Features | Dec 01, 2019
Zen and the Art of Organizer Maintenance—Alethia Austin’s Great Advice for New (and Not-So-New) Organizers

Annette O'Neil

Alethia Austin has a very interesting life story.

She went through the AFF program 15 years ago, when she was working in Los Angeles as a music supervisor in the film and TV industry. One day, a Dutch startup company hired her for a three-month marketing project. She showed up in Amsterdam with a pit bull, a blind cat and one-and-a-half suitcases and ended up staying in Europe for just under a decade (so far).

Over the years, Austin’s unique mix of hard-charging and grounded doesn’t just make its mark on the marketing side of the skydiving industry. Over many years of dedicated investment into her own progression, she has also become one of the most popular, trusted organizers on the event scene: for FlajFlaj, for Tora Tora and for her own events such as the LSD (which stands for level, slot, dock) Big-Way Head-Down Camps and Get Sideways Angle Camps. You’ve certainly seen their cheerful stickers.

These days, she’s mostly based in Seville, Spain, in a gorgeous little village house about five minutes from the local drop zone. That said: For 13 out of the last 14 weeks, she hasn’t really been there. Instead, she’s been working events (and participating in one, because she insists it’s important to continue pushing yourself, too). Austin’s total for 2019 will be a whopping 26 events.

That’s a juggernaut number, to be sure, but the first thing you’ll notice about Austin when you meet her is that she exudes a sense of balance and contemplative calm, even when the bucking winds of a high-attendance skydiving event are thrashing around her. Austin’s equanimity is enviable, even downright magnetic.

If you’re a new or even not-so-new organizer, you may wonder how she does it. Well, we decided to ask her. (You’re welcome.)

Q: Twenty-six events in a year is nothing to sniff at. How do you rise to those opportunities? What are the pillars of your participation—the things that let you keep moving forward with your signature quality of energy?
A: The first key is intention: showing up at each event with an intention to really give everything you’ve got. And for that, you need to know what you’ve got—the qualities that you, and only you, have been hired for.

I remember the moment when I walked into the coach’s meeting when I first got involved with FlajFlaj. There was Domi [Kiger], Luis Prinetto, Andrew Keir, Tim Douglas—these legendary coaches—and then there was me. I thought, “What?! This is hilarious. Why did you guys bring me to this event? You’re crazy.”

By the third day, I had an “aha” moment. I realized that my USP [unique selling proposition] is my energy, my ability to connect with people. It is something I give to my students. I am able to lead them safely and create a jump plan that’s going to bring them together and make them feel stoked. I can debrief them and give them some tips, but mostly it is that energetic gift that I have to give to them.

Finding your USP takes some focus. What is the unique you-ness people are hiring? Why are people hiring you specifically? Is it only your flying? Is it your safety? Your personality? Your charm? Why did they choose you over another coach? Really tap in to that; be present with that; think about what it means to deliver that to your students.

Once I embraced my USP, any insecurity I might have had around my particular qualifications dissolved. It’s really about showing up, knowing what I have to offer, knowing what I have been hired for and honoring that the participants deserve the optimal version of me.

That means taking care of myself. I show up having had a good amount of sleep, having meditated, having exercised. I show up knowing they’re investing their holiday—maybe their only skydiving trip—and this particular day is super important to them. No matter what I have going on in my personal life, I need to show up for them. The intention to do that is a pillar.

Q: In a general sense, what traps do you think organizers can fall into?
A: I haven’t seen it too much, thankfully, but sometimes there’s a disconnect between the organizers and the participants that’s ego-based. I think that’s a shame, because that represents an invented separation between a human and another human based on slightly silly criteria—like jump numbers or tunnel hours—when the truth is that we are all equal humans.

There’s also the challenge of endurance. Maybe this is your 15th event in the summer, so you show up with the “here we go again” mentality. Your students don’t have that mentality, because even though they are the 100th person you’ve flown with in the last month and a half, you’re the first for them.

We simply can’t adopt that “another beginner head-up group” mentality. There is nothing more demoralizing or uninspiring for a student who already knows they’re at the beginning of a steep personal learning curve than having the coach make it obvious they’re not the group they wanted for the day.

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Q: How do you balance the social aspect of all these skydiving events with maintaining professionalism and keeping up your energy level during jumping hours? An event schedule like yours represents quite a lot of kinda-sorta-non-negotiable partying.
A: We all know a big part of this sport and its charm is all of us and these shiny, magical moments we have together. I’ve learned that it’s a smart idea to curb the bulk of that until the final night so that you can give 100 percent during the jump hours, which is what most people have paid for.

The wild-west era of skydiving—drink all night, jump all day—feels like it’s over, anyway. I think a lot of this has to do with the flood of new professionals in the sport, as well. They’re working all day professionally and really giving everything, and then they’re having quiet evenings with cozy dinners, good conversation, going to bed early, calling their partners, waking up early to get their exercise or meditation in. I see this blend happening right now at events with the old school that’s like, “Let’s just rage,” alongside the ones that are like, “OK, let’s not rage. Let’s have a healthy meal and work out.” And the balance is tipping toward the healthier side, which is exciting for me to see.

Q: How do you spend your time between jumps to keep your energy revved?
A: As an organizer, keeping your energy up is not a choice. It’s a requirement. On each jump, you have 60 seconds. That gives you seven or eight minutes throughout a day at a busy event during which you have to perform really well, and then you have 10 or 11 hours around those minutes where you’re potentially just bumming around. How can you spend those seven minutes in between several hours being truly awesome if you’re not prepared, if you’re not really there mentally … hungover, sick or whatever? There are a lot of factors going into making those couple minutes per day really work for you, and that comes directly from the ways you’re physically and mentally preparing yourself and your group.

Once I meet my group for the day, I establish a flow that will keep us all on the same rhythm. First, we get to know each other. We talk about the flow of the day. I always set out a flow: brief, jump, land, high five, pack, watch the video and debrief. We talk about where and how. That way the group isn’t always searching for each other. You don’t lose precious minutes in between jumps to people having cigarettes or coffee.

I spend enough time with my group that they know I’m there for them, but I also take a lot of time just for myself because, with the long days, I really need it. I bring my headphones with me to every event. When my energy dips, I throw the headphones on as a respectful, polite signal that I am closed for business during that time. I like to take quick walks and rock out to some really good music that lifts me or just keep it totally quiet or have a sit and draw inward a little bit, check in and calibrate to the energy of the event. Once I’m recharged, I can come back completely renewed and transformed. It’s magic.

Q: How does nutrition come into play here?
A: I’ve been plant-based for 23 years. I was vegetarian for 19 of those years and went vegan four years ago. I am probably 75 percent raw when I’m home. It has made a huge difference.

Nutrition and what I put in my body—wow, it is so powerful and so important to me. The machine that I get to live inside of, when I feed it really well, is pretty much limitless in its ability. I can feel it.

What I’ve learned to do this summer—because it has been so full-power—is not to cut corners. I make my nutrition at events an extension of my life at home, and that has been massive. I bring maca powder, flax seeds, my oils, oats, hemp seeds. All of the things I put into my food every day, I bring with me. It costs me another kilo or two in checked luggage, but it is so totally worth it. Life on the drop zone involves a lot more cooked food and breads that I don’t normally eat, but at least I know in the morning I can have some maca and flax and a meal supplement. I do intermittent fasting during events that don’t tax me too much.

When everything is on point, people respond to that. I can feel it. And that is, in huge part, because of how I am feeding my body. People make jokes about loving their bacon, but if you study them a little bit and what they are eating, you see them going to go into a coma after every meal. You see them retreating to a bunch of booze and French fries because they just don’t feel very good—falling into all of these patterns of self-soothing that are just compounding each other, perpetuating the need for more self-soothing in the wrong way. Definitely the wrong way for people who consider themselves to be athletes and are spending hundreds of euros for a week of hard, precise, athletic training.

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Q: What’s your philosophy regarding safety at these events and your role in it as an organizer?
A: An important skill for new coaches is learning how to take control of the event. Some events are really hard-charging. Things are moving really fast; you’re scrambling, and you can feel that energy within the whole drop zone. You barely get a moment to grab a swig of water before you’re running after your responsibilities at full tilt. When you feel that, that is when you have to stop in your tracks and make sure you are functioning with full awareness.

It’s in those moments when accidents happen. It’s vital not to become a passenger in those situations. You are taking people’s wellbeing into your hands in many ways, so you need to be absolutely certain you’re in charge of the whole process. Make sure your students are ready, and their gear is okay, that they’re still physically and mentally sharp. You can see it and feel it when you’re mindful, but you have to look for it.

Make sure you’re all really there. Especially when it’s rushed. You get your group together; you do gear checks; you tap all their shoulders; you make eye contact; you get everybody to do a collective breath together to set that tone. Maybe everything else is totally chaotic, but you and your students are in control and on that cruise mode. Hold the space.

We’re on the brink of a possible accident at any given moment when we are jumping. You start to see it—how many close calls there are—when you’re working events. Trust your instincts and embrace the fact that your students haven’t worked out all of the variables involved in leading them safely, because that’s why they hired you. They haven’t factored in the other groups, the weather, the spot, the aircraft, what they’re capable of doing and what they aren’t. They show up expecting you to have that handled, so do.

The other thing is to start conversations about safety within the group, especially with newer jumpers. Ask, “Hey, what direction is jump run today? Where is the spot? What are the winds doing?” Oftentimes, none of them will have any idea. Start the conversation about why we need to know these things. In my experience, starting that conversation is the most thoughtful, energetic way of helping them become their own coaches within our coach group. For one, it’s a great point of discussion; and two, it gives a real sense of bonding to the group. It feels good.

Q: Any final advice for new organizers?
A: Absolutely. Approach events as a new organizer with a sense of curiosity. Leave the ego. Raise your hand with confidence and say, “Hey, I’m new at this. Please give me all the feedback or tips you can.” Ask if you can shadow an experienced organizer in between your groups. Take the opportunity to learn from people who have been doing this for a really long time and are really solid, safe and good.

Asking questions also bonds you to those organizers. They won’t see you as an idiot. They’ll see you as somebody entering the scene who is really taking it seriously. And it gives them an opportunity to share some of their hard-earned knowledge, which is a beautiful feeling. And it gives you a wealth of knowledge that fast-forwards your skills.

Q: What’s next?
A: I’m excited about the next season—about Project 19 [the women’s head-down world record attempts scheduled for 2020] and about the personal and professional projects that lie ahead. I am on my knees with gratitude every day. I don’t take this life for granted; it is really unique. I feel very humbled by these opportunities and full of gratitude for how welcoming and generous the sport has been.

Jumpers can reach Alethia Austin through her Facebook page at facebook.com/alethiaaustin.

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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