Above: Stefania Martinengo. Photo by Daniel Angulo.
Welcome to artistic freestyle, the purest form of expression in skydiving. From the time that Deanna “Skydancer” Kent and Mike “Michigan” Sandberg began experimenting with three-dimensional flight in the late 1970s, skydivers with artistic inclinations have been drawn to what Kent then called “skydancing.” Interest in the discipline really took off when thousands of skydivers around the world marveled at Kent’s balletic movements in her husband Norman’s 1987 film “From Wings Came Flight.” Soon, freestyle became a competitive skydiving discipline, and USPA adopted it as a National Championships event in 1996.
Freestyle teams include one performer and one camera flyer who perform a choreographed sequence of moves during two compulsory rounds and five free routines. Judges base a team’s scores on how many orientations they fly in, the variety and difficulty of the moves they make and the flyers’ technical ability and teamwork. Are you ready to start your journey in this dynamic, artistic discipline? Here’s how:
Axiom XP. Photo by Elliot Byrd.
One of the nice things about freestyle is that even though it is a team event, you can get started on your own. Learn to fly your body and understand the wind. Build a foundation by focusing on overall bodyflight (layouts, in- and out-facing carving, transitions, etc.). Learn about weight shift and lift so you understand what’s heavy and what’s creating lift in each move. Feel the wind instead of just holding a position and hoping for the best. Ask yourself where you should feel the wind—the top of your head? The front of your shoulders? Your upper back?
Get With It
Familiarize yourself with the freestyle rules and routines by reading Chapter 11 of the Skydiver’s Competition Manual (available at uspa.org/scm).
Appendix A contains a complete description of the compulsory sequences. Freestyle can feel daunting, so start small. In the beginning, pick a sequence that you feel is manageable. Learn them one at a time. Don’t overwhelm yourself.
Learn to Chill
Once you’ve gotten over the learning curve for a specific move or position, it should feel effortless. The tenser you are, the more you will teeter around and be unstable. Relax! Don’t overthink it.
Throw shame out the window, it will only keep you from progressing. Embrace criticism and use it to advance your flying. You grow most from your failures, so stay in it!
If your body isn’t in shape and healthy, you won’t get very far. Mobility and flexibility are the keys to freestyle success. Train your body on the ground to prep for the sky. Many find yoga and proprioception (body awareness) training beneficial. Find what works for you and use it. And don’t forget to warm up before flying and cool down afterward to prevent injuries that set you back.
Find a coach or mentor to help you understand the ins and outs of judging and competition. Having someone to look up to also helps ignite the passion within. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the flyers you admire. The community is very supportive and willing to help. They all want the freestyle discipline to grow and be full of shredders.
You can also find help online. Current USPA Freestyle National Champion Axiom XP is a great resource, demonstrating the compulsory sequences and breaking them down on its Facebook and Instagram pages.
Surround yourself with people who lift you up, motivate you, inspire you and bring out your creativity. Most of all, be around those who keep it real with you. If you have a coach who constantly fluffs you up, it may feel good, but you won’t progress. Don’t take things personally. Show up with an empty cup: Set aside what you know so you can absorb your coach’s perspective while training under them.
Make yourself known in the community, because that’s how opportunities arise. If you want to meet dedicated freestylists, go to competitions and talk to people there. And if you’re ready to compete but don’t have a partner, reach out to the freestyle community. They’ll be sure to help.
Find a Partner
Start by just talking about competing in freestyle. You’ll be surprised at who shows interest! You don’t need a camera flyer to start training, just stay focused, learn to fly your body and be verbal about looking for a teammate. People will see you are working hard and want to be a part of something.
Anslev Baza. Photo by Raymond Adams.
Communication is Key
The human aspect is the hardest part of being on a team. When you find a teammate, lay out your expectations to help eliminate misunderstandings. Hold regular team meetings where you discuss your goals and make commitments (e.g., “For the next two years, we will train twice a month with the goal of attending the world championships”). Put aside time for each other. Be a unit.
This is where you can have fun and find something that defines you as a freestylist. Paint your face, come up with distinctive suit colors, choose a team name and come up with a logo. Keep it simple or fluff it up; there is so much freedom in freestyle. Find something that makes you stand out. Be memorable.
So, are you ready to start learning freestyle? Just set a goal, train toward it and join us! Come to a competition, even if you don’t feel ready. We all stink when we begin. Get over it and get up in the clouds with us. We’ll show you the way!
About the Author
Vanessa Larroca, B-47591, started jumping in 2016 and now has 912 jumps. Two years ago, she formed a freestyle team—Illusions—to compete in the 2020 Nationals. Although the Nationals was canceled, she was able to compete in the 2020 Flips ‘n’ Shenanigans freestyle event, which provided her with her first dose of competition. As a result, she’s totally hooked, and if there’s a freestyle event taking place, you’ll probably find her there.