Mentor Extraordinaire: USPA Awards Thomas Jenkins, D-7707, the Gold Medal for Meritorious Service
By Christy West and Scott Latinis
Skydiving is a sport most of us get into for the pure fun of it. Among skydivers, some choose to just play, while others are also driven to achieve goals and advance their skills. Tom Jenkins always saw the value of structured competition and record performances in driving skydivers to become more skilled while also having fun.
His life’s work was to coach and inspire skydivers—whether brand-new graduates or world champions—to achieve more than they ever thought possible. “Tomás from Tejas” (Thomas from Texas) organized big-way skydiving camps on nearly all the world’s continents, from coaching events to large-formation world record camps. He was also a valued member of the P3 (Perris Performance Plus) big-way organizing team at Skydive Perris in California for many years. When he passed away from the complications of Parkinson’s disease in 2017, he held world records for the largest freefall formation skydive (400-way), largest two-point formation (219-way) and largest three-point formation (217-way). We’ll never know how many skydivers worldwide were inspired by Jenkins’ supportive, direct, passionate coaching, but the likely answer is thousands.
Since his first skydive in 1978, he participated in 35 USPA National Skydiving Championships, medaling in 18 of them. Beginning with a not-last performance at the 1978 Nationals in his very first year of skydiving (out of more than 170 competitors in style and accuracy), Jenkins went on to compete in all belly formation skydiving disciplines and become an internationally rated judge in formation skydiving and accuracy. He often formed teams out of relatively inexperienced skydivers and introduced them to skydiving competition as a captain and mentor, sometimes even with gold-medal results.
L.J. Wobker reflected on one such team, saying, “Tom asked me to join an 8-way team he was putting together in 2011. I might have had a couple dozen 8-way jumps at that point and almost zero formal, coached team experience. I had no idea what I was actually signing up for, but it turned out to be one of the greatest decisions I ever made. Tom had probably forgotten more about 8-way than most of us ever knew, and he managed to take an incredibly wide range of personalities and flying styles and mold them into an incredible team of people who are all great friends to this day. Learning the mechanics and engineering of 8-way was fun—and served as a great foundation for my later skydiving—but the really valuable part was being around someone with Tom’s ability to effectively teach, coach, correct, cajole and maybe even yell a little bit. Somehow Tom managed to be both a great coach and a tremendous friend while doing it. In the last decade I’ve been on some great teams, traveled large parts of the world jumping and been a part of national championship and world-record big-way teams. There’s simply no way that would have happened without his help.”
In his posthumously published “Profile” in the March 2018 issue of Parachutist, author Brian Giboney asked Jenkins about his favorite part of the sport. He answered, “The friendships and the smiles when we get down from good—or even bad—jumps. The community of the sport worldwide is hard to explain but so important.”
At the time of his passing, Jenkins had accumulated more than 22,000 skydives and countless skydiving friends around the world. On October 19, during the International Skydiving Museum and Hall of Fame weekend at Skydive Perris, 2019 Hall of Fame Inductee Kate Cooper-Jensen, along with Texas skydivers Billy Whitaker and Scott Latinis, accepted the Gold Medal for Meritorious Service from USPA Executive Director Ed Scott and USPA President Chuck Akers on Jenkins’ behalf. Whitaker and Latinis are making arrangements to deliver the award to Jenkins’ sister Suya. In the meantime, it is on display at Jenkins’ home drop zone, Skydive Spaceland-Houston in Rosharon, Texas.
And thus, Jenkins received his final gold medal in skydiving, which bears the following inscription: “For 39 years of dedicated service to skydiving as an instructor, competitor, judge, organizer, mentor and motivator; and for showing a steadfast commitment to skydivers around the world by developing safe practices and leading by example.”
Scott Latinis | D-10514
Christy West | D-21464