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Bedford or Bust: An Intermediate Story
By Alex Jordaan

Left to right: Martin Kruger, Andre van Heerden, Warren Hitchcock (camera), Mark Trethewey, Rina Grant

Training camps hosted at wind tunnels are quickly becoming more mainstream for South African teams. This is especially true for those jumpers that were fortunate enough to experience wind tunnel flight early on in their skydiving career and experienced first hand the potential benefits. Recently I was fortunate enough to travel with four such individuals, plus one brand new tunnel flyer, to Bodyflight Bedford in the UK. The campers consisted of Andre van Heerden, Rina Grant, Mark Trethewey and Martin Kruger as part of the Intermediate 4 way formation skydiving team Vivid Sky. Deon Kritzinger also accompanied the group as a solo flyer. Andre, Rina and Martin had all previously attended a solo skills tunnel camp with myself at the SkyVenture Facility in Malaysia so were not new to tunnel flight. Mark had also previously done a few minutes in the Bodyflight Bedford facility while passing through the UK. This however, was to be their first 4 way camp.

In anticipation for 2008 nationals I had managed to assemble a reasonable 4 way team which included myself that I felt could do pretty well in the Open event at nationals. As part of our preparation we decided on a camp at Bedford, along with Vivid Sky which would make it much easier to arrange and manage since both teams could share the time equally removing the need to find flyers to rotate with.  Since I was going to be training with my team we all decided that it would be most productive to hire another coach to assist both teams. We found that coach in the form of Amanda Kemp, the current female 4 way world champion and previous member of the UK national female team. Amanda and her team Airkix won the female event at the world championships in 2006 with a 19 point average and seemed perfectly suited to assist both teams meet their goals. We were all set. As often happens in this sport however things change fast and the team that I was a part of lost a couple of members for reasons that could not really be controlled. After some phone calls and discussions with Vivid Sky we decided that their camp should still go ahead and they should keep Amanda on as coach. I would still accompany them since I had already planned to be there.

Vivid Sky are a true Intermediate team, if there is such a thing. Some of the members had competed in the Novice category the year before and had now decided to make the move up to Intermediate where they could start learning block techniques and all the associated skills that come with that. All the team members have less than 500 jumps and have little time and experience in the sport. They decided not to recruit the services of a more experienced jumper to assist them within the team so they had to learn together, which is often more challenging since there is no-one on the jumps that can manage the team and provide leadership in the sky, and then provide direction on the ground. Where some teams may have seen this as a disadvantage, they saw an opportunity to learn faster and grow more as individuals and as a team. A plan was formulated from the beginning and after reasonable discussions with relevant persons they decided on slots, continuity, strengths, weaknesses and most importantly, their attitude. They kept me around to assist with the latter. While Amanda was on hand to provide technical direction, I was there to keep them honest. If they were weak in an area they wanted to be called on it. If they remained weak in that area they then wanted to be held accountable, and that’s where the benefit of having an impartial coach comes in.

Amanda was an exceptional coach in all aspects. Vivid Sky had never flown the blocks before so she discussed and demonstrated techniques, briefed, de-briefed and coached with a level of patience, understanding and professionalism that was a pleasure to witness. She knew just how far to take the team at any point and the progression was excellent. Often Amanda and I would run a 2-on-2 type program where her and I would fly a slot on opposite pairs and then bring the VS team members in 2 at a time. This gave them the benefit of flying with a coach as their piece partner and also as their opposite. After 2 rotations and once all the team members had been exposed to a block in this configuration they would do it together, knowing what it looked and felt like when they had the coaches in there with them. Since all 4 flyers had this recent reference on which to base their decisions and inputs the learning progression on the blocks was much faster than usual. Plus it gave Amanda and myself a good understanding of the feeling inside the formations since one can realise the things that often go unnoticed when just watching from the outside, such as awkward pressure on grips during inters, momentum in the wrong direction or a blank look in the eyes of your opposite that tells all kinds of stories.

So after 7 hours of cumulative tunnel time where each flyer probably few about 4 hours, the camp was over and the team felt that they had achieved a lot. It’s a cliché that I always use but it usually holds true and this case was no exception, that tunnel training often teaches you more about what you still need to learn than it does about what you are currently learning. Especially after taking some time out after the camp to relax and watch some other teams train the team and myself realised how fast the sport is progressing and while we felt glad to have been there investing in our learning, we couldn’t help but feel that it’s not enough.

Tunnel training is excellent for learning discipline, technique, communication and a lot of the things that make good 4 way. These are often the things that are overlooked in conventional training due to the nature of the environment. It’s also a good experience for the team to get away and travel together and experience and interpret all the emotions that go with it, which will undoubtedly be used in freefall at some point. The truth is however that teams still need to jump out of an airplane plenty in order to learn to manage these new found skills under the pressures of genuine freefall. Needless to say the exit is a major factor that also needs to be trained that often is the determining factor at a meet. With that in mind Vivid Sky made some training jumps and presented themselves at nationals hoping to perform at the level which they knew they could. After 6 rounds of some great jumps and some not so great jumps, they accepted 3rd place knowing that out of 6 teams, some of which were a lot more experienced and trained than they were, that they did themselves proud. The learning that took place at Bedford and prior, in terms of the fundamentals required to make one a good formation skydiver, was always present throughout all the jumps and while it didn’t lead to victory right then, it surely will in the future.

I think that they were really proud of themselves. I know I was.

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