Skydiving is a sport like any other with plenty of mistakes we sometimes make when playing the game. In baseball we might “strike out”. In football we could “fumble”. In Big Way Formation Skydiving we “go low”.
For my non-skydiving friends let me explain what “going low” means. When we are doing large freefall formation jumps we all exit the planes separately then fly together to build a particular formation with each person in a preplanned position or “slot”. We always approach the formation from above. As long as we stay above the formation we can fly in a body position in which if we tuck up, or spill air we can increase our speed and sink into our slot. If we are above the formation we also have the comfort of knowing that if we do make a mistake most of the other jumpers won’t be able to see us.
If we go low on the formation it is very difficult to spread out and get big enough to slow down to the speed of the formation above us. In addition while we lay there below, spread eagle like road kill, everyone sees us and there is no hiding from the video. When someone goes low the jump is usually over. Of all the mistakes we can make, “going low” is the one that is most talked about, laughed about, (cried over) and feared by large formation skydivers.
This past October at Skydive Perris, my home drop zone, we hosted the “S202” World Record, one of the best skydiving events I’ve ever had the opportunity to be a part of. The “S” stands for sequential, referring to the goal of doing a sequence of different freefall formations rather than one static formation. The “202” is the number of talented, top level, world class skydivers that were on the jump. I was the host, one of the Captains and probably the most experienced skydiver with more total jumps and National and World Meet medals than anyone else.
It was about the 4th skydive of the event and everyone was flying great. We hadn’t completed the 202 yet but we knew it was going to happen any jump. The first few jumps were very smooth for me and my section. We completed our section each time with no problems.
Following the success of the first jumps, as I prepared and visualized for this jump I wasn’t quite as focused and disciplined as I had been. I still prepared, but put maybe 90% into it compared to the 110% I had put in on the previous jumps.
On this jump I had a good exit, saw the base and easily found the people I was following. I put a little extra gas on and cut the corner to get into my position a little sooner. I still had some speed as I arrived at my position and hit the brakes with all I had. I realized I was sinking past my slot and stretched out even bigger to slow down. But I wasn’t able to stop and sank right by. I went low.
I have to say, you just haven’t lived until you’ve “gone low” on a 202 person world record attempt. I’ll never forget the emotions and crazy thoughts I experienced during those few seconds.
The first thing that crossed my mind when I realized I was going low was, “This can’t be happening, not to me, I’m a world champion.” (Yeah, whatever.)
Once I was down and dirty I immediately started looking for something else to blame thinking, “This can’t be my fault, I hope this isn’t my fault. Something happened; the formation must have slowed down. There must be other people low too.” I searched the sky to see who else was low. It was all me, all alone in a bright blue jumpsuit that no one could possibly miss, looking up at 200 world class skydivers who were looking down at me.
Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw an orange jumpsuit under the formation with me. I have never been so happy in my life! I felt so much better knowing there was someone else suffering with me. And better yet when I realized it was one of my closest friends, one of the best skydivers in the group and another Captain.
At that moment I actually thought to myself “How screwed up a person am I that I’m happy to see my friend suffering with me?” I knew it was wrong but I’d be lying if I said I felt otherwise. (I do feel bad about that though.)
Everyone landed safely from the jump and took full advantage of the opportunity to give me a hard time for going low. I did get some pleasure out of providing so much joy and laughter to so many friends. I even think watching me screw up may have helped others to relax and perform better. But I did wish someone else had stepped up and provided this morale booster rather than me having to take one for the team like this.
You can be sure that on the rest of the jumps I stayed focused and wasn’t going to allow myself to slack off again. Records were set and the event was a complete success.
What did I learn from this experience?
- I’m not as good as I think I am. If I want to perform at my best no less that 110% will do.
- Don’t go low alone, way better to drag a friend down with me.
- Don’t search for excuses in the moment. Have my excuses ready to go and stand behind them like they’re facts.
- Never wear a bright colored jumpsuit.
- Laughter cures almost everything.
Yup, you haven’t lived until you’ve gone low on a 202 person world skydiving record. But I would highly recommend you live vicariously through me on this one.