Sunday, July 20, 2008

My retirement from swooping

Unfortunately, I must announce that 2008 will be my last season as a canopy Piloting organizer within the skydiving industry. Long story short, I own a separate business (non skydiving) and this Production Company demands most of my attention these days. I love the sport I helped create and worked for it 24/7 365 days a years with no other job for over a decade. My involvement within the skydiving industry will be minimal after 2008 but I will continue to develop the World Parabatic Stunt Team as it continues to thrive outside the skydiving industry. The future of the Pro Swooping Tour and the Canopy Piloting Circuit is unknown at this point. I invite everyone to come out to my final grand event this summer called "Swoop Week" which will be held at Mile Hi Skydiving Aug 25-Sept 1, 2008. You can check it out online at 

If you care to read the longer explanation then continue reading...

This was a hard decision that I've been thinking about it for over a year. For years I couldn't convince myself of letting go and moving on but finally I realize it's time. The Pro Swooping Tour, Canopy Piloting Circuit, Team Extreme, the Ground Launch Center and many of my other ideas started out as nothing but a concept and grew to be successful. I've reached the point in my life where running swoop tours doesn't have the highest priority and the motivation is fading due to lake of support within the industry. Frankly put, big swoop competitions with large cash purses are expensive to run with a low return on investment for most DZs and sponsors. Very few people realize the cost associated with running these events or the dynamics it takes to keep it all moving in the right direction. 

It's been a decade since I organized my first swoop competition which seems like a lifetime ago. I came to this final decision in January but I wanted to give myself time to consider all my options. I have only told a few of my trusted friends until now and they all have told me that they can't believe I did it for as long as I did. As you might expect swoop competitions will go on but those that come behind me have a huge task and will learn the brisk reality of the sport. Clearly, some of my ideas were developed just in time and others were far ahead of their time.

I didn't create swooping. I organized it, developed it, formatted it and presented it to the world. 

In the beginning very few people believed in swooping as a sport and they definitely didn't believe in me. The skydiving industry couldn't get their head around the concept of swooping as a safe, productive and popular skydiving sport. Many Drop Zones didn't believe in our sport, parachute companies didn't believe in our sport and most skydivers viewed us as a danger to them and ourselves. You have to understand this is at a time when most dropzones had "no hook turn" signs in their landing area but couldn't even give a definition of the term. Drop Zones like Skydive Elsinore wouldn't invest in large swoop competitions or the concept of a Swoop Team. They questioned swoop competitions, swoop organizations or the concept of a swoop team. They quickly dismissed us as a fad with questions like "How would a swoop team train anyway"? They didn't believe in our ideas and they missed the boat.  Parachute companies like PD dismissed the concept of a swoop team too until 2003 when they formed the PDFT. In comparison, by 2003 Team Extreme had already been together nearly four years, won all the competitions, traveled the world and lived to tell about it. Team Extreme had to tough it out on our own showing the industry how to do it, why to do it and why a swoop team was a good idea. We had to show the industry that swooping was here to stay and that swooping (a.k.a canopy piloting) could be attractive. Again, very few drop zones or companies within the skydiving industry believed in swooping, swoop competitions or the concept of a swoop team. Simply put, most of the skydiving industry turned their back on swooping when we needed them most. They ended up being followers, not leaders.

So who was responsible for getting swooping where it is today? If it wasn't for Perris Valley Skydiving then canopy Piloting would not be where it is today....point blank. There were a few drop zones that had (little) man made swoop ponds before but none would take on the full commitment that Perris Valley made and it couldn't have happen at a better location. For the record, I still believe Perris Valley Skydiving is the best location to have a swoop competition in the none. The weather there is nearly perfect year around with no wind each morning until noon on almost every single day. You want to have a fair swoop competition? Then there needs to be no wind for all competitors, not an 8 knot downwind for Chuck and then 15 knot headwind for little Mikeal Stevens. Perris Valley Skydiving offers good morning winds on a regular basis but that's not all. To run good events you need aircraft support and alot of it. You need the support of the staff with the best manifest and logistical support. Dan Cook better known as manifest Dan is the best manifester in the world. If you think I'm kidding just ask anyone that has ever been to Perris or a boogie Dan manifested. Dan is so good at his job which he has done for well over a decade he can save a drop zone hundreds if not thousands of dollars a week just how he manifests and controls the planes. Dan, if you read this you are the man....point blank. Melanie Conaster, if you are reading this "all other drop zones in the US are pale in comparisons to Perris Valley Skydiving. There is no one else in the world that has organized as many swoop competitions in as many DZs as me and Perris Valley Skydiving is the best. Sure, you have Skydive Arizona or Skydive Deland but do they have a pond? If so how big is it? How many competitions have they had and how do they treat swoopers? Besides, what other place than Perris Valley Skydiving can you surf, ski and skydive in the same day before 3:00pm? 

Perris Valley Skydiving believed in me and swooping competitions from the beginning and when other said no Perris asked "how soon can we start"! My relationship and teamwork with Perris Valley helped bring swooping to the masses and deliver it to the world in 2003. We built a team including myself, Melanie Conaster, BJ Worth, Scott Smith, Lyle Presse and others to present "Canopy Piloting"  to the world at the IPC's 54th annual meeting. Up against all odds we debated with all the delegates of the world and I gave the keynote speech to close the deal. In 2003 Canopy Piloting got accepted by the IPC and Perris Valley Skydiving won the bid to host the 1st World Cup of Canopy Piloting. The following year we would give the same presentation to the USPA and once again Perris Valley Skydiving would host the 1st USPA National Canopy Piloting Championships.....which I won. It was a sad day when I had to move from California to recover after my life changing parachuting accident on Feb 12, 2006. Perris Valley Skydiving is clearly a leader and not a follower

Next people to believe in me and swooping was Simon Mundell and Icarus canopies. Icarus canopies headed up by Simon approved Team Extreme as fast as soon as he heard the pitch. When other people were wishing they could do something cool we were out there making it all happen and Simon was behind us. Simon was my our partner in the development of Team Extreme and together we were the driving force behind all things Team Extreme. When I needed a sponsor for a swoop event.... Simon with Icarus was there. When we needed new team canopies in a new configuration....simon with Icarus was there. When I needed support for my next big project with the team...Simon with Icarus was there. Few questions got a "no" and the whole world was our drop zone. To be part of something great you need dreamers and you need believers. We were the dreamers and Simon with Icarus canopies were the believers. 

I cannot go on without mentioning my teammates of Team Extreme...Clint Clawson, JC Colclasure and Luigi Cani. I could not have asked for better guys and we came together like it was always meant to be. The truth is I didn't even hardly know these guys before we formed the team and I spoke to them only a few times before. Team Extreme did it our way with no guides, no map and no one to follow. During the life of Team Extreme we spoke with action and cataloged it in our film "Out of the Blue". Our film illustrated many of our stunts including our swoops down and onto Europe's highest mountains. The adventures of Team Extreme helped motivate and create a whole new generation of canopy pilots that can be seen today. As the old saying goes "Lead, Follow or Get out of the Way". Team Extreme 1999-2003

I could write a book on my trials and tribulations as a canopy pilot, producer and organizer within the skydiving industry. I have faith in Canopy Piloting and still believe it stands as the last chance for Skydiving to make it into the mainstream. If Canopy Piloting can't bring Skydiving into the mainstream then I'm afraid Skydiving will always be small. It will take much more than occasional articles in newspapers, magazines and brief airtime on TV. It will require all that I have done and more. I have went on an emotional roller coaster with all the ups and downs of developing swooping as a sport. The sport has cost me time, money and relationships and I would do it all over again if given the opportunity. Throughout the years I partnered up with some of swooping's  greatest pioneers including Reggie Estaugh (inventor of the Airblade) and Lyle Presse (creator of Flex Vision) and organizer of the Venezuela Challenge. These are both great men who devoted years to swooping but in the end had to move on with their life. In the beginning, I started organizing by myself with Karine Leblond. Karine was my only believer in the very begining, my only advisor and only loyal supporter. This was before Team Extreme, before Icarus canopies and before the PST. As I was learning to organize swoop events Karine was learning how to judge them. At the time the only swoop course for competition that existed was the speed event which Reggie created for his Pro Blade events. Me and Karine had to create all the additional swoop courses and events that we continue to use to this day. 

We were not only creating new events but Karine had to develop the rules and a way they could be judged. Karine created the judging platform that everyone else in the swooping community continue to use to this day. Karine Leblond, a girl from Quebec Canada with a four year college degree and the whole world ahead of her choose to stick with canopy piloting. Contrary to popular belief there is very little if no money in canopy piloting, specially as a judge. As a matter of fact, Karine made nothing and volunteered her services for the first several years as we lived on ramen noodles and koolaid. For every single day that I have been in service to the swooping community Karine was there. When others would have gave up and took for a better or more profitable life Karine stayed as a service to the swooping community. For this we are all in your debt....specially me.

I'm often asked for my opinion on the future of Canopy Piloting. At this point I refuse to give my honest opinion. The US government defines "leadership is the process of influencing others to accomplish a task/goal by providing purpose, direction and motivation". I have tried to be a leader within the swooping community and the skydiving industry. I have attempted to provide the purpose, direction and motivation for people who want to get into canopy piloting, sponsor a canopy piloting event and promote canopy piloting. So instead of giving you my opinion I will only give some facts.

What I can tell you is there is no long line of drop zones or sponsors lining up to host the next big swoop event. Yes, canopy piloting will go on and there will be other large swoop events but here are some facts that many people don't know. Blade running and pond swooping both started in 1996 which were both successful but large colorful swoop events with large cash purses started with Lyle Presse. Yes, the Pond Swooping Nationals at the Ranch in NY were breaking new ground. They were raising more money each year for the cash purse by auctioning off donated items from industry sponsors. However, it was Lyle Presse that took $5,000 of his own money and put it up for grabs at his own evet in Daytona, FL called the "Daytona Challenge". Lyle made the event colorful and put it on a beach which attracted much attention including the local media. Lyle then partnered up with organizer Ali Hage on Margarita Island in Venezuela to host the largest swoop event of it's kind....the Venezuela Challenge. The event was so successful they organized it a second time which brought attracted even more competitors and showed swooping like never before. Grandstands, colorful props, dancing girls with matching outfits and slick competitor jerseys. The Venezuela Challenge raised tens of thousands of dollars and set the bar even higher for all future competitions. 

Shortly thereafter the Ranch in NY managed to raise the single highest cash purse payout in the US with $20,000! As quickly as the large cash purses and swoop competition got big at the Ranch it was gone. Swooping became an official sport called "Canopy Piloting" and the US started hosting the real Nationals of swooping. Then in 2006 the Pro Swooping Tour with host Mile Hi Skydiving matched the single highest payout in American history with a $20,000 cash purse. Simply put swoopers got spoiled and accustomed to swoop events with large cash purses. Around this time we all had hopes and dreams that swooping would make it to TV so the large investment from our sponsors would be worth the return. However, the following five years would teach us that it is a much longer and complicated road. The swoop community started realizing it would have troubles trying to continue giving away large cash purses. Most people think (or hope) that someone is going to see our events and we are going to hit the big time and make it on TV. Even though this is possible it is highly unlikely. If you look at how other extreme sports made it onto TV you get an idea of how long that road really is. Again, I'm not saying it's not possible but there is much to be done and it will take hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

The old saying is true, "You have to have money to make money". In all honesty I believe I have talked with enough networks executives to know how swooping could get on scheduled TV but its all about the money. In fact, if I had $250,000 I could have the five PST events on EXPN or equivalent all next season...guarenteed. I have the contacts, know the executives, the production companies and most of all I know how to get the TV time but it all cost money. To complicate things any investor would have to commit their money for only a 50/50 chance that that the right demographic viewers would like it and continue to watch it . So you see our largest How many people do you know that will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to receive a 50/50 chance they will lose all their money? Still there is much to look forward to but the sport needs more leaders and more athletes. The bigger the sport the better the chances of getting what we want. Unfortunately our sport is small. I have been a member of the USPA for over 15 years and the membership is still the same after all these years? What does that say about the future of our sport?

Well, enough of all of this. I will retain all of my Trademarks and properties including my canopy piloting websites which will stay online for the community.  In addition, both the Ground Launch Center and the Canopy Piloting School will continue as normal. Even though I won't be actively organizing I will still be pushing canopy piloting through my event management and production company. You never know, things might change and bring me out of retirement.

You don't know what you got until it's gone so I hope I have done swooping community well. I leave the swooping the way I entered it....humbled. 

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