Taking teamwork, trust to new heights
Jen Schaben prepares for competition by doing CrossFit five times a week. Teammate Laura Dickmeyer prefers a regular diet of running and yoga. Angela Nichols spends her time away from the team golfing and hiking, while Dannielle Woosley crams in as much time as possible with her husband and two children.
When they're together, the four women spend much of their time 10,000 feet above ground but falling at more than 110 mph back toward it.
Staff Sgt. Schaben, Sgt. 1st Class Dickmeyer, Sgt. 1st Class Nichols and Sgt. 1st Class Woosley are part of the U.S. Army Parachute team known as the Golden Knights. This week, they will be competing in the 4-way open class at the United States Parachute Association's National Skydiving Championships outside Chicago.
"Our goal as a team is always to be the best in the world," said Schaben, a psychological ops specialist who has served in Iraq. "You have to put your faith in your training and learn in every way to rely on your teammates."
Typically, 4-way skydiving teams like the Golden Knights compete with the aim of completing as many formations as they can within the first 35 seconds of their jump. The emphasis of their performance is not only on speed but also the accuracy of their formations. Teams in competition are always accompanied by a fifth member, the free-fall videographer, who captures their performance live on video for the judges.
Like most skydivers, the women of the Golden Knights got started in skydiving as young adults before taking it up competitively within the Army.
Schaben, 28, who hails from Portsmouth, Iowa, did her first jump in 2007 as a civilian and then attended the Army Golden Knights Assessment and Selection Program a year later, honing her skydive skills there.
Woosley, on the other hand, got involved in skydiving after being assigned to the Human Resource section for the Army Parachute Team.
"I've learned all I know about skydiving from Golden Knights," said the 31-year-old Woosley, who has completed more than 3,000 jumps.
The most seasoned member of the team, Nichols started diving with her father when she was 18 and was so avid that she completed her 100th dive with her father. At age 37, Nichols, a medic, has completed more than 9,500 jumps with a parachute.
Dickmeyer made her first leap when she was 18, in 2002.
"I was a senior in high school," Dickmeyer said, "and I had a science teacher who included skydiving as part of an extra-credit project. After that one jump, I was hooked."
Since then, the 28-year-old Dickmeyer, an intelligence specialist who has served in Afghanistan, said her time in the Army has provided her the opportunity to jump more than 3,200 times.
Enough times to know that she and her teammates are in rare air.
"Generally, 4-way open class skydiving is fairly male dominated," Dickmeyer said. "You see a lot of teams that are made up of both genders, but an all-woman 4-way team isn't the norm."
The Golden Knights, in fact, will be the lone all-women 4-way squad in the open division at nationals this year. In all, 60 skydiving teams from all over the country will compete at nationals, which begin Wednesday.
Jim Hayhurst, the USPA's director of competition, said membership in the USPA saw a decline right after 9/11.
"Gradually since then," Hayhurst said, "the popularity of skydiving crept back up. Now we're at over 35,000 members, putting participation in the sport at an all-time high."
While female participation also is at an all-time high, it still is rare for an all-women team to compete at nationals.
Schaben points out that while skydiving is a thrill, the training is rigorous. A normal practice day consists of at least 10 jumps -- during competition season up to 12 to 15 jumps a day -- plus on-the-ground work and reviewing videos to evaluate form. The women are stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which is home to the U.S. Army Parachute program.
In addition to the skills gained in thousands of jumps and formal training, each of the four Golden Knights works outside of the free fall to maintain optimum fitness.
"Skydiving is really hard on the body," said Dickmeyer, "so an active lifestyle is key."
Besides the thrill and their competitive nature, why do they do it?
"What I love about skydiving is the camaraderie," Dickmeyer said. "A typical jump could include a doctor, lawyer, high school dropout and a soccer mom. I love how it brings people from all different demographics for the common love of falling from a plane."
Schaben, in turn, talks about the rush.
"Skydiving is a special kind of sport," she said. "It's like being at the starting line of a race, but every jump is packed with both anticipation and a lot of adrenaline."