Determining world champions is not the only purpose for holding world championships. Promoting the sport, exchanging knowledge and information and strengthening friendly relationships between participating nations are equally important. The 35th Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Freefall Style and Accuracy Landing World Championships at Dropzone Erden near Montana, Bulgaria, August 24-31 offered the chance to do all of those things.
Hopes were high that the experienced U.S. Freefall Style and Accuracy Landing Team—Jimmy Drummond, James Hayhurst, Rick Kuhns, Nancy LaRiviere, Dennis Murphy, Drew Riffle, Mery Rose, Cheryl Stearns and junior competitor John Snurkowski—would be very competitive, as most on the team had won individual and team national championships. However, for the first time, the U.S. lacked a fourth female, the minimum number required to field a women’s team. Therefore, the three women competed only as individuals.
On the first day, after three rounds of women’s accuracy and two rounds of men’s style, everyone gathered in Montana for the opening ceremonies. Dignitaries welcomed the athletes and delegations from 34 countries to the town’s plaza for the festivities followed by entertainment by local singers and folk dancers.
In the following days, accuracy and style continued to run concurrently. Although the winds were within the seven-meters-per-second limit, they switched directions quickly and without warning. Thermals also made conditions challenging. Landing on a two-centimeter-diameter dead-center dot is difficult. Doing it in unreliable conditions makes for an interesting competition. Stearns explained, “It was all about canopy flying skills to get to the target and then hope conditions didn’t change in the last 20 feet.”
Top contenders fell in the standings after battling the elements and hitting high scores. (In accuracy, a low score is desirable.) In round eight—the final team accuracy round—the Chinese men’s team dropped out of medal contention when two of its members landed off the tuffet. Italy’s Vittorio Guarinelli, in second place on his last jump, caught the shifting wind and also landed out.
Six of the 34 countries competing won medals. The U.S. was not one of them, finishing 21st out of 29 accuracy teams. Czech Republic took first place. Russia took second after beating Italy in a jump-off. The Russian women topped the Chinese women by one centimeter to win first place. The French women’s team came in third.
Competitors’ scores after eight rounds of team accuracy determine who moves on to the ninth and 10th rounds for individual standings. Judges make a 50-percent cut of competitors going into the ninth round, then make a 25-percent cut going into round 10. Out of 173 men, U.S. Team member James Hayhurst tied at 37th place with a score of 19 centimeters after nine rounds. As for his teammates, Jimmy Drummond tied at 95th place, Drew Riffle at 114th, Dennis Murphy at 133rd and Rick Kuhns at 166th. Russia’s Dimitri Maksimov won first place with a total score of four centimeters. After scoring the same number of points on three tie-breaker jumps, the judges declared that Jiri Gecnuk (Czech Republic) and Thomas Jeannerot (France) tied for second place with nine centimeters. No third place was awarded.
None of the U.S. women made the cut for round nine. Stearns had the lowest score for the U.S. women with 19 centimeters. She placed 24th out of 59 women. Mery Rose finished in 51st place and Nancy LaRiviere in 57th. With six centimeters, Deborah Ferrand of France won first place. Olga Mastafanova (Russia) beat out Xiao Yao (China) in a rejump for second and third place, respectively.
Snurkowski finished last in the field of 28 junior males.
In the style event, only Hayhurst, Stearns and LaRiviere competed for the U.S. Team. Freefall style consists of five rounds of a predetermined series of four turns and two back loops in a race against the clock while trying to maintain a heading. Videoed with a ground-to-air camera, judges then time and score the competitor by adding time penalties for being off heading or for pitch deviations of more than 25 degrees. After each round, they make cuts to weed out the higher-scoring competitors. Hayhurst hung on through round four, averaging 7.04 seconds per set and placing 12th out of 47 competitors. Aleksei Bykov of Russia averaged a score of 6.24 seconds to take the world championship. Elisha Weber (Germany) came in second, beating China’s He Yanan.
For the women, LaRiviere missed the cut for round two, and Stearns didn’t make it to round three. Zhang Ling (China) took first place for the women. Taking second place, Leocadie Olliver de Pury of France beat China’s Xing Yaping 36.06 to 36.07 seconds, respectively.
Overall country and overall individual champions are determined by where they placed in both accuracy and style. The men’s overall team champion was the Czech Republic, followed by Russia, then China. The Russian women took the overall women’s team championship, while China took second and France took third.
Individually, Hayhurst ranked 14th overall and Stearns 22nd. For the men, Gecnuk of the Czech Republic won top honors. Maksimov of Russia took second and Jeanerot of France third. Although Yaping of China competed in the junior category, she was eligible for placement in the women’s category and dominated in the standings. She took first place in all the junior female categories: accuracy, style and overall. With her third-place style and fourth-place accuracy results in the women’s category, Yaping was also the women’s overall champion. Russia’s Olga Mastafanova and Elena Laktionova placed second and third overall, respectively.
While some performances and results were disappointing for the U.S. Team, the experience was not. Dropzone Erden’s owners, Angel and Ani Stamenovi and their daughter, Vesela Stamenova-Djorova, did an outstanding job of preparing for the meet. The competition ran smoothly thanks to Angel’s competency as the meet director. Two Antonov AN-2s and a Pilatus Porter provided enough aircraft to maintain a good pace in order to complete all the events. The Montana community embraced the championships and the people were very friendly and hospitable.
Skydiving is a sport that has no defensive element. You win or lose based upon your performance. That may be one reason for the goodwill among the competing countries. Also, many of the competitors have known each other for years. It’s a reunion of sorts. The U.S. Team is an example of that, too. Hayhurst, Stearns and LaRiviere have been together on various U.S. Teams for nearly 40 years. Team coach Bob Von Derau, head of delegation Dana Engelstad and team manager Chuck Collingwood represented the U.S. in style and accuracy in the 1970s. These men have a passion for the sport and gave the team great support. Sadly, Collingwood passed away a month prior to the championships. (Von Derau graciously stepped into the team manager position in Bulgaria.) “The sudden loss of our teammate is a cruel reminder that life, love and friendship are precious, fragile and fleeting,” Engelstad said.
Winning a world championship only happens for a few competitors. Participating at a world championship creates memories and experiences for everyone. Engelstad reflected on this world meet by saying, “The joy of being part of this team will stay with me as long as skydivers trade ‘blue skies’ as a greeting of camaraderie and community.” That is a sentiment any one of the team members could have expressed.
About the Author
Lindy Leach, D-28895, retired from skydiving yet remains active in the sport by assisting with accuracy training camps and competitions. She has been the U.S. Team’s manager several times.