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Take that, gravity!

Skydiving in formation requires serious stamina...and a solid helmet

October 23, 2012|By Ryan Smith | For RedEye

Felix Baumgartner risked his life by skydiving from the edge of space, but the Austrian daredevil didn't have to worry about being kicked in the head during his famous descent.

The Chicago Furies routinely deal with knees, feet and arms banging into each other as they try to stay in formation while in freefall.

"You get a lot of physical contact up there," said Shannon Sweet, 44, of Grand Rapids, Mich. "I get a lot of sore fingers and toes, and sometimes because of my position I get a knee to the head. Thankfully, I have a helmet."

Enduring minor injuries is just a small part of the challenge of being a member of the Furies, a skydiving team based out of Skydive Chicago in Ottawa, Ill., who are gearing up for this week's U.S. Parachute Association National Skydiving Championships in Eloy, Ariz.

The competition is part race and part choreographed gymnastics routine. Dozens of teams of four fall from 10,000 feet in a belly-to-Earth orientation and hold each other's arms and legs, rushing to make as many intricate formations as they can in 35 seconds. Judges score their formations, which include "stars" and "open accordions." Forget "Dancing with the Stars"—this is Dancing in the Stars.

"It's not easy," said Karyn Rees, 36, of Uptown. "The big thing is exiting the plane. You have to have all four people leave at the same time. If someone isn't ready and you're out of sync, that can mess up the entire jump."

To complicate matters, talking to your teammate leads to nothing but a mouthful of air—all communication has to be nonverbal.

"We end up having to do a lot of mental preparation," Sweet said. "We walk the dives out beforehand and I'm constantly thinking about the formations in my head. I'll be driving somewhere and in my head I'm thinking about exits and where to go during different moves."

There's a physical toll as well. Each team member must make several consecutive jumps during competition while carrying 25-pound rigs on his or her back.

"You have to be in good physical shape because by the time you're on your third or fourth jump in a row, you're totally out of breath—it's exhausting," said Rhonda Wilcox, 40, of Greensboro, N.C.

Practice time is at premium for the Furies, who are made up of a full-time computer programmer, an engineer and two accountants scattered across the country. Rees is the only team member who lives in the Chicago area. Sweet, Wilcox and fill-in member Chad Smith fly in from out of state to jump together every two or three weeks at Skydive Chicago.

"We probably do 300 jumps a year, which sounds like a lot but when you figure that each jump lasts about one minute, that only adds up to five or six hours. That really isn't that much," Sweet said.

It's less preparation than most teams in the upcoming championships. The Furies won the gold medal in the Advanced Class in 2009, resulting in an automatic upgrade to the Open Class—the top level of competition largely consisting of full-time professional squads.

"The competition is fierce, but we enjoy going against the best," Rees said. "We pride ourselves in that we've won, yet we have our careers and full-time jobs."

The Furies also are battling gender expectations along with gravity. In a male-dominated sport where women make up only 15 percent of jumpers, according to the U.S. Parachuting Association, the all-female Furies (with the exception of alternate member Smith) are shattering the glass ceiling at 13,000 feet.

"Guys seem to be more OK with going to the edge and women seem to be more scared by certain things and just don't go for it," Sweet said. "We're trying to get more women to jump and help coach them through it."

The Furies also are trying to recruit a permanent fourth member of their team. Rees hopes to encourage more women like herself; she didn't start skydiving until her late 20s.

"I always wanted to do this, but my friends were scared and never wanted to do it," she said. "My brother suggested taking my dad on Father's Day one time, so that was my big chance. Once I sat on the airplane and jumped, I was like, 'Oh yeah, this is it.' It took me three years to graduate from the school because it's a scary thing and I got nervous about it. But I'm glad I did."

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

SKYDIVING BY THE NUMBERS

160-180 mph

Average speed of freefall

10,500 feet

Elevation of jumps during the National Skydiving Championships.

128,097 feet

Height of Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump.

21

Number of skydiving fatalities in the U.S. annually (one fatality per 141,509 skydives).

400 people

Largest ever skydiving formation, a record set in Thailand in 2006.

40,000

Most skydives by an American (Don Kellner of Pennslyvania).

Source: United States Parachuting Association


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