediver Mehgan Heaney-Grier
Hometown: Lafayette, Colorado
Years Scuba and Freediving: 25
Favorite Dive Destinations: My home reef in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas — I love sharky waters.
Why I'm a DAN® Member: I've been a DAN member since 1996. My work and explorations into unknown waters come with a certain amount of risk. While the circumstances encountered in the field may not be within my control, the preparations beforehand certainly are. I don't  leave home for any adventure without DAN insurance. It's a no-brainer.

Sitting on a homemade floating dive platform tied off at the back of the boat, Mehgan Heaney-Grier is focused. She adjusts her black mask and stares straight ahead. She breathes deeply and visualises the next few minutes.

It is Oct. 21, 1996, and Heaney-Grier is about to make freediving history. With her arms outstretched, she packs in a last breath of air and leans forward, duck diving into the waters off Big Pine Key, Florida. Two minutes and 58 seconds later, the 19-year-old fashion model breaks the water's surface, establishing the first constant weight freediving record for women and men in the United States at 155 feet (47 meters). She had been training for only six months.

"I had just graduated high school [in 1995] and planned to take the summer off before pursuing modelling full-time in Miami," Heaney-Grier says. "I started hanging out with some of my guy friends and spending most of our time on the water."
It was during a spearfishing trip that Heaney-Grier truly began testing her deep freediving capabilities.

"I had borrowed a depth-meter watch and was screwing around with some techniques we had heard about," Heaney-Grier recalls. "It was basic stuff — don't look at the bottom, don't kick all the way down, and take a few extra breaths on the surface. I did 87 feet on my first dive and 120 feet on my second try. I thought, ‘Whoa — what can I do with that?'" I had found something I was good at, and I wanted to find a way to do it all the time.

In the mid-1990s there were few breath-hold divers in the U.S., and men dominated the global stage. "There were few women freediving, and very little information was available," she says. "This was before you could Google anything. I was hitting the library to look up articles. When I started training, there was no roadmap; it was very much a trial-and-error process."

Heaney-Grier's research turned up a women's world record in constant weight freediving, but she realised there wasn't a U.S. national record. Her research and trial-and-error training led her to that moment off Big Pine Key when she established the U.S. mark. Ten months later, on Aug. 25, 1997 — one day shy of her 20th birthday — she set a new record of 165 feet (50 meters). "DAN was one of the sponsors of that dive," she says. "They gave us some oxygen tanks and safety gear."

She made freediving history in the U.S. and touched off a storm of media attention, with guest appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and Baywatch and features in magazines such as Life, People, Outside and Scuba Diving.

"It was a great story at that time because it was definitely outside of the norm. I was an American teenager working as a fashion model and doing what people saw as an extreme stunt," Heaney-Grier says. "I was even compared to Evel Knievel. Nobody regarded it as a serious discipline or a sport at the time."

Living in the Moment

Heaney-Grier's records were instrumental in putting freediving on the map in the U.S. when it was just starting to gain momentum internationally. In 1998 Italian freediver Umberto Pelizzari asked her to assemble the first U.S. team to compete in the International Association for the Development of Apnea (AIDA) World Championship in Sardinia, Italy.

"It was a profound experience at 20 years old," she says, "and showed me the full scope of the competitive world of freediving. It was amazing, but it's also when I realized that I preferred the experience of freediving over the competition."
A Turning Point
Heaney-Grier was introduced to subtropical waters as an 11-year-old when her mom married Nelson Grier, and the family relocated from Duluth, Minnesota — on the north shore of the famously cold Lake Superior — to the Florida Keys.

"Having the mangrove forest and the ocean steps out my front door, … I took full advantage of it," she says. "Every chance I got, I was snorkelling, exploring the flats, swimming with friends, sailing with my family or getting an old-school introduction to scuba — just a tank, some straps, a regulator and a shove in the water. That was my childhood."

Her simple "don't come up faster than your bubbles" introduction to scuba led to formal training. She earned her open-water certification in 1995 on her 18th birthday and is now an assistant instructor.

Following her short career in competitive freediving, Heaney-Grier pursued underwater projects both as a freediver and scuba diver. Her newfound fame, aquatic talents and photogenic appearance led to several television and movie projects.

 In 1999 she starred in and was an associate producer of the Animal Planet series Extreme Contact, which showcased encounters with sharks and other ocean wildlife. In 2003 she was Keira Knightley's underwater stunt double in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which led to work in Into the Blue (2005), Turistas (2006) and Aquaman (2006).

"It was incredibly fun," she recalls. "Working on Pirates of the Caribbean and Into the Blue, I was freediving and in the water with sharks nearly every day. It was a dream come true."
At the age of 22, Heaney-Grier was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural roster in 2000. She remains WDHOF's youngest-ever inductee.

Force of Nature

While spearfishing as a teenager, Heaney-Grier was in the water with sharks and was intrigued by marine predator behavior. Along with her former dive buddies, then-boyfriend Mark Rackley and budding wildlife entertainer Manny Puig, she began venturing into the swamps of southern Florida, encountering and documenting alligator behaviour.
"It's an important part of my story," she reflects. "The more time I spent around these animals, the more I realised that most of what we understood to be true about them was incorrect. These experiences were the beginning of my much deeper understanding of our role in the whole natural system."
Heaney-Grier hangs out on the bottom during an underwater editorial shoot in Grand Cayman with David Doubilet for Stern magazine.

Her passion for wildlife and conservation led her to Colorado, where she was accepted into the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2007. In 2011 she graduated summa cum laude with bachelor's degrees in ecology and in evolutionary biology and anthropology. Her honors thesis explored shark behavior.

Heaney-Grier remained in Colorado after graduation and currently lives in a small town just outside of Boulder with her son, Cash, born in 2013.

"The Rocky Mountains are not a bad second to the ocean," she says. "And there's a whole ocean community here! I still frequently get back to the Keys but have also found my tribe of ocean people out here. It's a good balance."

What’s Next?

Heaney-Grier is incredibly busy, focusing on projects that matter most to her now — conservation, connecting people with the sea, and the empowerment of women. She is a frequent keynote speaker, collaborates with a variety of nonprofit organizations and has begun leading water-based expeditions. In May 2021 she and underwater photographer Amanda Cotton are leading a water-based women's empowerment retreat in Hawaii. She has also maintained a strong presence on camera and as an executive producer, creating television and online content, including a recently launched video blog.

"The bad news is overwhelming," she says. "It can make us feel helpless. Embracing our imperfect nature and taking personal action lands us in the empowered middle ground and drives change in the process. We need all hands on deck. As divers, we are the eyes underwater and in a unique position to be stewards of the ocean."

Explore More

Watch freediver Mehgan Heaney-Grier in this Florida Keys video by Bob Talbot and Peter Zuccarini.
- Alert Diver Magazine Spring Edition 2020 Q2

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