Eliana Rodriguez - As Bright as the SunshineBy Betsy Barnhouse on 2004-03-19
Eliana’s huge smile is nearly as bright as the sunshine here in Arizona. Although she may be shy, she shares that smile on a daily basis. The warmth of that smile is inviting and uplifting to those around her. Most that have flown with Eliana would say they find her to be a gentle spirit in what is predominately a male sport filled with "A" type personalities. Her easy manner makes her approachable. Oh, and did I mention that smile…?
My first experience jumping with Eliana was a real treat.
Height and Weight: 5’6 140lbs.
Birthplace: Passaic, New Jersey
Marital Status: Single
Team: Arizona Airspeed
Neither of us at the time were proficient free fliers, but we managed to pull off a three way. We had a lot of fun doing it and captured the jump with stills and video. I am happy to report that both of our skills have improved over the years, and we can actually be in the same skydive together! Not too long ago, Eliana, Craig Girard, Omar Alhegelan and I all went out and played a game of 'follow the leader.' We all giggled watching Omar and trying to imitate his flying, with us looking like fish out of water as he performed loops, spins and twists with ease. There is much to be said about this woman from New Jersey who had big dreams and made the sacrifices to achieve them. The following is a brief overview of that journey.
Eliana was born in Passaic, New Jersey on Oct.1, 1974. Her parents, both from Colombia came to the U.S. in hopes of finding a better life. From the age of two to twelve her father moved the family back and forth from Connecticut to Rhode Island, always in search of a better job. After multiple trips to visit family in Colombia, Eliana’s father decided he wanted to move back to his homeland. The family took one final family trip to Florida to see Disney World, and her parents loved it so much that in 1988 they moved to Kissimmee, Florida rather than Medellin, Colombia.
During Eliana’s senior year in high school she was unsure about what career path she wanted to follow so she decided to join the army rather than attending college like most of her friends. She said the army offered her financial aid for school which she really needed, the opportunity to do some traveling and also the opportunity to take airborne training. She asked her recruiter about it and he suggested Eliana request airborne school after basic training.
Eliana was stationed at Fort Bragg in 1993 and it appeared as though airborne might finally become a reality. Upon her arrival to her unit she requested airborne school and it was approved. Unfortunately, shortly after she had her physical the army realized that she had less than a year left in the military. Eliana would need to re-enlist in order to be sent to airborne school. Eliana declined the offer, as she wanted to attend college.
Eliana still wanted to skydive and so did some of her co-workers. After many attempts to try and get a group of people together she finally decided to go to the drop zone by herself. On October 1, 1995 she did a tandem jump in Raeford, North Carolina. While leaving the drop zone a member of the army parachute team who had been on the same plane ride up to altitude asked her if she enjoyed the jump and if she was going to go through the AFF course. She told him she loved the jump but couldn’t afford the course due to the fact that she was only an E-4 in the military. He told her about the 82nd Freefall Activity which is a military skydiving club. He said they had a static line program which was less expensive than the AFF program and that the jumps were discounted because it was a military club and she was in the army. Eliana told him she was definitely interested and he introduced her to one of the head instructors that happened to be standing just a few feet away. And so it began.
On April 24, 1996 was discharged from the military and returned to Kissimmee, Florida where she attended Valencia Community College in Orlando jumping as much as she could afford. She worked in a few different places but finally settled down in a restaurant as a waiter and bartender. Eliana would make the trek to Titusville every weekend even if she could afford to make only one jump.
In 1998 a Skyventure wind tunnel was being built in Orlando about 20 minutes from where she lived. A friend of hers from the drop zone suggested that she apply for a job there. Eliana felt that she was too inexperienced, but her friend insisted that she would be great for the job. When she gave the General Manager her resume the next day, she was immediately hired. While working at the tunnel Eliana became friends with the managers’ girlfriend who was also a skydiver. She was starting a 4-way team both for fun and to improve her skills. Eliana mentioned that she thought that would be fun and some day that she too would like to do the same. In December, 1998, Eliana started training with team Illusions, which consisted of Cecilia Ferrer, Cathy Hodge, and Rachel Vivier. Kurt Gaebel was their coach. They made about 50 training jumps together and had attended a few Florida Skydiving League (FSL) meets when Eliana’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Eliana quit the team, jumping, work and school and took care of her mother for the next four months until her mother’s death.
In September, 1999, Eliana resumed her work at Skyventure and once again the opportunity to get on a team presented itself. She declined due to financial restraints, not having worked for four months. Team Kinetisis was still short one team member as the season started. When asked if she could fill in for the first meet of the season, she did and was hooked again. After the first two training camps some personnel changes needed to be made. Two of her tunnel co-workers joined the team and they became Deland Tunnel Rage (with Thomas Hughes, Glenn Mendez, and Kyle Starck).
Deland Tunnel Rage was a very unique team because most of the members had very few jumps, with little to no experience in 4-way. Since most of the team worked at the tunnel and Glenn flew there regularly they all had very good individual flying skills. What they needed was to learn to fly as a team. The team agreed to hire Shannon Pilcher as their coach and they made 100 jumps throughout the year, did some tunnel time as a team, and competed at a few of the FSL meets. In October 2000 they competed at the US Nationals in Perris, California and won the gold medal in the intermediate class with a 15.3 average.
A few weeks after Eliana returned from nationals, she received an invitation to jump with another team that was forming. The team was being considered for the US women’s 4-way team and would serve as the trial in that category. Lilac Hayes and Sally Hathaway from Skydive City in Zephryhills, FL and Sally Stewart from Skydive Arizona in Eloy, AZ were looking for a fourth member. Meanwhile, The World Cup of Formation Skydiving was to be held at Skydive Arizona in the U.S. Since there were no women’s teams that competed in the open class at the nationals, this meant that the US lacked representation in the women 4-way division.
With only 30 team jumps together in November 2000, these women competed as Synchronicity at the World Cup and won the gold in women’s 4-way with an 11.8 average. Although they had only talked about doing this one competition for fun, they were now eligible to compete at the World Championships in Spain in 2001. The team agreed that if they were going to compete at the World Championships, they would have to train more. A plan was formed and they trained to go to Spain, hiring Joey Jones as their coach, making 300 jumps in a six month period, in addition to spending time in the tunnel. Their efforts paid off as they captured the gold with a 14.7 average.
When Eliana returned from Spain a conversation ensued with Alan Metni of Arizona Airspeed. Alan had decided to retire, leaving a slot open on the team. Eliana jumped at the chance to try out. December 2nd Eliana received the call of a lifetime. She earned the slot and became the first and only female member of Airspeed! She started training with Airspeed Zulu that week which consisted of Gary Beyer, Chad Smith, Kirk Verner and Jeremy Peters.
The plan was to make 1000 training jumps in 4-way and compete at the U.S. nationals in Chicago in September, 2002. The team experienced many difficulties throughout the year. Gary injured his shoulder while snowboarding, Chad quit the team and Eliana broke her ankle one month before the nationals so she was unable to compete. It was a disappointing set back.
Since 2002 was the selection year for the World Championships in 2003, the national champions of 4-way and 8-way would get the U.S. team slots and would have the opportunity to compete at the World Championships representing the United States in Gap, France. Airspeed qualified in 8-way, and Eliana was selected as an alternate. By the end of November her ankle was strong enough to train with the team. In December 2002, 300 skydivers including Eliana attempted a 300-way world record in the skies over Eloy, Arizona. After 12 attempts they accomplished their goal.
In January, 2003 the team began training 8-way. The team consisted of John Eagle, Craig Girard, Todd Hawkins, Neal Houston, Mark Kirkby, Steve Nowak, Dennis Rook, Kirk Verner, and Eliana. They made 800 training jumps by the end of August.
In September, 2003, after a very exciting competition and a jump off round the team placed second behind the Russians. The team averaged 20.2 after 10 rounds and 20.1 after 11 rounds. Airspeed tied the Russians even on the 11th round, but the rules state that if the teams are still tied after the jump-off round, the gold medal goes to the team who had achieved the highest scoring round of the meet. Airspeed’s highest score was a 24 and the Russians highest score was a 26.
In October, 2004 the venue for nationals was Lake Wales, Florida. The team competed in 4-way even though they hadn’t trained 4-way throughout the year. Airspeed Vertical with John, Craig, Neal, Mark and Steve came in 3rd and Airspeed Dragon with Todd, Dennis, Kirk, Jeremy Peters, and Eliana came in 4th.
In 8-way competition the team fared better. They took the gold and Eliana became the first women to win a gold medal at the U.S. nationals in 8-way Opens.
As 2003 was also a selection year for the 2004 World Championships in Croatia, the 8-way team qualified to represent the United States. Teammates John and Mark decided to retire from the team and were replaced with Andy Honigbaun and Mike Inabinet. The plan for 2004 is 800 to 1000 training jumps before September and to win the 2004 World Championships in Croatia.
January, 2004 Craig, Dennis and Eliana traveled to Tok-li, Thailand to participate in the 372-way world record attempts. On January, 6 a 357-way completed and became a new world record thus adding a second world record to her credit.
I asked Eliana what was the most difficult aspect of her journey. She offered that financially it has been extremely difficult, but she also offers that if you have a dream you need to find a way to make it happen.
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