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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Live Beyond Limits
Aired May 9, 2004 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: The events you are about to see are performed by highly trained individuals. In many instances, these activities are extremely dangerous and should not be attempted by you.
OK, folks. Step right up and see the show that everyone's talking about. It's LIFE BEYOND LIMITS, featuring some of the most strange, unusual and bizarre people you'd ever want to meet.
You're going to meet a sideshow wonderworker who is going to do things with nails, swords, fire and glass that you wouldn't do for a million bucks.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I started just because I want to be big and strong.
ANNOUNCER: You're going to see the strongest men in the world perform feats of strength and endurance.
ED VIESTURS, MOUNTAIN CLIMBER: I like things that are difficult.
ANNOUNCER: You're going to meet the man who has climbed the highest mountains in the world, and he's done so without a tank of oxygen.
You're going to meet the young woman who is a modern mermaid. She is going to swim down to depths so deep, it would make your head spin.
You're going to see the woman who is truly the queen of the brine. She is a long-distance swimmer who's going to be paddling through the icy waters of Antarctica and send a chill up and down your spine.
LYNNE COX, ENDURANCE AND COLD WATER SWIMMER: There's that knowledge that you are really on the edge here, and that you can push yourself too far.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hello. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Over the next hour, we're going to meet people who challenge themselves in extreme ways, testing their bodies and testing their minds, and challenging medicine to redefine what is humanly possible.
We're going to meet performers who use their bodies as props in bizarre and dangerous ways, as they do here on the stage of the Coney Island Sideshow. We're going to meet athletes who push themselves to the edge of death. Their accomplishments are mind-boggling -- swimming a mile in the frigid waters of Antarctica, diving more than 500 feet on a single breath of air, and climbing the world's highest peaks without the use of supplemental oxygen.
Each of them is living a LIFE BEYOND LIMITS.
Over the next hour, you're going to see extreme performance of the mind and of the body, doing what we never thought possible until now.
What you just saw was real. But it was also an illusion, in that it didn't really hurt. I'll tell you why in a moment.
We're also going to peak behind the curtain of a circus sideshow at stunts that aren't really magic, but the product of rigorous physical training.
GUPTA: This is Coney Island, home of America's sole remaining full-time sideshow, where they say if anyone's ever called you a freak, this is the place for you.
Its impresario is Todd Robbins.
TODD ROBBINS, SIDESHOW MASTER, "CARNIVAL KNOWLEDGE": First, the glass is poured out into a perilous (ph) pot (ph).
GUPTA: He calls himself the post-modern master of the sideshow.
ROBBINS: Is the light bulb real?
GUPTA: Shining a spotlight on a long tradition.
ROBBINS: All these things are based upon principles of physics and anatomy. And since most people slept through physics and anatomy, the secrets are for the most part safe.
It's the kind of thing that, if you're going to be hammering a nail into your nose, you'd better have an idea of where it goes.
GUPTA: Where it goes is the nasal pharynx, a hollow space that widens at the back of the nose and eventually becomes the throat.
The first American sideshow was put on by P.T. Barnum. And by the turn of the century, a big carnival could draw stadium-sized crowds.
Most of these stunts can be traced to the snake charmers, fakirs and mystics of India. To walk on hot coals or hang by hooks, many say you need faith -- or supernatural powers. But the bed of nails is a trick of physics. The force of the blow is spread among all the individual nails, and then further blunted by that cinder block.
If the force were put on the point of a single nail, ...
ROBBINS: It would go right through the back, probably puncture the lung, go into the heart, because there's so much weight. And it would be very painful and very much a bad thing.
GUPTA: It could kill me.
GUPTA: For me the trick worked. But this and other stunts are not for the novice.
ROBBINS: There's probably 300 to 400 people that do fire eating on the scene today. And the next step up on that is the human blockhead. And there's about 125 people or so that do that.
And the next step up from that is sword swallowing. And there's only about 30 to 40 professional -- maybe 50 -- professional sword swallowers in the world.
And then there's only about five of us that really know what glass eating is all about.
GUPTA: I checked beforehand, and yes, it's real glass. Some performers use fakes made of candy.
But Todd's only precaution for the real stuff, a special diet, including lots of fiber.
Over his career, he's eaten more than 4,000 light bulbs.
ROBBINS: Ah, there's nothing like a light snack. A light snack! It's just like comedy.
GUPTA: Glass eating is dangerous. But compared to sword swallowing, where a slip of the tongue can mean a punctured esophagus, internal bleeding and a quick death.
ROBBINS: Very simply, I'm going to give you a little demonstration in the ancient, honorable art known as sword swallowing. It is the most dangerous and difficult of all the old skills to learn.
This is a very painful, this is a uncomfortable, very unpleasant thing to do. It takes days, weeks, even months of daily torture before you're ready to be able to swallow a sword.
And after all the trouble, it's the moment when you stand on stage for the first time and swallow a sword, you discover that no one gives a damn about sword swallowing. And I think I know why.
Looked pretty good, didn't it? GUPTA: For the greatest sword swallower ever, Fred McLand, known as Cliquot, disbelief proved nearly fatal.
ROBBINS: He had this beautiful act. And it was back about, around the turn of the century.
And in one town he swallowed a sword. And a guy jumped up on stage, said, "That's bullshit," and hit him in the stomach.
GUPTA: Cliquot survived, but was badly hurt and out of action for months.
Todd likes kidding around. But this is the real deal.
Still not convinced? Well, just to be sure, we took Todd to Dr. Stephen Nicholas, a radiologist at New York's Lennox Hill Hospital.
The x-ray is a reverse image. That's Todd's spinal column bent back on the left. And the dark line is the sword down his throat.
Yes, it's real.
To kill his gag reflex, Todd practiced seven times a day for close to a year, working with a bent coat hanger before trying a sword -- years of practice to create reality more amazing than magic.
ROBBINS: And this stuff, when I'm hammering a nail into my nose, and I'm looking out in the audience, I often see people sitting out there that are having an experience as if I'm hammering a nail into their nose, as if I'm making them eat glass.
GUPTA: Todd Robbins makes it look easy. But you should never try any of these stunts without expert supervision.
When we come back ...
ROBBINS: I'm going to teach you fire eating 101. It just takes a little guts and an open mind and a desire to do something amazing that you probably didn't think you could do.
GUPTA: It wasn't on the list.
ROBBINS: You didn't read the contract very well when you joined on to this operation.
GUPTA: Welcome back to LIFE BEYOND LIMITS.
Unlike many magicians, Todd Robbins likes to share his secrets, although he warned us many times not to try these at home.
We tried them only under the guidance of an expert.
ROBBINS: I want to show you a little something about fire.
GUPTA: How did I get myself into this?
We're backstage with Todd Robbins, a sideshow master who does a lot of things you shouldn't do -- from swallowing swords to blowing fireballs.
Some carnival stunts look so dangerous, they couldn't possibly be real. But if you ask how do they do that enough times, eventually you're going to get an answer -- like this.
ROBBINS: What I want you to do is just tilt your head back and stick your tongue out.
Now, I'm going to do something here, OK? Very simply. Did that hurt?
GUPTA: Amazing to me, it didn't hurt a bit. As Todd says, it's all about physics and anatomy.
ROBBINS: And the fact is, there was a little fire that actually was retained on your tongue for a second there. But it didn't hurt, because of the moisture on the tongue.
That's the principle. The heat is going up, so you don't have to worry about the fire.
GUPTA: This is my first time. But Todd has been eating fire for 30 years, and teaching at the Coney Island Museum, which sponsors a sideshow school.
The students? Everyone from an ordained minister who loves a circus, to professional actors looking for a new skill.
But Todd's experience and reassurance only go so far when it's you looking up at the flame.
ROBBINS: You OK? You ready? Let me get a little fuel on this thing. And don't breathe in. You take this one.
Here we go. OK. Lick up the lips. All right.
And if you would, yes, tilt the head back. Open the mouth. Hold your breath. Take a deep breath in. Hold it.
Put it in. Close the mouth.
ROBBINS: There you go. You all right? There you go. You just fire.
GUPTA: That was incredible. Did it look pretty cool?
ROBBINS: Yes, I think it looked pretty cool.
GUPTA: It was a real rush. Out of all the things I had on my to-do list, fire eating wasn't one of them.
With that lesson under my belt, I headed to Texas to meet with another master, Brian Brushwood, who literally wrote the book on eating fire.
At first glance, Brian seems like a normal doting father. Penelope Rae (ph) was just seven days old when we met her.
BRIAN BRUSHWOOD, FIRE EATER & BIZARRE MAGICIAN: Hey, baby.
GUPTA: But how many dads can do this?
BRUSHWOOD: If you get it right, it looks like a little fireball jumping up there.
GUPTA: That is awesome.
GUPTA (voice-over): Today he's working on something called the human candle.
BRUSHWOOD: In fact, practice with me real quick right now. Practice -- just get a mouthful of air.
And then let it out as slowly as you can, and you can totally impress all the fire eating people, because they think this is one of the hardest things to do.
It's a good wide open. Tongue out. There you go, bring it in. You're showing your teeth. Oh.
GUPTA: It's hot.
BRUSHWOOD: Yes, it is hot.
GUPTA: Got the upper lip a little bit.
BRUSHWOOD: Then you need to tilt back. If you're getting the upper lip -- there you go. There you go.
In there. Hold it, then pull it out. OK. I think you're just exhaling is what's going on.
There you go. All the way in. There you go. Yeah!!
Did you feel that?
BRUSHWOOD: You could tell when it's in there.
All the way in. Hold it. Hold it there, hold it there. You've got plenty -- slowly.
Yes!! That was cool!
GUPTA: One thing we heard from both Todd and Brian -- safety first. This is not something you should try without an expert teacher.
A shift of wind, the wrong fuel, and even an experienced performer can meet with disaster.
BRUSHWOOD: I mean, let's face it. It only takes one screw-up to ruin your whole life. I mean, this is -- you're literally playing with fire.
And you want to make sure to be very, very safe when you do it, because you only get one mess-up, and then that's it.
There's been stuff that we put in the show that I've taken out for concerns of permanent damage.
For example, Todd Robbins does the glass eating. More power to him. He's the best I've ever seen. We felt like that one was a little too far on the permanent damage cycle.
ROBBINS: It is reality, and it's most amazing, as opposed to deception.
And therefore, when people see it and it hits them that it's real, there is a deeper sense of amazement.
It's the kind of material that, once seen is never forgotten.
GUPTA: The older carnivals often featured a strong man. But today they moved to a new stage.
We're going to take you to the Mecca of muscle when we come back.
But first, lighter fare. Weighing in at only 99 pounds, eating champion, Sonya Thomas.
In the world of competitive eating, there are big eaters. And then, there are big eaters.
Meet 99-pound Sonya Thomas, food consuming warrior who has taken down the men big time.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many?
SONYA THOMAS, EATING CHAMPION: Twenty-five.
Big guy or big eaters, or small. Size, it doesn't matter, I believe.
GUPTA: And she's right. Sort of.
It's not the size of the person, but the stomach, which in most people can expand up to 10 times its normal size. A former hotdog eating champion turned researcher also claims the stomach expands more in skinny people, because it's not hemmed in by excess fat.
Sonya says she loves food, but doesn't eat this way all the time. Most days she has one big healthy meal at her favorite Korean restaurant.
Her day job, by the way, managing a fast food place.
THOMAS: I want to be number one in the world. Period.
GUPTA: Lots of us want to be strong. An estimated 48 million Americans exercise their quest for strength using free weights.
But what about extreme strength? Well, we found it. It's name, Strong Man.
Welcome to the circus of the strong. Here "unorthodox" is an understatement.
There are only a handful of professional strong men in the world, with bulging biceps the size of a petite woman's waste, 300-plus-pound frames, and an ability to lift and tow really big things.
The Arnold Strongest Man competition is a premier event for strong men worldwide. Here, pumping and preening is required. Paparazzi hover, as do adoring fans.
They all compete with one eye trained on the king of strong bodies -- Arnold.
SVEN KARLSEN, STRONGMAN: I started just because I want to big and strong. I wanted to be like Arnold Schwarzenegger, actually.
GUPTA: The logical limits of human strength are thrown out the window. Hoisting an 18-foot hammer. Hauling an 1,865-pound wooden barge up an incline.
Strong man as a sport is nothing new. In the 1920s, Hermann Goerner used only his legs to support 16 men on a plank -- over 2,700 pounds.
And then there's Louis Cyr from Canada, considered by many to be the strongest man that ever lived. Legend has it he could lift over 550 pounds with his little finger.
Thirty-six-year-old Svend Karlsen is an eight-year veteran of the sport. He's broken 30 Norwegian power lifting records, and in 2001, captured the highest honor. He was crowned World's Strongest man.
KARLSEN: I can do these things that I know that hardly anybody can -- other people can do this on this planet. But I have a God- given talent for lifting big things.
That's in my genes. That's given to me by God.
GUPTA: But is that all there is to it? The thousands of people swarming tables at the Arnold back (ph), though, would certainly like to know.
Out here you'll find thousands of secret potions and thousands of promises.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is the energy replacement drink. You drink it right after your workout.
GUPTA: Do they work? Or is the real potion actually a gene?
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are trying to find out. They've isolated a gene called IGF-1 that is associated with muscle growth in mice, but has the potential to be used in humans.
New research indicates that when injected in the muscle, it not only increases mass, but sustained it even when weight-training stopped.
Scientists believe IGF-1, whether produced naturally or artificially induced, may be the key to a complicated genetic lock.
There is some speculation that the human body is starting to reach its potential in terms of strength. Do you see IGF-1 and substances like it expanding the potential of the human body?
DR. ELIZABETH BARTON, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA: The right person with the right compound of -- even if it were IGF-1, could probably be tremendously stronger than the next person down the line.
GUPTA: What's exciting is that IGF-1 may hold the key to slowing muscle mass loss in older patients and in those with degenerative disorders such as Lou Gehrig's Disease or muscular dystrophy.
But it also poses interesting questions. Does the intense focus on performance enhancers like steroids or IGF-1 mean that we may have reached the limits of natural human strength?
Perhaps more importantly, could it be abused?
BARTON: I most certainly think there is going to be abuse of this and attempts to abuse it.
GUPTA: Jon Andersen has seen the abuse, but tells us he prefers to push the limits naturally.
He trains long and hard. Just two years ago, he was an amateur. Today, he's ranked fourth in the United States and dreams of one day being the world's strongest man.
But Anderson wasn't always big and strong.
JON ANDERSEN, STRONGMAN: I was a kind of underdeveloped poor (ph) heel (ph) guy.
I still was able to compete and play, but I just was always fighting to be average. Or that's when -- you know, then all of a sudden the belly kind of turned into the chest. GUPTA: For 10 years he chiseled out his 300-pound body bit by bit.
ANDERSEN: For five years straight I trained every day, five days a week, sometimes six. And I was in the gym for three hours every day.
I know my mother won't be happy to hear me say this, but I would skip class so I wouldn't miss a workout.
GUPTA: Even his meals are hard work -- 25 pounds of beef and 14 supplement shakes a week.
Jon trains 12 hours a week, and all the grunting and groaning do little to mask the undeniable pain of all that work.
ANDERSEN: You know, I can hear the pain, even though I'm pushing into it, I can hear the pain saying, you know, get out of this.
GUPTA: With that price to pay, he knows that steroids or something like IGF-1, which is not yet legally available, will always be a temptation for people in this sport.
ANDERSEN: I can't look you in the face and say that a steroid is not a part of strong man. But I can tell you that IFSA is drug tested. So, those who are using will get caught and will be suspended.
GUPTA: The IFSA, or International Federation of Strength Athletes, oversees the sport and says strong men are tested twice a year for 30 different substances, although not yet for IGF-1.
ANDERSEN: Giving us a set time for the drug test probably doesn't make it as real as they want it to be, obviously, because then there's people can try to combat the test.
GUPTA: Andersen says he's never taken steroids, and that hard work was the key to breaking his own strength barriers.
ANDERSEN: I think that everybody in their own little way has a drive for something.
I tell people, you take five years of your life and truly commit yourself to only one thing, at the end of the time, you're going to have some major results.
GUPTA: When we come back, we're going to head outside to the highest peaks, the depths of the ocean and the coldest water on the planet.
LYNNE COX, ENDURANCE AND COLD WATER SWIMMER: Swimming in 30- degree water feels extremely different than swimming in 50 or 60 or 80-degree water. It actually feels thicker. It feels almost like cooled-down Jell-O.
TANYA STREETER, DEEP DIVER: I can feel the pressure quite a lot on my chest, especially around somewhere between 250 and 300 feet.
ED VIESTURS, MOUNTAIN CLIMBER: I thought, if I'm going to go to Mount Everest, I want to climb it for what it is. I want to experience 29,000 feet, not just to get to the summit, but to see if I could get there without oxygen under the mountain's terms.
GUPTA: But first, take a look behind the scenes of the greatest show on earth. It's the high wire act at the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.
BELLO NOCK, RINGLEADER, RINGLING BROTHERS BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS: What happens on a wire is, every time a foot touches the wire, that foot becomes really rigid, and the rest of it becomes the balancing point. It's how quick your reflexes are.
He's trying to grab the wire with his foot. Although it's not wrapped around, that's the feeling and the mentality that you want to have.
If you put a lot of time and dedication into this, you can accomplish anything.
GUPTA: Welcome back to LIFE BEYOND LIMITS.
LYNNE COX, COLD WATER SWIMMER: The swim to Antarctica was basically a culmination of 30 years of long-distance swims and experiences.
The idea was that it was so far beyond what I ever thought was possible. It was really out there. And it was intriguing to even consider contemplating it.
GUPTA: We'll meet Lynne Cox in a few minutes.
First, Ed Viesturs. He grew up in what he jokingly calls the mountain state of Illinois.
In high school he read the book, "Annapurna." It's about the first expedition to climb an 8,000-meter peak. And he was hooked.
Since then, his breathtaking feats have led many to call him the toughest climber in the world.
ED VIESTURS, MOUNTAIN CLIMBER: OK. So, I've got to put my right foot forward, and you do that. And then you breathe.
And then you start thinking, OK, now I've got to put my left foot forward. And that's all you're thinking about is step after step after step. And it becomes very difficult the higher you go.
GUPTA: One step at a time, Ed Viesturs is on a quest to climb the world's highest peaks.
This is a view most people only see from an airplane window ... UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have climbed approximately 34,000 feet ...
GUPTA: ... from the comfort and safety of a pressurized cabin.
Viesturs prefers the experience of high altitude and thin air.
ED VIESTURS, MOUNTAIN CLIMBER: I like things that are difficult, physically and mentally. Things that are really challenging, things that really maybe take a long time but really push me to my limits.
GUPTA: He has summited Everest five times and climbed 13 of the 14 highest peaks in the world, all over 8000 meters, or 26,000 feet, without the use of supplemental oxygen.
When Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay first summited Everest in 1953, it was unknown if humans could actually go that high at all.
SIR EDMUND HILLARY, MOUNTAINEER, EXPLORER, WRITER: We were doing-sort of entering almost a new phase in life. We had not thought about climbing the mountain without oxygen.
GUPTA: Since then at least 1200 people have summited the mountain. Because at 29,035 feet it feels like you're only getting one third of the amount of oxygen you would get at sea level, most climbers still wouldn't think of climbing without bottled oxygen.
Viesturs is not most climbers. Ed Viesturs lives on Bainbridge Island in Washington with his wife and two young children. He'd moved to Seattle to study veterinary medicine and learn to climb. Mt. Rainier was always visible from his dorm room window. Eventually, he did climb the 14,400 ft peak. Over and over. Became a guide and then-choosing to devote all his energies to mountaineering, he set his sights higher.
VIESTURS: I thought, if I'm going to go to Mt. Everest, I want to climb it for what it is. I want to experience 29,000 feet. Not just to get to the summit, but to see if I could get their without oxygen under the mountain's terms.
GUPTA: Everest. K-2. Kangchenjunga. Lhotse. Makalu. Cho Oyu. Dhaulagiri. Manaslu. Nanga Parbat. Annapurna. Gasherbrum I. Broad Peak. Gasherbrum II. Xixabangma. These are the giants of the Himalaya. Viesturs hopes to be the first American to climb them all without an oxygen bottle.
BROWNIE SHOENE, PROFESSOR OF MEDICINE, UCSD: The danger of high altitude is the low availability of oxygen. And the air is thinner.
GUPTA: Brownie Schoene, a pulmonary critical care doctor specializing in high altitude physiology has worked with Viesturs.
SCHOENE: The higher one goes, the fraction of oxygen is the same, but the density is less, so that it takes much more breathing to get the same amount of oxygen.
GUPTA: I certainly discovered this first hand in the hypobaric chamber at the Colorado Center for Altitude Medicine and Physiology. Here, researchers simulate the mountain environment where Viesturs and other climbers venture. I was wired up to monitor the oxygen levels in my brain during exercise while they simulated a rapid ascent to 14,110 feet. The top of Pikes Peak.
As we got higher, my blood saturation levels dropped, my ears popped, and my breathing became more labored. Because I didn't have time to slowly adapt to the changes in pressure, after just ten minutes I was already showing signs of acute hypoxia.
GUPTA (on-camera): I feel a little lightheaded now. I mean things are spinning a little bit more around me. I'm not seeing spots or anything. Having a little bit-I was going to ask you another question but I forgot what the question was that I was going to ask you.
(voice-over) Descending just 2,000 feet, I felt immensely better. If I had stayed up there for a few more hours I could have developed a severe headache, nausea and extreme fatigue. Some people are just better suited for climbing. I was told I had climber potential. For others, like Ed Viesturs, willpower has a lot to do with it.
And in addition, he's just built differently.
VIESTURS: By chance I kind of picked the right sport. I happen to do well in this sport and genetically I kind of by freak of nature, or whatever got something within me that allows me to work well.
GUPTA: The average person his height has a five liter lung capacity. Viesturs' is seven. In addition, he excels at taking in large amounts of oxygen and using it efficiently. Much more than the average lowlander.
JANGBRU SHERPA, EXPEDITION CONSULTANT: When I was a little kid, I always carried stuff on my back.
GUPTA: Jangbru Sherpa (ph) lives in Colorado, but grew up in the Himalaya region of Nepal, 12,000 feet above sea level. He's climbed with Ed Viesturs, and in 1996 carried this cumbersome I-Max camera to the summit.
DR. KENNETH KAMLER, AUTHOR, "SURVIVING THE EXTREMES": Sherpas have a long history of living in the high mountains and they've undergone some adaptations which allow them to live at higher altitudes than the rest of us.
GUPTA: Jangbru has summited Everest five times, twice without oxygen.
SHERPA: One step, ten breaths, one step, another ten breaths. So then when you have 60 pounds on top of your back, it can take 20 breaths, one step.
GUPTA: Dr. Kenneth Kamler, Vice President of the Explorers' Club in New York also climbs in the Himalaya. KAMLER: The Sherpas have an enzyme which allows them to pick up more oxygen more readily and to distribute it to their tissues more readily. That's probably the primary advantage, although a lot is still not understood about how they've managed to do this.
GUPTA: But, there is a limit where there is not enough oxygen to sustain life. The so-called death zone. It is an amazing place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. You couldn't last more than a few days.
SCHONE: In terms of body strength and muscle strength, the muscles deteriorate. You become weaker. Even though you are climbing and carrying heavy loads, you're actually weakening at an altitude of, say 24,000 feet or more.
GUPTA: At extreme altitude, as I learned, clear thinking is often clouded and a single bad judgement could be fatal. Ed Viesturs has learned when not to push too far.
VIESTURS: We thought the risks were too great so we decided at this point not to climb any further. So today we're going down and that's it. That's all we're going to do on Annapurna this time.
GUPTA: In the world according to Ed Viesturs, it's about the whole journey.
VIESTURS: I have family, I've got a great life, I do not want to die in the mountains. And I've always said it's got to be a round trip. You don't just go to the summit. That's half the climb. The second, most important half of the climb is the coming down.
GUPTA (on camera): When Ed Viesturs accomplishes his goal of climbing the world's highest peaks without oxygen, he still plans to take on new challenges on smaller mountains. He also wants to take his family along.
Next, take a deep breath, as we go from the world's highest peaks to the depths of the sea. It's the world of free-diving. No snorkels, no tanks, just a diver and the crushing pressure of deep water.
GUPTA: Tanya Streeter was swimming with friends in the Caribbean when they noticed how deep she could dive while holding her breath. Those friends encouraged her to start training as a free-diver. She did. And now holds the world record in a sport that requires strong lungs and even stronger willpower.
TANYA STREETER, FREE-DIVER: In the beginning I honestly started diving to figure out who I was, figure out what I was made of. Just to see if I could do it.
GUPTA (voice-over): Tanya Streeter could do it. A year after she began free-diving she set her first world record. The native Cayman Islander has broken a string of records since then, including dives unequaled by men or women.
STREETER: Having a world record doesn't mean anything. Reflecting on what I learned in the process and how empowered I became in the process in my own knowledge of what I can achieve is much more valuable.
GUPTA: Streeter now lives in Austin, Texas. Her training combines weightlifting, spinning classes and stretching.
STREETING: Increasing the flexibility of my ribcage and my abdominal-my thoracic area, basically, I allow my lungs to expand as much as possible to their maximum capacity.
GUPTA: She also practices holding her breath. Streeter has held her breath for six minutes and 16 seconds. That's just five seconds short of the women's record. Here she practices a breath hold with her husband and manager Paul.
Because of the danger of blackouts, she never does it alone.
DR. EDWARD COYLE, HUMAN PERFORMANCE LABORATORY, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS: OK, Tanya, whenever you're ready.
GUPTA: Streeter's phenomenal abilities have caught the attention of Ed Coyle. He's a health sciences professor at the University of Texas. Coil, director of UT's Human Performance Laboratory has spent much of his career studying how athletes use oxygen.
Now he wants to figure out how Streeter is able to function so well without oxygen. Already he has learned that Streeter has a lung volume, called vital capacity, of 5.7 liters. That's almost twice what you'd expect from a woman her size. Here, Coil is measuring Streeter's pulse and how much oxygen is in her blood when she's holding her breath.
After about two and a half minutes, oxygen saturation levels in the blood start dropping from 100 percent.
Your brain is receiving a lot of signals from your body that says, "This is not normal." And you have to train yourself when to listen to those signals and to understand which signals you can ignore, or at least put off for a little while.
GUPTA: In an operating room, blood oxygen saturation of less than 70 percent is considered serious. That's when the brain and then the heart, the body's top priorities, are in danger of shutting down. Streeter is able to push well below 70 percent.
GUPTA (on camera): You're like wide awake. I'd expect you to be a little out of it at 49. (voice-over) Underwater you need to overcome the most basic instinct: to breathe.
STREETER: Human physiology is only going to take you to three minutes if your mind lets you.
GUPTA: Streeter says we're all born with this skill. If we can learn to ignore the urgent signals the brain gets to take in air.
My attempts at breath-holding hover around a minute initially, even though my body still has plenty of oxygen. On my seventh attempt, I break through and hold my breath for two minutes and 17 seconds.
STREETER: That is much, much, much better.
GUPTA: Though free-diving is a lot more than holding your breath. Diving deep exposes the body to incredible amounts of pressure.
KAMLER: Pressure mounts enormously when you go under water. It doubles very rapidly, it keeps doubling. At 500 feet, her lungs would be contracted to maybe the size of potatoes.
GUPTA: French diver Audrey Mestre died trying to break Streeter's record. A lift bag designed to take her to the surface malfunctioned and Mestre stayed underwater for more than eight and a half minutes.
STREETER: It's just really hard for me to accept that somebody should die doing what I know to be so completely safe.
GUPTA: Here's Streeter before her attempt to set a record in no limits free-diving, the same event that proved fatal for Mestre.
STREETER: I've got to note (ph) when I begin a series of facial immersion. Basically subject the face, the nerve endings, the receptors around the eyes and mouth to the cool water on the face which helps to trigger the dive reflex, which is the heart rate going down.
GUPTA: By slowing down the heart, the dive reflex allows mammals like whales and seals to spend half an hour or more underwater. A slower heartbeat means less blood flowing, and less oxygen needed for that blood. That allows Streeter to push her body to new limits. To set the world record in no limits diving, Streeter needs to hold her breath for three and a half minutes. That will give her enough time to ride a weighted sled down 160 meters, 525 feet, and then return to the surface. Her trip is like riding an elevator from the top of a 50 story building to the ground floor.
STREETER: I can feel the pressure quite a lot on my chest, especially around somewhere between 250 and 300 feet. Where the lungs reach residual volume, which means they collapse to the smallest they are ever going to collapse to, which is like a shrunken grapefruit or something. Anything after 400 feet, especially somewhere even in the Turks and Caicos Islands where we set these records and the water clarity is phenomenal, it's still pitch black after 400 feet. I ride with a button. I have a system that I have to do, which is placing one hand on the lift bag, opening up the tank valve with my right hand, releasing the clip, and then putting the right hand on the lift bag.
GUPTA: So why doesn't she get the bends on her rapid ascent? Because she's not breathing pressurized air underwater, the way a SCUBA diver does.
STREETER: I let go of the lift bag around 100 feet or so and swim the rest of the way up. My husband meets me around 70 or 80 feet and we swim the rest of the way up.
GUPTA: Streeter says her success in free-diving has taught her a lesson she tries to pass on to others.
STREETER: I am constantly preaching to people that they need to redefine their limits. You have to accept straight off the bat that somewhere in you individually you have a personal limit, but the chances are it's nowhere where you think it is. And by going through the process of trying and never giving up you'll find out where it truly is. And it's going to be much, much further, longer, deeper, whatever, than where you thought it was to begin with.
GUPTA (on camera): Tanya Streeter is hoping that the research into her physical abilities will offer new insights into asthma, sleep apnea and sudden infant death syndrome.
After the break, we're going to resurface in the coldest water on the planet. We're going to meet a woman who dodges icebergs. She also shatters assumptions about where humans can swim and survive.
GUPTA (on camera): You're about to meet Lynne Cox. She has a new book called "Swimming to Antarctica," and really, the title says it all. She told us it's a journey that took more than thirty years.
(voice-over) You're looking at the finish line. Just 4000 hardy researchers live on this God-forsaken continent. A handful of tourists come each year for the glimpse of the natives and the impossibly beautiful scenery. No one ever took it for a beach resort. And yet, with a swimming suit her only protection against the cold and 30-knot winds, Lynne Cox sat on the brink of history and pondered that final step.
LYNNE COX, AUTHOR, "SWIMMING TO ANTARCTICA": Swimming in 30- degree water feels extremely different from swimming in 50 or 60 or 80 degree water. It actually feels thicker. It feels almost like cooled-down Jello.
GUPTA: The average person, or as Cox says, the untrained person, can't last five minutes in water this cold. The muscles seize up, including the heart, and that's if you don't drown first. But Cox has been pushing limits since she was a teenager. At age 14, a 27 mile swim across California's Catalina Channel. At 15, the fastest English Channel crossing for women or men. Over the years the list got longer. The swims more daring and exotic.
COX: Swam across Cook Strait. Was the first woman to do that. Swam around the Cape of Good Hope. First person to do that. Straits of Magellan. Bering Strait was really significant. That was a swim that opened the border between the United States and the Soviet Union for the first time in 48 years.
GUPTA: Her swim inspired a toast between Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan. By spending nearly two hours in water that dipped as low as 38 degrees, she not only crossed a political boundary, but crossed the line of what people thought physically possible.
COX: You feel an intense cold, extreme cold. And that first moment when you hit the water your body's changing in a huge way.
GUPTA: First, of course, we shiver. After that, the body responds to cold by shunting blood away from the extremities and non- essential organs like the stomach and intestines in order to focus on warming the heart, lungs and brain. If you go overboard in cold water, the standard advice is float, don't swim. You'll waste the energy you need to stay alive. But Cox is different. Her body actually gets warmer as she swims.
Doctors from the University of Santa Barbara once had her swallow a tiny thermometer with a radio transmitter.
COX: I swam for four hours in 50 degree temperature and my body temperature went from 97.6, a little bit lower than normal, up to 100.2.
GUPTA: Why is she different? As an Olympic level endurance athlete she can work her muscles so hard and so long she generates more heat than she loses. And that heat is kept inside by a layer of natural insulation. A little extra fat spread evenly around her body. Another advantage, Cox's body is exactly the same density as seawater. Most women are too buoyant. Most men, not buoyant enough. She simply floats, leaving all of her energy for swimming. And then, there's mind over matter.
We met Cox on a beach in Southern California.
COX: I think that when I go into the water I just feel this immediate freedom and buoyancy and lightness.
GUPTA: If you swim repeatedly in cold water, you'll adapt, to a point, by producing special proteins that protect the skin from cold. But at 57 degrees, this is chilly for anyone without a wet suit, even Lynne.
COX: I feel the cold like anyone else does, but it's more of after getting beyond that initial shock of cold and then swimming and then letting the body warm itself up.
GUPTA: By 2002, she needed a new challenge. COX: To swim to Antarctica was basically a culmination of 30 years of long distance swims and experiences. The idea was that it was so far beyond what I ever thought was possible, it was really out there. And it was intriguing to even consider contemplating it. I mean, I spent the first year trying to figure out how I could even do it and train for it and then make it work.
GUPTA: Her goal: swim a mile. But after months of intense training in progressively colder water, a practice swim in the Antarctic waters left her badly shaken. In 22 minutes, Cox had covered 8/10s of a mile. But by the end she was colder than she had ever been. The swim left her with nerve damage all over her skin. To avoid negative thoughts, Cox refused to lie on a stretcher as part of the safety drill, having a friend stand in for her instead.
COX: So basically they were asking, he was asking me to pretend that I had died or had passed out or gone into cardiac arrest. And now it's practicing my own death and having them carry me on to the ship. So I said, you know what, no thank you.
GUPTA: Two days later the time had come. The water, which doesn't freeze until 28 degrees because of the salt content, was 32 degrees.
COX: The swim itself was extremely beautiful and haunting. Everything is sort of reduced to the colors of blues and whites and greens of the waters. But also there's the harshness of it, that knowing that if you stay in the water a moment too long that you can go into cardiac arrest. There's that knowledge that you are really on the edge here and that you can push yourself too far.
GUPTA: In the coldest water on the planet, she went just far enough, beating her goal, almost a mile and a quarter.
A quick ride back to the boat and then a celebration.
COX: Well, for me the swims are about exploring different parts of the world. The idea of going to Antarctica and seeing what it's like to be there, I mean, the curiosity that human beings have to go to unexplored places and experience them I mean, that's a huge drive for me, to know what it's like, to know what it feels like, to know what it looks like and then, even better, is to be able to come back and tell the stories of the experiences.
GUPTA: "Swimming to Antarctica."
COX: So far I'm the only one to know that story, as far as swimming a long period of time in the colder water.
GUPTA (on camera): Lynne Cox is fully recovered now. She told us the nerve sensation returned in about six months. Well, over the last hour we've met some truly amazing people. People whose accomplishments have tested the limits of what is humanly possible. Their journeys have pushed past physical barriers as well as psychological ones that serves as inspiration for all of us. KAMLER: I think everyone in their lives should have a Mt. Everest. Something that pushes them to their limit, that is maybe just at the limit of what they can do, something they thing maybe is a little beyond their limit, because when you push yourself to a limit it's amazing what you can accomplish.
JON ANDERSEN, STRONGMAN: Sometimes the payoff is not today, not tomorrow, it's at the very end.
TODD ROBBINS, FIRE-EATER, SWORD-SWALLOWER, GLASS-EATER: Then, when you finally do it, it's a terrifying thing the moment you do it but it's a wonderful sense of achievement.
STREETER: What doesn't ever leave you is what you go through getting there. And that is the part that teaches you the most.
COX: Life is about taking on different challenges and trying new things, because you're only here once as far as I know.
VIESTURS: People in front of us have broken some psychological barriers and we follow in their paths so I think humans can do amazing things and I don't think we've reached our limits.
There's a quote that I always like to use from Johann Goethe. He says, to paraphrase it, if you have a dream, begin it, boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
GUPTA: That's LIFE BEYOND LIMITS. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Thanks for watching.
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