The Women’s Vertical World Record [WVWR] attempts brought 95 women from 18 different nations to Skydive Arizona November 26-December 1st. I can’t help but reminisce back ten years ago when Amy Chmelecki and I organized our first WVWR and only had 20+ women from 5 nations. The rise of female participation from 2003 to now has been remarkable
However, what makes this event so remarkable, are the women who participate in the journey of making history. We organizers, Amy Chmelecki, Sara Curtis, Anna Moxnes and Domi Kiger and myself, set the stage by hosting camps around the world to help prepare women for this venture. And that’s what it’s about, the journey, not the destination. We were set out to break our own world record of 41.
There were many women whose journey’s I was so honored to be a part of, that inspired me in my own journey that I asked three of them to share a bit of their story. Shannon Fitzgerald D’Alessio made her first jump in September 2002 at Skydive Crosskeys. She attended her first WVWR camp I hosted at Skydive Elsinore in October 2012 and said she had the most fun there than in the past ten years of skydiving. “I left the camp feeling energized to improve so I could be on the record the following year.” After she made the resolution, she found out she was pregnant four days later.
At age 17, Cathy O’Sullivan did her first jump out of a helicopter but it wasn’t until college days that she did her AFF Course. Cathy jumped off and on but in 2010 she moved Skydive Chicago and decided to seriously pursue learning to freefly. “The WVWR was the perfect goal to set in order to improve my skills and be a part of something amazing.” On June 30th 2013, just a few months before the record attempts, Cathy’s canopy collapsed about 30 feet from the ground from turbulence that left her hospitalized for a week and a broken pelvis/sacrum in four areas.
Valentina Solis pulled off the most epic covert move from her parents at the age of 12 – she did her first tandem, without her parents knowing! That moment became much more for than just sneaking away, she knew that she was destined to be a skydiver and in 2007 started her AFF in Mexico. In 2012, Valentina finished her first marathon. Along that journey she met Cathy O’Sullivan and she sent Valentina a link of all the WVWR camp info. She knew then that was to be her goal for 2013. But she was just getting proficient flying on her head.
When Shannon learned she was pregnant, she stopped jumping and flying in the tunnel. She did her first jump back after having a healthy baby boy ten months later, when he was 7 weeks old. “I wasn’t sure if I would be ready to participate. I went to the last scheduled WVWR camp in Eloy last Halloween and my flying was not awesome. I was pretty disappointed,” Shannon recalls. She not only had to deal with coping with her uncurrency, she also had to tend to sleepless nights and an enormous amount of energy to nurse her newborn.
Cathy helped me organizing logistics during the Summerfest camp at Skydive Chicago, and I would glance at her as I reviewed our jumps. Her eyes were wide open with complete focus, sitting with her legs crossed, leaning forward with her fist under her chin. She had the look of determination. “The goal of the record stayed in the back of my mind. I tried to stay involved and sat in on the WVWR during Summerfest on crutches, and watched the debriefs in an attempt to learn as much as possible from the ground.”
Valentina came to my camp in Sebastian for the Invasion Boogie in 2012/2013. I could tell she was a new freeflier, but that’s exactly why we hold camps. “I attended the first camp in Eloy and I realized how hard this actually was, and that is what made me stick to it and train hard,” Valentina said.
“My husband Daless supported and encouraged me in every way,” begins Shannon. “He said to me, ‘How cool will it be to tell JD [her son] you’re a world record holder? If you don’t try, you’ll always wonder if you could have made it.’” Shannon’s husband took care of their son while she did more skydive training and the Nor Cal crew worked with her in the tunnel.
Cathy’s doctor cleared her to “ease” back into normal activities less than 2 months to the attempts. She used a hanging harness to determine if her pelvis could handle opening shock, did stability drills in the tunnel and a friend organized a big way skills camp so she could get current flying with others. She said, “With the memory of my accident still fresh in my head, there were a lot of issues with fear that I had to learn how to manage as I was trying to ‘ease’ back in the sport. By far, the biggest challenge of getting back into the sport that fast was overcoming the fear of getting hurt again.”
Valentina’s journey lead her through intense moments of frustration. She was training in the tunnel and attending big way camps. However digesting huge amounts of information on how to exit and approach formations and applying them were on two different tracks.
“For me, the biggest challenge was building my confidence, controlling my emotions and having positive thoughts, despite the frustrations between the good and bad jumps."
A world record requires so much focused energy – mentally and physically. It requires you to be your best for the team to succeed. There’s so much pressure and expectation to perform and it is the job of the organizers to select the team to conquer that goal. We organizers said at the initial debrief, “there’s no crying in skydiving. Only when someone dies or you’re at the Grand Canyon.”
When the team was selected, Shannon was part of the first attempts, however Cathy and Valentina were not. Shannon explains, “My goal was to have fun and be safe. If I made the record, awesome. If not, I was spending 5 days doing awesome skydives with amazing women. So when my name was called for the first attempt, I was utterly shocked. Followed immediately by nerves and adrenaline.”
“Having to tend to a sleepless child and breastfeed was a lot of hard work and controlled chaos. I had to do things that I never imagined would be a part of my skydiving routine. Every morning I would pump in the car while my husband drove me to the dz. I hired a packer, so in between loads I could jet off to the bathroom to pump again. I’d get done just in time for the debrief and dirt dive.”
Cathy’s perspective shadowed Shannon’s. “By the time I got to Arizona, I had set my expectations realistically, expecting to be on the B team. I felt the B team was going to be an amazing outcome by itself, and would be valuable training for another record someday.”
Valentina explained, “The beginning was very hard for me, as I wasn’t part of the attempts, so I had to keep focused and positive to do my best on the B team. On every jump I thought to myself, ‘this jump is my record and I will make this happen.’”
After the first day’s attempts, Shannon was rotated out of the formation. “When Melissa walked towards me, I knew I was cut. I was disappointed, but not surprised. Jumping with the B team was awesome – a relief! I told myself I had nothing to lose, so my goal was to be consistent and solid.”
The third day was challenging as the ladies were starting to feel the physical effects of going to 18,000’ for the last few days and facing the mental challenges of repeating the same jump over and over. Since the third day was the last day, we changed the size of the formation from 69 to 65, then 63.
We organizers tirelessly reviewing the B teams jumps. “Melissa came up to me and asked if I was ready. I asked, ‘ready for what?’” Cathy recalled. “My initial response was disbelief, then I realized what was happening, then I said, YES!”
“Working on being solid on the B team paid off!” Shannon explained. “I got put back onto the attempts!” Shannon kept a mature perspective throughout the changes. She even said to me that she had to concentrate on staying calm in the plane and in the air to control her nerves and focused on small things to improve.
“When the final day of the attempts came I was super nervous and stressed, but deep inside I knew I was ready,” Valentina remembers. “One by one I felt I did a very good job on each jump. Then Anna came up to me and said, ‘get ready, you’re in the record.”
Day 3, Attempt 12. The core 40 built quickly. The levels were looking good, the energy was there. A small part of the formation exploded and one person flew out, yet the rest of the formation was unaffected and finished building. The troubled section rebuilt and the last dock happened the last second before break-off. We knew we built a new world record!
“It feels freaking amazing! I’m still in awe of all the hard core women who made it happen.
In such a male dominated sport, I’m proud to be part of a group that reached this level of flying!” explained Shannon.
“It’s still a little surreal. When the judges announced that we got the record, the floodgates opened and I literally had tears of joy streaming down my face (which was cool because the record was over and we couldn’t get cut for crying)!” she joked. “I looked around the room at all of the amazing people and was so proud of what we accomplished, and so grateful to be a part of it.”
“Words are not enough to express how amazing this whole experience has been! I’m thirsty for more!” Valentina said. The mental strength played a big role for me and this quote became my mantra, “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not on the branch, but on it’s wings. Always believe in yourself.”
On every jump, cameraflyer Jason Peters had with him the ashes of our fallen comrade, Stephanie Eggum. The plan was to release her ashes on the world record. Although the judges weren’t in the air to confirm that Attempt #12 was official, through his lens Jason knew without a doubt that we had it and let Stephanie free. So to us organizers, we really built a 64-way.
And this is why I keep doing this. The amazing experience, the amazing women, and the amazing ride. This is my 11th World Record, and it just keeps getting better.