How to Fight Your Demons—An Elite Skydiver Gets Real About Self-Doubt
Features | Apr 01, 2018
How to Fight Your Demons—An Elite Skydiver Gets Real About Self-Doubt

Annette O'Neil

When I talked to Ari Perelman at Skydive Arizona in Eloy, he was having the first weather-hold day of his Arizona Airspeed career—which was, on that date, just about a year old. That’s Arizona for you.

“Luckily, we have a tunnel,” Perelman laughed, “so we can still train.”

For any casual onlooker, Perelman’s rarified position as one of four slot flyers on the winningest team in 4-way formation skydiving might seem a little, well … predestined. He started skydiving in 2002 and by 2004 was already competing in the USPA Nationals. By 2007, he was “really serious” about competing in skydiving, though he balanced work in skydiving with work as a computer programmer. “I was competing in the best-of-the-rest kind of category,” Perelman explained, “trying to be the best amateur team in 4-way.” He was also helping to get 2-way mixed formation skydiving started (as well as trying to win it in the open class). In fact, Perelman has trained for and competed in competitions across a fairly comprehensive board, indoor and outdoor alike: 4-way and 8-way FS, MFS, 2-way vertical formation skydiving and 4-way dynamic. He has won medals in all of them.

So why was he sitting in a plane over Eloy on a training day, so wracked by self-conscious anxiety that he was imagining his own demise? For that, you need to hear the rest of the story.

Out of the Blue

When the new year dawned on 2016, Arizona Airspeed was—for Perelman—little more than part of the proud history of the sport, accompanied by a hefty dollop of personal fondness. “[Airspeed co-founder] Jack Jefferies was one of my first real skydiving coaches,” Perelman remembers. “He is why I got motivated to do 4-way in the first place. It started my seriousness in skydiving because of him and his influence.”

As Perelman was planning his wedding and going about his very busy business, fate was working to give him a burly shove toward his mentor. Airspeed knew that Thomas Hughes was going to be leaving the team. They knew they needed to bring in a new member. All four of them proposed potential teammates. Perelman’s name came up. At a January 2016 tunnel meet in New Hampshire, Airspeed member Niklas Hemlin brought the idea up to a baffled Perelman: Would he consider trying out?

“It was totally out of the blue,” Perelman said, “and it seemed impossibly remote. Nik told me to give it some serious thought, but my initial instinct was that, while the idea was really amazing, there is obviously no way it could work.”

He did, however, take Hemlin’s words seriously. He talked it over with his fiancée, Hannah (now his wife). He talked it over with his employer. And, the more thought he gave it, the more possible it started to seem. When he determined that it just might work, he reached out to Hemlin. He was willing to try. He went out to Arizona to fly with the team.

Team member Thiago Gomes had had an injury, so Perelman filled his slot in a training camp. The camp served as Perelman’s tryout. While he was certainly no stranger to auditions—before skydiving, he was a musician, with plenty of orchestra auditions under his belt—that was a very different type of competition, and this carried significantly more emotional weight.

You Have to Do This

“I was told that the team would have a decision by ‘x’ date,” he remembered, “and there were other factors within the team that kept pushing it back. I needed to know if it was going to happen. My whole life would change, and Hannah’s whole life would change, and I would need to get going in that direction. If it wasn’t going to happen, then I would need to know so I could continue in this direction. I had continuously building anxiety about it.”

Of course, that day did come. In May of 2016, Perelman got a phone call from Hemlin. The message was simple: “We want you on the team. Give us a call back and let us know if it is a yes or a no.”

“I was there with my wife and her family when I got the call,” Perelman said. “There were so many mixed emotions. If I said yes, I knew there were going to be drastic changes and I didn’t know how they would affect us. If I said no, this opportunity would never present itself again. If I said yes, I would pull my wife away from everything she knew. I definitely couldn’t do it—or even have made the decision—without her. And there was so, so much excitement. Being on this team had been a dream since I started skydiving.”

“I remember Hannah saying something along the lines of, ‘You know you have to do this; just call back and say yes,’” he said. “She gave me that push. So I did.”

In a few months, Perelman went from not having Airspeed on his radar at all to planning a totally new direction in life that revolved around it. He and Hannah were moving to Arizona. The pair landed in January of 2017.

“I definitely remember feeling excited and nervous on that first day,” he recalled, “not knowing what to expect. It all blurred together, everything there was to learn. Everything else I have done in skydiving up to that point had been completely different. I had done what I considered serious teams on a high level, but I had never been on a team that took the training and the end results so seriously.”

Breathing Through the Pressure

By February, the competition pressure was already on. Airspeed headed out to the Paraclete XP wind tunnel in North Carolina for an indoor competition. The new lineup had been together for only two months. So there Perelman was, at his first competition with Airspeed, scant weeks into the gig, feeling the burning gaze of everyone in the 4-way skydiving world.

“I felt like the world was watching,” he admitted, “and wanting to see how the new Airspeed lineup would do. I was also feeling the pressure from myself. I didn’t know how I was going to perform in this context. And I knew that a lot of people thought it was going to be [SDC Rhythm XP’s] year.”

While Airspeed had changed only one person, everyone on the team was in different slots, so it was effectively a completely new lineup. Rhythm’s members had already trained a year together in their current slots. The expectation was that Rhythm was going to win.

On each round, Perelman felt his world trying to close in on him. He fought the tunnel vision. He breathed through the pressure. After years and years of competition, he squared up to a whole new set of nerves. “There is a legacy behind this team,” he explained. “This is the most successful team in skydiving history, and they took a chance bringing me in. Everyone who had been brought in for years before me were people more experienced in 4-way FS. There were some in the skydiving world who think they made the wrong choice. And I had to live up to that.”

In the end, Rhythm came in first, and another team, XP4, came in second. Airspeed was third but only three points behind Rhythm. The closeness of the competition startled everyone, Perelman included. The big goal of the new lineup’s first year together was to win at the USPA Nationals, which meant beating Rhythm. The team was on the right path, but it was steeply uphill.

Silent Panic

“I knew that joining the team was going to mean a lot of work and time and that the training was going to be difficult. I was ready for that,” Perelman said, “but what I didn’t realize was all the mental demons that were going to come out.”

As the season progressed and the honeymoon faded, the gaps in Perelman’s previous skill set kept revealing themselves. He found himself making the same mistakes over and over. The debriefs stung. Perelman was starting to doubt himself. Hard. “I kept running it over and over in my head,” he winced. “If I’m not the right choice, are they going to fire me? If I know I’m not the right choice, is it better to quit now so they can find the right person and have more time with the right person rather than waiting and putting it off?”

Over time, that inner monologue generated a morass of general anxiety. It started as a subtle feeling of physical malaise, but it soon started manifesting itself in surreal ways. Perelman started finding himself inexplicably afraid of skydiving. He would arrive to the drop zone under a storm cloud of silent panic. He would get on the airplane and have visions of dying. “I honestly thought I was becoming really afraid of skydiving,” Perelman remembered. “If I was, how could I be on Airspeed? The self-doubt had a field day manifesting itself in different ways before I actually realized and acknowledged where it was coming from.”

The nadir came in June, at a competition at Skydive Paraclete XP in Raeford, North Carolina, in round seven. “My mind was not in the right place,” Perelman said, grimacing. “I flew terribly. We had the high score for that round and won the competition, which you would expect you would be happy about, but it was the most miserable I had ever felt. I didn’t care that we won the round or the competition. I felt like I had let myself and my team down. And I had a mini mental breakdown. Not even mini … I had an actual breakdown, and I had no idea what to do. I could barely make myself wake up in the morning to train.”

Finally, he didn’t think he could take any more. He opened up about his experience to his teammates. Perelman said, “The team was like, ‘Welcome to Airspeed. We have all been through that. You are not alone. That’s what joining Airspeed is. It brings out all the demons that you have, and that’s the hardest part of the job.’ I wasn’t special or damaged or anything like that. Knowing that was a massive release.”

He started approaching training with a different mindset. Perelman reports that he still felt all the anxiety and all the nerves, but it made it “one notch easier to push through in the mornings.” That’s what he needed.

This Is What We Do

Finally, it was time: the USPA Nationals. The big one. This was what the entire year had been about.

Perelman remembers that the whole team felt good going in. They collectively decided that only Hemlin would look at the scores during the competition day. That had been the strategy for the other competitions, and it had worked; it helped to avoid being influenced by the current rankings. Round one saw a good Airspeed performance, but Rhythm ended up beating them by two points regardless. Hemlin knew, but he was sworn not to share it. At the end of the day, when round seven’s scores were posted, Airspeed was up by only one point.

“I suddenly realized it was a neck-and-neck competition,” Perelman said. “The idea that we would not win the U.S. Nationals had not passed through my head. But there it was.”

Round eight—next up—was a really technical, difficult, nail-biting round. In addition to being nervous about the difficulty of that round, there was a whole new set of nerves and stress: Not only was this round already going to be difficult, but Airspeed was in a knock-down, drag-out fight with Rhythm.  There was no room for error. The team had to nail it. It wasn’t a choice.

“That night I had a realization,” Perelman said. “We are Airspeed. This is what we do. There is no giving up. There is no letting anyone else take this away. I uprooted my entire life and my wife’s entire life to move to Arizona to do this. Everything I have dealt with this past year to get here, no, I am not letting them take this away from me. I am not letting anyone take this away from the team. This is why we are here.”

Airspeed showed up the next day after “a pretty stressful night’s sleep,” but with crystallized resolve. They flew the round. They beat Rhythm by four points. They kept up the pressure. They won at the USPA Nationals. Mission accomplished.

In Black and White

That mission, of course, leads to a never-ending trail of follow-up missions. Airspeed, after all, is a year-after-year project, a herculean effort of nanoseconds shaved. And now, Perelman knew that in addition to his work in the sky and in the tunnel, he would also have to face some interior work that he’d never had to tackle in his life before the team. Airspeed went on, as the U.S. Team, to beat the Russians and take the bronze medal in a tiebreaker round during the 2nd Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Championships of Indoor Skydiving in Montreal, Canada, last October. In that tiebreaker round, the team set an FAI World Record for the highest score in a single round, but Perelman was still plagued by self-doubt. To get to the bottom of it, he put pen to paper. In December, he wrote himself a letter that asked, “What do I need to do to become a world champion?” 

Perelman said, “As I wrote all this stuff down, all of the mess that was in me that I didn’t know was in me just started coming out: my insecurities, how I truly felt about a lot of stuff I kind of took for granted. It was so eye-opening to see it in black and white and realize consciously what had been going through my head.

“It was only after writing that letter that I finally realized I am the right person. There are objective scores that show that when things get hard I don’t give up, time and time again. No more letting these bouts of insecurity get in the way. I know they’re there, and I am pretty sure they’re going to be there forever, and I know other doubts and demons are going to creep up. But I also know that no matter what happens, I can deal with them. My teammates are going through the same thing. All the other teams are, too. But my teammates are going to be there for me, and I am going to be there for them, and we are going to make it through and win.”

“Starting the 2018 season, I don’t just feel like a completely different skydiver, I feel like a completely different person,” Perelman said, smiling. “I had to go through this to reach acceptance. The team is not going to fire me. I am not going to quit. That means I am here. I am on Airspeed. I am a National Champion. And I am sure I will be a World Champion, because that is what Airspeed does.”


About the Author
Annette O'Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram. 


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