The 2019 USPA Parachuting and Skydiving Nationals determined which teams and individuals will represent the U.S. in every discipline at the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Parachuting Championships Mondial (all-events competition) in Tanay, Siberia, in 2020. Consequently, it drew large crowds of competitors vying for a spot on the U.S. Team. Skydive Paraclete XP in Raeford, North Carolina, brilliantly stepped up to the challenge of hosting the Mondial-style Nationals, which ran through almost the entire month of September. Over the course of the event, competitors made 9,302 jumps scored by a team of 37 judges who awarded 483 medals. While hosting a meet of such scope was a daunting task, the world-class drop zone was ready and tackled it head-on, hosting the parachuting events September 1-9 and the skydiving events September 11-27.
The canopy events—accuracy landing, canopy formation, canopy piloting and the freestyle canopy piloting test event—comprised the USPA National Parachuting Championships. With the threat of Hurricane Dorian looming at the start of the championships, Meet Director Randy Connell, USPA Controller Steve Hubbard and National Director and USPA Competition Committee Chair Kirk Verner (who is also the general manager of the drop zone) were highly motivated to quickly complete as many rounds of competition as possible. Working efficiently, they were able to not only select the new United States Parachute Team, but also ensure that the competitors had a fun and fair competition.
Twenty-one competitors battled for the top slots in the accuracy landing event. During the event, difficulties with the scoring equipment led to some rejumps and necessitated replacement of the faulty equipment. Fortunately, longtime competitor Cheryl Stearns saved the day by lending the judges her personal scoring equipment, which allowed the competitors to finish the competition.
Stearns—perennially at the top of the leaderboard in accuracy—took gold again this year with a total of 21 cm. Drew Riffle, a mere 4 cm behind Stearns, finished with 25 cm and the silver medal. The battle for the bronze was extremely tight, as three competitors were within three centimeters of each other. Ultimately, Keith Bergeron took the bronze with a dead center in the final round and a total of 34 cm, edging out James Hayhurst, who scored 2 cm and a total of 35 cm; and James Drummond, who scored 1 cm and a total of 37.
In the team accuracy landing event, five teams competed for the chance to have their names engraved on the coveted Thacker Cup (named for the late Gene Paul Thacker, legendary accuracy coach and the founder of Skydive Raeford, Skydive Paraclete XP’s predecessor). With two of its members (Stearns and Riffle) taking the top spots on the individual podium, Skydive Ricks unsurprisingly ran away with the team victory with a total of 108 cm. Tony Thacker, Gene Paul’s son, presented the Thacker Cup to the team, which was a treat for all competitors. Taking silver, Orphans finished with 161 cm. Just Jump took the bronze with a total of 241 cm.
In accuracy, the top five individual male and top five individual female competitors qualify for a place on the U.S. Team. Consequently, the team includes those who finished on the podium (Stearns, Riffle and Bergeron), as well as Hayhurst, James Drummond, Rick Kuhns, Natalia Velidtchenko, Nancy LaRiviere and first-time competitor Molly Howsare. Additionally, Dennis Murphy qualified for the team as an alternate, and John Snurkowski qualified as a junior competitor.
This year’s canopy formation events—three that selected the U.S. Parachute Team (2-way sequential, 4-way sequential and 4-way rotations) plus the ever-growing 2-way sequential pro-am class—were a joy to watch. After years of dwindling participation, the discipline seems to have revitalized, and a growing number of teams competed. Skydive Elsinore in California brought 10 teams to the competition this year, showing how the grassroots efforts of that community succeeded in creating national-level competitors. As always, the attitude of the canopy formation competitors was one of teamwork, unity and camaraderie.
Four-way sequential completed only five of its eight scheduled rounds due to the lingering effects of Dorian. Five teams competed this year, including a guest team from Qatar. This team racked up the highest score of the event but was not eligible for medals as a guest team. The experienced members of Elsinore Revolution put in a great performance and took home the gold with a 9.2-point average. The Dawgfathers of DeLand, a team from Skydive DeLand in Florida, finished eight points behind Revolution for the silver with a 7.6-point average. This secured both teams a spot on the U.S. Parachute Team for 2020. Frowned Upon took the bronze with a 2.6-point average.
Out of the four teams competing, Skydive Elsinore swept the podium in 4-way rotations. Elsinore Too Wrapped Up, Elsinore Revolution and Elsinore Team Safety Brief took gold, silver and bronze with a 16.5-, 9.25- and 6.25-point average, respectively. Too Wrapped Up and Revolution earned the right to represent the U.S. at the World Championships.
With 10 teams registered for 2-way sequential open (including three guest teams from Qatar), there was a fierce battle for the top spots. Clean Air took the gold with a 23.13 average. Team Fastrax, the only all-female CF team at the event, set the U.S. Women’s 2-Way Sequential Canopy Formation Record for Most Points in a Round with a 26-point round, which helped propel them to a 19.5-point average and earned them a silver medal. Slot Switch took bronze with an average of 18 points. The teams from Qatar—which were ineligible for medals—had an excellent showing, with Qatar Team 1 putting in a second-place performance. Clean Air and Fastrax earned invitations to Siberia for the 2020 World Championships.
In 2-way sequential pro-am, the teams typically contain one experienced and one newer CF flyer in an effort to continue to grow the discipline. With Hurricane Dorian plaguing the drop zone with its outer bands of wind and rain, the six registered teams completed six out of the eight scheduled rounds. Taking home the gold medal was Elsinore Cutting It Close with a 5.67 average. The U.S. Army Golden Knights finished with a 4.17 average and the silver. After a close battle with Wingwalkers, It Takes 2 To Tangle took the bronze with a 2.33-point average.
While canopy formation wrapped up on one side of the drop zone, out at the swoop pond, 33 individuals began competing in post-hurricane weather in the open class of canopy piloting. The competitors finished one complete round of speed on day one, though in less-than-favorable conditions.
On day two of the competition, the weather conditions were back to ideal, and the rest of speed, as well as zone accuracy, completed. In speed, Curt Bartholomew finished with a total score of 291.667, securing the gold medal. Greg Windmiller with 281.863 and Justin Price with 270.351 rounded out the podium, winning silver and bronze, respectively. In zone accuracy, Bartholomew again took home the gold with a total score of 296.428, while Scott Harper with 285.438 and Ian Bobo with 272.984 took the silver and bronze, respectively.
Day three continued with amazing weather, concluding the distance portion of canopy piloting. Alex Hart took gold with a score of 286.519, edging out Alter Ego teammate Bartholomew, who finished second with a score of 279.225. Windmiller finished with a 263.633 and took the bronze, just edging out Beau Riebe, who finished with a 262.549.
Bartholomew’s stellar performances earned him the overall gold medal. Justin Price took home the silver. Travis Mills scored well enough overall to take the bronze, although he did not medal in any individual event. (He took fifth in both distance and speed and seventh in zone accuracy.) Guest competitor Cornelia Mihai, always a force to contend with at international competitions, was ineligible for medals but scored second overall. The top eight competitors (Bartholomew, Albert Berchtold, Harper, Hart, Mills, Price, Matt Shull and Windmiller) will represent the U.S. in 2020 in Siberia. Due to timing, this event also chose the 12 U.S. Team members for the 2019 World Cup of Canopy Piloting in Pretoria, South Africa, November 20-24. Four additional competitors (Joe Abeln, Kevin Haugh, Robin Jandle and Jesse Weyher) will round out the U.S. Team for this event.
In the advanced class of canopy piloting, 15 individuals competed, including one guest. Bryan Buffaloe took gold in speed, Ryan Levesque took silver and Brian Redfield took bronze. Redfield secured the gold medal in distance with Evan Bushre earning silver. In distance, the battle for bronze was extremely close, with Tom Esposito skating just above Buffaloe by less than a point. Maxim Zaitsev swept the zone accuracy rounds, earning 100 in all three rounds to earn the gold medal. John Haley took the silver, while Esposito earned his second medal by edging out Jason Bauder by just over a point for the bronze. Buffaloe took the overall gold, while Redfield took the silver and Bauder took the bronze.
Canopy Piloting Freestyle
Following the regular canopy piloting events, USPA hosted a test event for freestyle canopy piloting. Even though CP freestyle was only a test event at this Nationals, the FAI had already adopted it as an official international competition, so the results of the meet determined the eight-person U.S. Team for the 2020 World Championships, as well as the 12-person team for the 2019 World Cup.
Twenty-four Americans and four guest competitors vied for the top spots. Familiar faces Bartholomew and Price finished in first and second with 264.292 and 254.639, respectively, while Jay Sanders rounded out the podium with a 229.772. Jeannie Bartholomew, Bobo, Haugh, Mills and Windmiller will join them as the U.S. Canopy Piloting Freestyle Team for the 2020 Mondial. For the 2019 competition in South Africa, Harper, Hart, Matt Leonard and Weyher will round out the 12 individuals on the U.S. Team.
Finishing up the parachuting events was the advanced category of CP freestyle. Five competitors made the competition super fun. Fifth-place finisher Riley Marshall yelled, “Cannonball!” while plunging into the pond, and Laura Golly made her own homemade sponsorship shirt. Redfield finished in the top slot with a perfect 300, while Evan Pritchard followed with a 166.914. The fight for third was tight with Justin Anderson (127.019) coming close, but not close enough to beat out Golly (128.426).
With the Skydiving Nationals right on the heels of the Parachuting Nationals, the drop zone was thankful for a safe and efficient meet that not only chose the U.S. Teams but allowed everybody to have fun.
The USPA Skydiving Nationals (freefall events) followed directly on the heels of the Parachuting Nationals (canopy events). The drop zone, after a busy couple weeks of canopy events, became a frenzy of activity as speed skydivers, artistic events participants, wingsuit flyers and scores of formation skydiving teams (59 in 4-way FS alone) showed up to compete.
Vertical Formation Skydiving
The formation skydiving events kicked off on September 12 with three classes of VFS. Four teams entered the open class. SDC Core, the reigning world champion, ran away from the pack, averaging 23.3 points and the right to represent the U.S. at the 2020 World Parachuting Championships in Tanay, Siberia. Skydive Arizona teams X-Force and Anthem finished with a 16.3- and 12.4-point average, respectively, securing the silver and bronze medals. SDMW Chemtrails, which came in fourth with a 9.1 average, showed the true spirit of competition. After a skydiving accident five months ago left team videographer Keith George in a wheelchair during the period when the team would normally train, the team—including George—defied the odds, overcame their challenges, attended the event and put in a strong performance.
Four teams also competed in the advanced class, with ATLiens STF from Skydive the Farm in Cedartown, Georgia, averaging 11.7 points to secure the gold medal. Skydive Midwest Shakedown—which included Megan and Ryan George, the wife and son of the Chemtrails’ Keith George, who coached the team during his recovery—finished in second with an 8-point average. Tempest averaged a 7.2 to earn the bronze.
One lonely team, Why Not, competed in the intermediate class, averaging 5.17 points per round. Hopefully, they come back next year and join the advanced competitors!
Three teams—Polaris, Tru3Blue and Paraclete locals Axiom XP—competed for the chance to be one of the top two teams that would earn a spot on the U.S. Freefly Team. Polaris edged out Axiom XP with a total of 47.9 points to 41, earning Polaris the gold medal, Axiom the silver and both a spot on the U.S. Team. Tru3Blue came in a close third with 37.9 points for the bronze.
In freestyle, six teams took to the skies, continuing the resurgence of this event at Nationals. Jason Brigmon and Josiah Rich of the Axiom XP freefly team also competed as Axiom XP in freestyle and took to the skies with five other teams to battle for the top slots. At the end of the day, they stood atop the podium for the second year in a row with a total of 47.8 points and the gold medal. The ELE Project, with 10-year veteran competitor Amanda Mandrafino at its helm, took the silver with 42.4 points, edging out AZDream, which took the bronze with 40.7 points.
Mixed Formation Skydiving
Two-way mixed formation skydiving proved to be popular again this year, with 17 teams competing (six in open, eight in advanced and three in the intermediate test event). In the test event, Biscuits & Sass put in a strong performance, earning 40 points and first place. The race for second between AF VHS and Painted Orange was extremely close, with both at 30 points at the end of the last round, necessitating a tie-breaker round. AF VHS put in a strong performance, completing seven points to Painted Orange’s four, taking the silver with Painted Orange taking the bronze.
In the advanced class, AF Triple Threat took the gold medal with a total of 98 points, with Perris Size 9 following close behind with a total of 91 points for the silver. The fight for bronze between Fallhalla and Banditos was tight, with Fallhalla up by two points going into round 10. Banditos scored 10 points to Falhalla’s nine in this final round, a good performance but not enough to make up the deficit, and Fallhalla walked away with the bronze.
In MFS open, which saw six teams compete, the top three teams’ scores were incredibly close with Flightshop and Revolutionary War tied at 97 points going into round 10 and EagleBear only five points behind. In the final round, Flightshop scored a 14 for a total of 111 and the gold. Revolutionary War scored a 12 and took the silver just three points ahead of EaglerBear, which also scored a 14 and took the bronze.
In the second year of speed skydiving as a USPA Nationals event, 15 competitors, including two females, vied to be the fastest freefall skydiver in the U.S. Kyle Lobpries ended the meet with a 484.59 kph average to take the gold. On his way, he put up a 495.4 kph (approximately 307.8 mph) run, setting the North American Continental Record for Fastest Speed Skydive. Brigmon, who had already earned two artistic-event medals with Axiom XP earlier in the competition, decided to try his hand at speed for the first time and took the silver medal with an average of 469.26 kph. Christopher Acevedo from the Golden Knights took the bronze with 463.51 kph.
The top seven competitors and the top-scoring female competitor earned a place on the U.S. Team. In addition to Lobpries, Brigmon and Acevedo, Tom Baker, Michael Brewer, Niklas Daniel, Maxine Tate and Jesse Weyher (also a member of the U.S. Canopy Piloting Team) will represent the U.S. in speed skydiving in Siberia in 2020. During the competition, Tate, who took 12th place, set the Women’s North American Continental Record for Fastest Speed Skydive with a 417.4 kph (approximately 259.4 mph) run.
While the speed competitors were mid-competition, the largest section of Nationals—formation skydiving—began. Fifty-nine teams competed in the 4-way events alone, so competition for medals was fierce. While Platinum XP ran away with the gold with a 13.3-point average in the intermediate class, five other teams were separated by the narrowest of margins as they fought for the podium. Stockholm Syndrome finished with 115 total points and an 11.5 average, just one point higher than Carolina Ice XP’s 114 points and an 11.4-point average. Spaceland Toxic was incredibly close behind in fourth with an 11.2 average.
In the advanced class, Redline XP—with Paraclete’s DZ manager and former Arizona Airspeed member Kirk Verner flying as the player coach—took gold with a 17.5-point average, while another former Airspeed member—Josh Hall—took silver with his team, Elsinore Elevate, with a 16.8-point average. SNE CenterCell XP secured the bronze with a 15.6 average, trailed by AF Shadow by only three points.
The most exciting portion of the 4-way competition came from multiple teams in the open class. Although ineligible for medals, guest competitors and current FAI World Champion NMP Pch HayaBusa from Belgium came for the practice and put in a dazzling performance, finishing with a 28.9-point average.
The big news, however, came from the battle between Arizona Airspeed and SDC Rhythm XP, who have had a friendly but fierce rivalry for a decade. Since 2007, when Steve and JaNette Leftkowitz founded Rhythm, they have competed at Nationals, including the last 10 years in the open category. For the last eight years, Rhythm has taken the silver medal at Nationals, pushing hard with their training in an effort to beat Airspeed. Arizona Airspeed has created an incredible dynasty, winning every USPA Nationals since Rhythm became a team, but with last-minute changes to the Airspeed lineup (Matt Davidson, who recently retired from the Golden Knights 8-way team, joined Airspeed just weeks earlier), Rhythm knew that this could be its year. It truly was the dawn of a new era for Rhythm, as teammate Doug Barron, who suffered severe injuries due to a skydiving accident in April of 2018, fully rehabilitated himself and helped propel Rhythm to the top of the podium.
Going into round 10, Rhythm needed to gain one point on Airspeed to tie and force a jump-off. Those watching round 10 in the hangar were absolutely silent as the round began. When Rhythm scored 26 points to Airspeed’s 25, the entire crowd of 300-plus people gasped and erupted into cheers and applause.
Heading into the tiebreaker round, both teams had a 26.2 average, Rhythm’s highest average ever. As the live judging commenced, both teams sat watching on the edges of their seats. The judges scored Rhythm’s performance first: 21 points. As the judges scored Airspeed’s round, the audience gasped when they ruled point 11 an incomplete formation and realized that Airspeed would likely score a 20 and that Rhythm would become the 2019 USPA National 4-Way Formation Skydiving Champion. When the judges announced the final scores of the tiebreaker—21 to 20—the entire crowd erupted in a standing ovation. Tears of joy streamed down the faces of the Rhythm team members. When Rook Nelson, owner of Skydive Chicago (Rhythm’s home DZ) heard about the win, he immediately flew the drop zone’s Caravan to Raeford as a surprise to the team. He was there just in time for the medal ceremony.
For the first time since it began competing, Rhythm took gold in the 4-way open event and will be the U.S. 4-Way Open Formation Skydiving Team at the World Championships. Airspeed took the silver, and Defiance took bronze with a score of 208 points. The all-female team Aviatrixx, which placed seventh, will travel to Siberia as the U.S. Women’s 4-Way FS Team.
Twenty-five teams (11 in intermediate, four in advanced and 10 in open) competed in 8-way FS, including Tanay 8, a guest team from DZ Tanay, the host of the 2020 FAI World Parachuting Championships Mondial. In 8-way intermediate, the race to the top was tight, with AF Braap finishing with a 9.7-point average to secure the gold. Local team Heroes 8 finished only seven points behind with a 9-point average to secure the silver, while Tempest Max 8 from Skydive Spaceland–San Marcos in Fentress, Texas, finished in third with a 6.3-point average.
In the advanced category, Perris Section 8 finished with a 7.6-point average to win the bronze, only three points behind Erratic 8, who had a 7.9-point average and took the silver. Partially Disturbed, which included members of the 16-way team Dallas Disturbance, took the gold with an 8.3-point average.
In open 8-way, the fairy-tale year for members of SDC Rhythm XP continued, with team members Steve Lefkowitz and Andrew Happick competing on XP8 (with JaNette Lefkowitz as alternate) and taking gold with a 19.7-point average. The Golden Knights, struggling after some lineup changes, still finished close behind XP8 with an 18.9-point average, while Arizona Airspeed 8 finished third with a 17.4-point average. Guest team Tanay 8 finished with a 20.1-point average, and with the FAI World Cup at Skydive Arizona in Eloy following in only a few short weeks, XP8 was able to get a taste of what they could expect at the world level.
Of the seven teams competing in 16-way, most were a combination of 4- and 8-way teams who practiced solely in those disciplines but got together at Nationals to field a 16-way team, but two—Dallas Disturbance and Deguello—attended Nationals specifically to compete in this event. The competition took place out of a CASA (see sidebar), which made it much different than in past years. AZXP—consisting of members of current and past Arizona Airspeed, SDC Rhythm XP and XP8 teams—took the gold with an 8.5-point average. Wearing its signature color-coded helmets, Dallas Disturbance earned the silver with a 6.5-point average, while CASA Stall Squad took bronze with a 5.33-point average.
The ever-fun, historical 10-way speed event also took place out of the CASA. Eight teams competed to see which could complete formations in the shortest time. AZXP10 took gold with a 9.55-second average, while the Golden Knights took silver with an 11.26-second average. Los Diablos rounded out the podium with a 14.52-second average.
The 10-way event traditionally includes two unofficial awards: The Judges’ Choice Award for antics that most amuse the judges after the formation completes and the C.G. Godfrog Good Vibes Award, which the previous year’s award winners bestow on a new team for exemplifying the spirit of the event. This year’s Judges’ Choice award winner, which earned the recipients glitter-painted headdresses, went to AZXP10 for its creativity on formations such as the see-saw, meat grinder and Frogger. The A Team—despite coming in dead last in the 10-way competition—took home the coveted C.G. Godfrog Award. During one of the rounds, team member Harry Bromley completed his 3,000th jump with a little throwback to the old days of competition by jumping a Para-Commander with a belly-mounted reserve and sticking a perfect PLF on landing.
Soon after formation skydiving completed, wingsuiters flocked to Paraclete to compete for their spots on the U.S. Team. This year, acrobatic wingsuit flying drew only two teams, as some of the athletes planning to compete suffered injuries in the months leading up to Nationals. The two teams battled fiercely, with the Z-Hills Flamingos coming out on top, despite Flatspin-Off scoring perfect 300s on five out of seven rounds. An omitted sequence in round two by Flatspin-Off gave Z-Hills the advantage that it needed to take the gold, and only six points separated the two at the end of the competition. Both teams completed 24 grips on round three, setting a joint national record. Since one of the members of the Z-Hills Flamingos did not have an FAI Sporting License (required for records beyond the national level), Flatspin-Off alone broke the North American continental record of 17 grips set at the World Cup in August. Though only one team stood on top of the podium, both teams qualified to compete at the 2020 Mondial.
In the advanced class of wingsuit performance competition, nine competitors, many of whom had never even attended a performance competition, vied for the top spots. Alexander Lemaire, who had never tried performance but was a member of acrobatic team Flatspin-Off, came out on top for the gold with a total of 290.2 points out of a possible 300. Kristina Theroux set a women’s national speed record with 278.9 kph and a women’s national distance record of 3,397 km on her way to taking silver. Bronze medalist Jing Miao also set a national women’s record with a time round of 76.8 seconds.
In the open category, nine U.S. competitors, including newcomer Tristan Setzer, fought for medals and the top eight slots on the U.S. Wingsuit Flying Team. The fight for the top spots was tight, with returning champion Chris Geiler edging out Joe Ridler by 0.1 point for the gold despite two penalties—one of 20 percent and one of 10 percent—during his jumps. Alexey Galda took bronze. Rounding out the 2020 U.S. Team were Daniel Darby, Lobpries, Travis Mickle, Kristian Szczepitko and—in an interesting turn of events—Setzer, who earned his first USPT patch by knocking veteran performance flyer and Z-Hills Flamingos member Anthony Zerbonia out of the running by 2.6 points.
With the conclusion of wingsuit flying, so concluded the Mondial-style USPA Nationals and almost a full month of top-notch skydiving competition. Everyone enjoyed the event, but none more so than the USPA staff and board members who were in attendance. USPA President Chuck Akers traveled to watch the action, as did Executive Director Ed Scott, Director of Sport Promotion Nancy Koreen, Director of Safety and Training Ron Bell and, naturally, Director of Competition Steve Hubbard. Of course, most members of the Competition Committee attended, with many participating in some capacity, including Treasurer Albert Berchtold (canopy piloting competitor) Western Regional Director Josh Hall (FS competitor for Elsinore Elevate and AZXP), Southeastern Regional Director Alix Hubbard (speed judge, wingsuit flying chief judge and FS competitor for Heroes 8 XP), Northeast Regional Director Jim Rees (FS judge and competitor for Amphibious Attack Tigers and CASA Stall Squad), National Director Kirk Verner (manager of the host drop zone and FS competitor for Redline XP, XP8, AZXP and AZXP10) and Mid-Atlantic Regional Director Chris Wagner.
The 2020 USPA Nationals will be a welcome warm-weather retreat for northern skydivers as Skydive City Zephyrhills in Florida will host the event in November.
About the Author
Alix Raymond Hubbard, C-42586, currently lives in DeLand, Florida, where she works full-time as a board-certified behavior analyst for children with autism. She is also the USPA Southeast Regional Director, an 8-way FS competitor, an FAI wingsuit chief judge trainer, a nationally rated speed skydiving judge and co-owner of Arcus Flight Wingsuit Rentals.