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Yes, competitive skydiving is a real (and very awesome) thing

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Nicolas Halseth jokes that after 25 years in competitive skydiving, he's still just “trying it out.” It was this try-anything attitude that got him to jump out of that first plane. Before he knew it, he was sitting in a cornfield, which doubled as his drop zone, wondering what happened to the past four minutes.

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“People don't remember a lot of their first jump, because it overloads your senses,” he says.

Halseth was invited on another jump the same day, which he accepted. Over time, he kept progressing to new difficulty levels, joining groups with different drop zones to gain experience with various formations.

The point of transition from casual jumper to pro perfecting formations is what inspired Beyond the Thrill, a documentary about competitive skydiving directed by St. Paul native Jason P. Schumacher. It's screening tonight at the Twin Cities Film Festival.

Formations are at the heart of skydiving competition. There are over 30 different types, which are executed by members connecting to each other in specific places with their hands.

Halseth was recruited by a team due to his experience with 20-way diving, meaning he was part of a 20-person team performing formations. There, he met Andy Junghans and Greg Heideman, who asked him to fill in for their camera guy who couldn't make it to their next meet.

“I was brand new to flying camera that year,” he says. “But they were like, 'You wanna go to Florida and try four-way competition?' I was like, 'I suppose.'”

Four-way competition is actually a five-person team, which includes the camera person. Before the team jumps, the camera person makes his way to a step on the side of the plane in order to film the team's exit. Once they're all airborne, the camera follows and hangs above, making sure he gets clear visuals of the formation grips. Halseth's rule of thumb is to keep 10 to 15 feet above the team to get a clear shot and avoid collisions.

“All camera guys at some point take out their team,” he admits. “The trick is do it in practice, not at a meet.”

After his first jump with the team, he realized he had a knack for the position.

“When we were watching the video, I remember Andy saying to the other guys on the team, 'Oh, he's better than our camera guy,'” he says. They added him to the group, named Cosmic Debris, full-time the following year.

In competition, video is used by the judges to score each jump, with one complete formation worth one point. Once the team exits the plane, they have 35 seconds to complete the assigned formations as many times as possible. The formations are chosen randomly for each round of the competition, and all teams do the same formations.

The camera person can't earn points for the team, but can cost the team points. If there's a grip that's out of the shot, a point is taken off. If the camera angle makes it look like a grip is in the wrong place, a point is taken away. The competition isn't judged on smoothness, but speed and number of points.

All of this takes lots of practice, which consists of both airplane jumps and time in a vertical wind tunnel. The idea of the tunnel is similar to what a hitter does in a batting cage, but instead of a set number of pitches, divers get two minutes of air time per go in order to practice formations or pieces where four-ways split into pairs.

“I think the four competitors in the video always have a tighter bond than with the camera guy,” Halseth says. “Because they're in the tunnel together. They're actually touching one another.”

Alissa Silva is another member of the Cosmic Debris. She was unsure about the competitive aspect of skydiving until she was asked to be on the team.

“I had only been in the sport for a couple of months, and had absolutely no idea what I was doing,” she says.

Cosmic Debris is an intermediate-level team.

“We maybe did nine hours over the years as a team in the tunnel, and a couple hundred jumps,” she says. “Professional teams will do 500 to 1,000 jumps in a season, with many, many hours in the tunnel.”

With many sports, going pro comes with a nice paycheck and endorsement deals. That's not the case with skydiving. “No one is getting big bucks out of it. You're not seeing a big skydiving team sponsored by Nike,” says Halseth.

The lack of a big payday has some calling it the "last true sport." Halseth says he thinks of it as "the great equalizer."

“You could be a doctor. You could be a garbage man,” he says. “And however you're viewed in the outside world, you go to the drop zone and that garbage man might skydive the pants off that doctor.” 

IF YOU GO:

Beyond the Thrill
5:15 p.m. Monday, October 24
$12
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Purchase tickets here.