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Free Fall Fanatics: Arizona Airspeed Skydiving Team Members Jump for Joy and Competition

October 24, 2006

By Patrick Finley, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

Oct. 24–ELOY — Four teammates gather near the concrete basketball court. They appear to be square dancing.

They work on their timing, rotating like characters on the clock outside Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” ride. Spin. Stop. Grab each other’s arms. Start again.

Nearby, others lay flat on their stomachs on home-made skateboards called “creepers,” rotating with the same militaristic timing.

A half-hour later, the four — plus someone with a video camera strapped to their helmet — will do the same routine 10,000 feet above the spinning earth, free-falling for at least 30 seconds before deploying their parachutes and floating, harmlessly, onto the grass field at Eloy’s airfield.

Welcome to the 49th annual United States Parachute Association National Skydiving Championships.

For the uninitiated, the idea of team competition — in this case, the four-way formation event — seems unnecessary, like holding a synchronized swimming event in a shark tank.

“The thrill here is the competition, trying to do your best on every jump,” said Eliana Rodriguez, who has more than 7,000 jumps to her name. “Right now people are nervous because of the competition, not because they’re jumping out of a plane.”

Rodriguez, 32, is one of the 10 members — plus one part-timer — of Arizona Airspeed, one of the world’s top skydiving teams. The teammates, ages 27 to 41, have managed to do what few in the sport have done — make skydiving their full-time jobs. Arizona Airspeed gives clinics around the world, competes in events and is based out of Skydive Arizona, which lets them use the Eloy dropzone for free.

Skydive Arizona claims it has the largest drop zone in the world. The airfield is a skydiving mecca.

Craig Girard is the senior member of Airspeed and the de facto team captain. For eight years, he was a member of the Army’s elite Golden Knights parachute team, where his only military duties were to perform.

“Like a skydiving scholarship,” he said.

Girard, who joined Airspeed 12 years ago, first jumped out of a plane when he was 15 years old and living in Phoenix. Twenty-three thousand jumps later, the 41-year-old is still living his dream.

“People look at skydiving like it’s a pastime,” he said. “We’ve turned it into a sport. It’s our lifestyle. It’s totally been my career.”

The team had about 20 jumps last week to prepare for the four-man event, in which two divers hang outside the airplane door before the entire team pushes out in unison.

The team has 30 seconds to complete a series of formations — with names such as hammer, ice pick, viper and caterpillar — while in a free fall.

When they land, the fifth jumper on the team — the cameraman — moves his footage onto a computer, which makes a recording fed onto the dozen televisions in the judges’ room. The team with the most accurate formations over 10 rounds wins.

The championships, which started Saturday and will last a week, feature categories for amateurs and more experienced jumpers.

By the end of the week, hundreds of skydivers will have competed in five events — formation skydiving, artistic events, free fall style and accuracy landing, canopy formation and sport accuracy.

On Monday, the two teams representing Airspeed finished third and sixth in the four-way formation skydive.

The free fall style and accuracy event is considered the sport’s classic event. When the event started 49 years ago, parachutists aimed for an “X” on the ground.

Now, because of new parachute technology, jumpers must place their heel on a yellow dot the size of a nickel that sits on an electronic touchpad.

“It’s an adrenalin sport,” said USPA Executive Director Chris Needels, a former Golden Knight. “But as far as competition goes, it’s no different than someone who likes to ski wanting to run gates.”

It’s an interesting combination of cultures.

A sport associated with Mountain Dew commercials and words like “extreme” is made up of many former Army and Air Force members. Needels was director of counterterrorism for President George H.W. Bush, whom he has taken skydiving. When Airspeed members look at their video after a jump, they call it a “debriefing.”

Then there are people like Sean MacCormac, a former X Games skysurfing champion based in DeLand, Fla. Sunday, he and teammate Tristen Green flipped through Eloy’s wind tunnel, an indoor tube that fires air at 120 mph to simulate a free fall.

It is great practice, like a trampoline to a gymnast. People afraid to go up in a plane — or pay to go up — can climb in the tube.

Green and MacCormac flip, spin and twist — like astronauts dancing.

Green, 43, first jumped out of a plane on her 40th birthday.

“My sister told me if you want a new perspective on life, that’s one way to get it,” she said.

Hooked, Green — who homeschooled two children and lives in Hawaii — started training in DeLand in May. This is her first event.

“If you want to succeed, it is a lot of hard work,” she said. “It’s like any other sport.”

Even if it’s 10,000 feet in the air.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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