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When skydiving becomes competitive: Swooping through Houston's hot air

When skydiving becomes competitive: Swooping through Houston's hot air

News_skydiving_Stuart Schoenfeld
There's a reason Stuart Schoenfeld is a force to be reckoned with. Photo by Ori Kuper
News_skydiving_ Jessica Edgeington
Jessica Edgeington, one of the three women competing in the national event, moves with precision through the gates to the shoreline. Photo by Ori Kuper
News_skydiving_Jonathan Tagle
Jonathan Tagle comes off the pond, hoping to stick his landing on the shoreline. Photo by Ori Kuper
News_Fayza_skydiving_skydiving championship
The members of Slip Stream ready their packs for the next round of competition. Photo by Fayza A. Elmostehi
News_Fayza_skydiving_skydiving championship
Is he a superhero? Nah. He's a swooperhero. Photo by Fayza A. Elmostehi
News_skydiving_Billy Sharman
Billy Sharman comes in for a swoop. Photo by Ori Kuper
News_skydiving_Stuart Schoenfeld
Stuart Schoenfeld watches and waits for the next opportunity to show which swooper is boss. Photo by Ori Kuper
News_skydiving_Stuart Schoenfeld
Stuart Schoenfeld brings it on in. Photo by Ori Kuper
News_skydiving_Thomas Hughes
Thomas Hughes demonstrates his form. Photo by Ori Kuper
News_Fayza_skydiving_skydiving championship
The swooping pond is ready for the open class' accuracy event, featuring the competition's top swoopers. Photo by Fayza A. Elmostehi
News_Fayza_skydiving_skydiving championship
Proud to be a canopy pilot. Photo by Fayza A. Elmostehi
News_skydiving_Stuart Schoenfeld
News_skydiving_ Jessica Edgeington
News_skydiving_Jonathan Tagle
News_Fayza_skydiving_skydiving championship
News_Fayza_skydiving_skydiving championship
News_skydiving_Billy Sharman
News_skydiving_Stuart Schoenfeld
News_skydiving_Stuart Schoenfeld
News_skydiving_Thomas Hughes
News_Fayza_skydiving_skydiving championship
News_Fayza_skydiving_skydiving championship

When you hear the word "swoop," you probably think of soaring avians in flight. Or plunging décolletage. Or wisps of hair coquettishly shielding a young woman's sultry gaze.

After spending some time at the U.S. Parachute Association (USPA)'s National Canopy Piloting Championships, you'll think of human beings, too.

Yes, that's a mouthful. So you'll pardon the jumpers for referring to their sport as simply "swooping."

Till sunset Friday and all-day Saturday, the sprawling Skydive Spaceland in Rosharon, Tex. — featuring the largest manmade swooping pond in the country — will show you exactly what "swooping" entails.

"Swooping is the most spectator friendly of the skydiving disciplines," says Skydive Spaceland owner Eric Boyd. For the second year in a row, Boyd's sprawling venue plays host to the eye-popping events comprising the National Canopy Piloting Championships — Zone Accuracy, Distance, and Speed.

"What?" you ask. "There's more to jumping from a plane than just making it to the ground safely?"

Absolutely. And if you really want to enjoy the weekend's festivities, arm yourself with our first-hand experiences. No one will be the wiser on your novice swooping knowledge.

Ditch the shoes, and go heavy on your inner child.

If you feel like you dove straight into the middle of a Roxy Quicksilver catalog when you pull up to the swooping pond, don't be alarmed. The nationally-known jumpers, their groupies, and everyone in between are sunkissed, taut, and spirited.

While perhaps a bit intimidating for us air-conditioning dwellers, USPA Director of Sport Promotion, Nancy Koreen — herself a freefall fanatic, with over 5,500 jumps under her harness — assured us the swooping community is welcoming and tight-knit.

We experienced some of this good-hearted goodwill first-hand, as we discovered the danger of looking up at the spectacles in the sky while walking.

A word to the wise: You'll want to make sure your neck is in full working order. Because what starts up? Must swoop down.

Really want to show your willingness to embrace the daredevil nature of the event? Don't even bother donning shoes. Total gasp, we know! But our recent rains have soaked the Spaceland, making for a mudfest of epic proportions. So you can either gingerly tiptoe your way through while silently cursing your choice of Lucky Jeans and Manolos, or you can toss your pedicure to the wind and do what the jumpers are doing — straight barefooting it.

Swoop, there it went.

In order to really understand swooping, you must watch a swooper from sky to shoreline. Kick around a few basic mechanics in your gray matter.

"There are three events," Koreen says. "Accuracy, where you must make it through a series of gates with precision. Distance, where you pass through the gate and get as far as you can past the gate. And speed, where you quickly fly from one end to the other. All events happen over the swooping pond."

The jumper approaches the swooping pond from some 5,000 feet in the sky, twisting, turning, and posturing to set his or her course for the water. The slalom-like course in the pond, where the gates referenced by Koreen are located, is the climax of the swoop.

Two classes of competitors — the open class, featuring the top competitors, and the advanced class, just a step below — compete in three rounds of each specific event (remember our friends, accuracy, distance, and speed?), for a total of nine rounds.

Easy enough, right? You're practically an expert by now.

Crazy? Perhaps. An abnormal appetite for air? No doubt.

There's something that's been nagging you throughout this article, hasn't there? We can see it in your eyes.

You can't even look out the window of a third-story building without feeling a nauseating turn in your belly, let alone even consider hightailing it out of a perfectly good aircraft on your own accord.

So who are these people and are they, well, you know, all there?

Stuart Schoenfeld, a swooper on the internationally-ranked Slip Stream Airsports team, seemed pretty normal to us.

Making his professional debut in 2005, he's logged over 3,400 jumps in the course of his love affair with skydiving. So how does Schoenfeld explain what others may perceive as lunacy?

"I did the freefall thing, and I loved it." Schoenfeld says with an impish grin.

His relationship with the sport grew more and more intense. "It's like a race car. With no holds barred."

A regular Clark Kent with a day job as a Toyota sales associate, Schoenfeld probably has the career cred to back up that analogy.

This is your cue to wipe the envy from your brow before anyone but us notices.

They're only human.

If you think these swoopers are superhuman, think again. These are flesh and blood men (and a few women — three in the national championships, to be exact) with a parachute full of guts.

But jumping out of airplanes still affects them no matter how many times they've deplaned.

Schoenfeld lives and trains primarily in Denver. If you didn't quickly pick out the differences between the two states, a swooper never fails to notice.

"You feel the lower altitude and thicker air in Houston," he says. "It's harder to move as fast."

But when you're good, you're good, right? Not always.

Schoenfeld laughs about two near-catastrophic incidents. "On one jump, I almost blacked out, because I was spinning so fast. Another time, I hit a tree while swooping."

Yikes. So it begs the question: Doesn't a jumper ever get, you know, scared?

"When it's good, you're scared," teammate Bryan Buechler quips.

We believe it.

They're not birds. They're not planes. They're not superheroes. But the swooping surely is sweet, and the skies are saturated with 50 of canopy piloting's finest this weekend.

Bring the family, a bevy of lawn chairs, and an affinity for the atmosphere. Because if we didn't tell you the sky's the limit for this national championship, we'd be full of hot air.