August has come and passed, and the dust has settled from the latest Vertical World Record attempt at Skydive Chicago. The extra planes have scattered, oxygen cannulas no longer dangle intrudingly from the cabin ceiling, and more than two-hundred jumpers have meandered back to wherever they call home on this big blue rock with a case of big blue balls. After weeks of social media content rife with woulda-coulda-shouldas and footage and photos and sulking and excusing and promoting, by all indications the skydiving world has returned to what we can most accurately call, “business as usual.” To everyone who wasn’t present that week, the big ordeal is over. Our small world tuned in, they liked our posts, they wished us luck, and then we failed. We definitely failed. We spent years preparing and then we dropped the ball, and that is the definition of failure. But, however contradictory it may seem, failure may have been the necessary outcome. Not for this record, and not for the people who really wanted this record (trust me, I was one of them), but for the future of the Vertical Record.
For years, the formula has seemed consistent. Pay your dues, pay your coaches, pay the camps, pay the airlines, and if you keep your head down and avoid the blade of the axe-man (looking at you, J-Russ), you’ll walk away with a skydiving world record. Don’t get me wrong—I am by no means saying it has ever been possible to buy your way onto a record. I certainly don’t want to take away from the hard work and sacrifices of anyone who has attended a record. What I mean is that for the last several records, the most formidable obstacles for participants were selection camps and finances. Make it past those, don’t get cut, and you’ll probably walk away with a record. Imagine if all records worked that way. What if an athlete just had to make it to the Olympics and they were guaranteed a world record? Sure, making it to the Olympics is an amazing feat in itself, but a world record? If it happened every time, nobody would care. So how is it that the Vertical Record has succeeded on every camp in over a decade?
Maybe we weren’t trying hard enough.
Lethargy is inevitable when success is guaranteed. I can’t speak for everyone’s mindset going into the record, but I can certainly say that a significant portion of the camp participants were surprised to go home empty handed. Believing a record is possible is essential, but being entitled to one is a fairytale. When you adopt that mindset, there are a lot of positives to a record camp that fails. Here is my recollection of some of the highlights:
First there was the part where two hundred friends suddenly showed up in the same place—no fun at all. We can skip over the motivational presentations and lengthy dirt-dives (let it suffice to say they were numerous), and get to the jumps. When it comes to the jumps, let’s settle one thing here and now: A world record attempt is absolutely not just a one-point skydive. It is a terrifying, breathing organism with hundreds of separate brains, all with their own ideas and plans, trying to synchronize for a few dangerous seconds. It’s like Jim Carrey in Me, Myself & Irene, but split two-hundred ways. A lot more goes on than you’ll find in whatever POV videos you watched on your chosen social media outlet. Even the ride to altitude is a trip. Picture this—you’re stuck for an hour in a loudly vibrating box that is first hot, then extremely cold, and your best method of passing the time is to sit in the plane and question everything you thought you knew about skydiving. What am I going to see? Where is the base going to be? Is my slot going to be available? Will everyone else do their job? Am I going to die on break-off? As prepared as we all liked to think we were, the truth is that nobody on that first jump had ever done a two hundred-way head down attempt. For that first jump, we were all amateurs.
But, the amateurs made it look pretty damn good. One sector assembled all the way out (it was mostly those classy Army Golden Knights. They’re used to being in formation). They built four pods deep on the first try and it couldn’t have flown smoother if it was on autopilot. This brings us to the second highlight—the record became possible. The engineering was proven sound. The concept had been verified. The other nine sectors just needed to get their shit together and we’d all be partying with tequila. With such an encouraging start, we thought it might happen on the first day. It obviously didn’t happen the first day.
It also didn’t happen the second day, or the third. The weather sauntered in, like some loud drunken asshole who wasn’t invited to the party, and screwed the whole plan up. Frustration took hold, bringing with it delinquent antics, compulsive exercising, and the birth of #stillready. As in, “we’ve had meetings, we’ve dirt-dived, we’ve restructured, we’ve tweaked it, we’ve dirt-dived, we’ve debriefed, we’ve dirt-dived, we’ve dirt-dived, we’ve dirt—” You get the picture. We really, really, really just wanted a fair shot.
The third highlight happened Thursday afternoon, when we finally got that shot. We donned our gear, we dirt-dived again (okay I’m done, I promise), and we did our best cool-guy impressions as we strutted to our respective planes to the ironic background of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” And then, right there in that August sky, a few thousand feet above another Illinois cornfield, we made the official record for the largest “you had to be there” moment in vertical skydiving history. Literally, you had to be there. I’m not going to write about it. Just trust me when I say it was a highlight. However, I will write about the fact that after all the debriefing and restructuring and dirt-diving (promise broken), we put up our best attempt yet. We were close. We were there. We could feel it.
And then the weather moved in again. #stillready.
Friday afternoon, with just a precious few hours remaining in our week-long struggle, Sky-God gave us a window, which we pounced all over. We didn’t get an official count, but we built what must have been more than one hundred and eighty people. I remember that jump having the best vibe of any during the whole camp. I was able to look past Gile’s cheeky grin at four rows of little G3-clad Meerkat heads each popping up a bit taller than the one before, as if everyone suddenly remembered how to be on level. I could feel Katie Hansen, whose necessary death grip may have forever altered the bone structure of my right arm, actually get to relax for once. The extended moment of calm on this jump was a promise that we weren’t imagining things, and that this two hundred-way was well within our capability.
But, we only time had for one more jump, so we told the outside of the formation to get lost and tried for a one hundred and seventy-something-way. Then we got overhyped and we blew it, but it was the most beautiful sunset jump I’ve been on in a long time. At least we got to look at some pretty colors while we disappointed the dozens of people we just left on the ground. Highlight number four: Sobbing and Tequila for everyone!
Here is the reality though. We needed to fail. Let’s say we smoked that two-hundred-person barrier on the first day. Two hundred is a nice round number. Such a nice number that it would be a logical stopping point. Records are expensive, static flying is exhausting, and everyone in America now just wants to cruise around on angles like the South-Americans anyway. I can’t say that if we got this record it would have been the end. There will always be hungry new jumpers that want a chance to make their mark, and Rook Nelson seems impressively motivated and willing to go to admirable lengths to keep his passion project alive, and maybe that is enough to keep the record wheels turning. I don’t know. But I can say definitively that if we had nailed it this time, the Vertical Record would have lost its luster to me. I would have checked the record box on my fictional skydiving resume and moved on to the next thing.
In order for an accomplishment to mean something, it has to be difficult. We certainly proved that a vertical two hundred-way is difficult. We also proved that it is possible, and it is possible right now. If it is difficult, then it is meaningful, and if it is meaningful, it’s worth failing at once or twice at least. No, we didn’t get the record, but now we’re hungry. We’re invested and ready to train harder, to fly smarter and when the opportunity arises, to nail this big monster of a formation. Cheers for failure. #Stillready.
Shout-out to Tom Baker for giving us a rad glimpse of what the final attempt looked like!