By Ian Drennan
I wasn't really sure what to expect when arriving at Deepwood Ranch in Deland for the PDFT Tryouts. So much of my skydiving career had been spent preparing for this moment, yet when it finally arrived I felt very unprepared. I can't deny that going into the event I was in competition mode, not sure what to expect, but sure I was going to give 100% no matter what they threw at us. Little did I know that this would feel, and be, nothing like a competition, and nothing like anything I'd ever experienced before...
After a brief welcome by the PDFT we were all taken to a house where we were given free rein to divide our living space as we saw fit. The mood was good; everyone was excited, and nervous, as to what the coming days would bring. Surprisingly when it came to picking living space, most people gravitated towards the people they'd never met or had spent limited time with. There were of course, requirements for each area - thankfully our space was dubbed the "No Snoring" zone :) I had expected the atmosphere to be tense; there was so much unknown and so much riding on this event for each and every person there. Yet the mood was upbeat and encouraging - the tone for the week had been set.
We woke on Tuesday morning, way earlier than any human should have to be awake (that's 6am for me... what can I say, I'm not a morning person!) - still, the rooms were abuzz with excitement and everyone anxiously scurried out to start the day. After breakfast the introductions began, lead by the PDFT and John LeBlanc (who blew off a meeting to spend more time with the group!). As the introductions progressed, each participant revealed more and more about their background, upbringing, and motivations behind pursuing this dream. This 3+ hour experience flew by as, surprisingly, people quickly took to a "heart on the sleeve" approach, laying out their innermost insecurities, fears, thoughts, and dreams.
Once the introductions were done, we were assigned groups (picked by the PDFT) of 5 people. Each of the 3 teams was then assigned a task: prepare a group presentation on a set topic (each group had the same topic) within the hour, and each team member was required to spend an equal amount time speaking. This exercise quickly allowed groups to get a feel for personality dynamics within each team and, hopefully, learn to work as a group. Well, I can't speak behalf of the other groups, but Group 3 rocked the house :) I was lucky to be paired with a fantastic group of people, all bringing different strengths to the table.
The groups were not just responsible for a single presentation, but rather were together for the week and assigned different duties for each day - dish washing, cooking, or grounds maintenance that would be done in between the scheduled activities for the day, and interviews.
Tuesday night was brought to a close by the group’s first rock session. Much like the Native American Talking Stick tradition, this concept allowed people to voice opinions – uninterrupted - discussing themselves, their teams, the day, or anything that sprung to mind in a positive, or negative, fashion. Once again each individual surprised me with their honesty, and their ability to take constructive criticism. Around 11pm, after a long day, we packed it in and went back to the house - exhausted.....I don't think I've ever seen so many skydivers in bed at such an early time :)
Wednesday we woke to poor weather, so the group took the opportunity to do their individual presentations. We were entertained with a variety of topics, from cooking, to building water towers, to snowboarding, juggling, fresca ball, and even how to hot-wire an airplane! Each member added their own personal flair. I think it was here that it really struck me what an amazing job the PDFT had done selecting the 15 members. I remember looking around and realizing how level the playing field was. Each individual was strong in different ways, and it was clear that the team could pick any 4 and still have a spectacular outcome. After the presentations, everyone blew off some energy by playing some of the newly introduced games or learning to juggle. It was quite a sight to behold.
Group 3 took to cooking that evening, and with little deliberation began the cooking assembly line. Surprisingly, Travis Mills (from group 2) joined us in our food preparation. Travis, a onetime sous-chef, took the time to help us rapidly prepare our ingredients (that man is a chopping machine!!). I began to notice how well we were working together. As usual, after dinner, everyone sat around the fireplace, chatting, trading stories, etc. It was here that JC took it upon himself to introduce Zip-Zop. Every single person participated in the game (despite enormous suspicion), including Jay, Ian, and Shannon from the PDFT! I won't ruin any surprises, but needless to say - JC is a prankster....oh, and JC if you're reading this....I'm plotting my revenge...
On Thursday we woke to beautiful weather. The energy levels were almost uncontainable....we were finally going to JUMP! The team had something special in store for us today: We were going to do a mini-competition. After a few practice rounds the competition started - interestingly enough, the mood wasn't competitive; it was supportive. I can't speak for others, but I've never felt so relaxed before. Each round was just downright fun. The highlight, for me at least, was the expression round - not an event I normally do well in, so needless to say, I was elated with the final outcome. After the competition it was back to chores where our group was to help Kim, the land owner, chop wood for his house (and our fire pit). It was here that what was happening really became clear to me. Our group was unable to audibly communicate, since Tommy D was using the chainsaw to cut wood. But somehow we still needed to work together to load up the truck and get a system going. We fumbled a bit the first few minutes, each struggling to find our place....but then, something happened: We began to draw on what we knew of each over the last few days and created yet another assembly line - seamlessly operating in unison. We actually got so efficient that we chopped, and loaded, and entire truck full of wood in 20 minutes all with minimal communication!
Returning from the wood chopping experience, I was summoned to my interview. This was it, this was the moment to shine in front of the team, and give them every reason why I should be on the Expansion Team. I consider myself fortunate to have competed, and become friends, with the team before this day - yet it was still intimidating. I cannot imagine how some candidates, who'd never met any of them, felt at that table. The team was warm and welcoming though, and it felt far more like a discussion than an interview. Offering up direct questions and answers, I felt I represented myself well. I walked away with a smile thinking that good things were coming... and then it hit me, and it was like getting hit by a Mack truck. All these doubts entered my mind: "What if I get offered a slot, can I live up to the public expectation of a team member?"; "What if I just blew it?", etc. You see, in all my dreams of becoming a PDFT member, I'd actually never stopped to think what would happen if I actually got it. I know I wasn't the only one.
I didn't have too long to dwell on my insecurities since the night's activities were about to start after dinner. This time JC once again had an icebreaker game. This one was more a mind game, and boy did he mess with my mind :) The rules of the game were simple: You had to figure out the rules of the game, and when you did you had to guide (but not tell) players who hadn't figured it out yet. Much to my frustration I wasn't getting it and, as more and more around me figured it out, my frustration grew.
Fortunately, Ryan was the most frustrated and, in a fake temper tantrum, provided comic relief.
It was now time for our Rock Session. The team once again kicked it off, providing examples of how negative, but constructive, criticism to other teammates. Surprisingly, the candidates sessions remained largely positive. It was a very emotional experience for everyone involved. Drained and filled with self-doubt, I headed to bed.
Friday morning was the first morning all week, that no one was on time to breakfast. Mentally exhausted, and nervous, we gathered ourselves and headed out for the final day. The mood was definitely serious - we all knew what was happening today. We kicked off the day with a grueling exercise: We had to pick who we thought the new team should be, as well as a 'heart' team made up of 3 other people we'd love to fly with and then explain to everyone in a few short words, why we made the choices we did. It was here we got a tiny taste of what the PDFT was about to go through. It was incredibly tough to pick so few people from so many qualified people. In the end, after everyone's choices were vocalized, the choices were spread evenly among the group - this was definitely not going to be easy.
Deciding to jump, each group got paired with a PDFT member and did a formation jump. The exercise was in trust, and it was here I noticed that I needed to be more trusting of my teammates in the air. Time was now out though and the PDFT needed to go and deliberate, and while they deliberated gave us carte blanche to jump and do whatever we wanted to, to blow off steam...and blow off steam we did :) I took the opportunity to work on my trust issues by encouraging everyone there to swoop me while I sat in a kayak on the pond - after all, if I couldn't trust these people, who could I trust? It was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done in my life. I had my own swoop show, with each person trying to outdo the other on the pond. It was total and utter carnage - and it was great! My favorite memory is of Travis Mills screaming by doing a ghost-rider with the biggest smile I think I've ever seen anyone have.
After a quick hike through Deepwood Ranch, it was time to return to hear the final announcement. The team arrived a few minutes later than expected, with a somber, yet relieved, look on their faces. It was clear they'd made a decision. Addressing the group the team announced that they'd almost not reached a decision that night, they had dropped the list to 6 people but had been unable to narrow it further. My heart jumped. With us all hanging on every word, the team announced that they'd made a change in plans and had decided to expand another 2 slots as "next on deck" or alternates. These candidates would be given first dibs at any future opportunities, or expansions, within the PDFT but would not be considered 'the final four'. First Jens Thorgenson's name was called. I was immediately thrilled; Jens and I had started building a strong friendship and respect, and I thought he was a wonderful choice. Next they announced me and my heart raced - it was unexpected, but ultimately perfect for me. I was ecstatic! In a weird way, I felt like the pressure was off, but felt no sadness at not making the final four. I knew, no matter who was picked, it was going to be a good choice and the PDFT was going be stronger than ever. Before announcing the final four, Ian Bobo emotionally reminded everyone that the blue jerseys weren't an indication of self-worth, and that each person there was a great candidate. The words were sincere, and they rang true. Once the final four were announced, through tears of joy, and sadness, everyone took the opportunity to congratulate them. Looking around I realized this is what the week was all about - cheering your team on, and we were ALL a team.
We all left the next day as better people, with a deeper respect for everyone there than any of us could have imagined. I often try to explain the experience to people, but realize that it falls short of doing the whole process justice. All I can say is that it changed me in a way I can't describe.
I've had many people asking me what happens from here? What does "next on deck" mean? Honestly, I don't know where this is going, but I know it's going to be a hell of a ride.