Elliot Byrd skillfully maneuvered above a team of fellow skydivers, capturing their breathtaking precision on video while soaring high over Siberia.
With that performance, the resident of Mount Pleasant in Racine County and his teammates captured a gold medal in eight-way formation skydiving at the World Parachuting Championships. The event, which tested their ability to make pre-designated maneuvers in free fall, featured a multitude of world-class athletes competing in the fringe sport.
Byrd, 35, served as the team’s videographer, an essential and crucial role. He had the responsibility of accurately and clearly documenting the team’s required maneuvers on video, which judges used to score the performance.
Any failure to properly capture the formations, which his teammates performed while plummeting from 13,500 feet at speeds of up to 300 mph, would have hindered the U.S. squad’s medal chances.
“For an eight-way jump, it’s about 60 seconds of free fall before we pull our parachutes and then two to five minutes until we land,” Byrd says.
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The International Skydiving Commission and hosts of this year’s event scrambled to make the competition possible after postponing it in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The championships took place at drop zones in the southwest portion of Siberia. The competition began on Aug. 10 and concluded with the closing ceremonies on Aug. 20.
The event brought together the world’s best skydiving athletes from more than 30 countries, including over 60 elite U.S. skydivers who made the arduous trek to the vast Russian province. In addition to formation skydiving, events included style and accuracy landing, artistic events, canopy piloting, speed skydiving and wingsuit flying.
At the Parachuting World Cup competition in 2019, Byrd’s team finished third, with the French team second and the Russian squad winning gold.
Byrd said he and his teammates knew they had their work cut out for them if they wanted a shot at capturing gold this time around.
“We kicked it into high gear in training and did anywhere between 1,100 and 1,200 training jumps,” Byrd says. “We just kept training and came out on top.”
The U.S. eight-way team’s win this year was a bit of an upset in what turned out to be an extremely tight battle with the French and Russian national teams. In the end, the U.S. beat out the French team by a single point for the gold medal.
In the competition, the teams must cycle through a series of prescribed formations in a set order as quickly as possible. Byrd insists his role is less stressful than those in the formation, but he said his teammates have told him they wouldn’t necessarily want his job.
“I think my job is easier but the people in the formation think that their job is easier,” Byrd says. “My job is less involved in a sense. I don’t have to memorize 50 formations. The thing they say about videographers is that if you are doing your job perfectly, nobody notices. But if you are doing a poor job, it’s very apparent, very quickly.”
United States Parachute Association Executive Director Albert Berchtold had high praise for the dedication and drive shown by Byrd and his skydiving teammates.
“Having the meet delayed for an entire year was a huge challenge, but Elliot and the eight-way team used the extra time to hone their skills and train harder,” Berchtold says. “They were focused on one goal, bringing home the gold, and the coveted Ottley Sword.”
The sword is awarded to the team that wins the eight-way competition and remains in its possession until the next World Championships.
“Traveling to the opposite side of the world to compete in the World Championships is challenging, then you add on the struggles of doing it amidst a worldwide pandemic and it makes our U.S. Parachute Team’s wins all that more sweeter,” Berchtold said. “They are our champions, and they’ve represented our country in an exemplary fashion.”
Under usual circumstances, the World Championships are held every two years. The next world championship will be held in Eloy, Arizona, in October 2022.
Byrd and his wife, Lauren, moved to Mount Pleasant in September 2020 so she could compete as part of a four-way women’s skydiving team, of which he is also a member. The team is based at Skydive Midwest, a skydiving drop zone in nearby Sturtevant.
“In order for us to spend as much time as possible together, I fly video for her four-way team as well,” he says. “The videographer can be either male or female but all in the formation have to be female.”
Byrd has traveled between Wisconsin and North Carolina, where his 8-way team is based, but the couple has decided to settle in Southeast Wisconsin and recently purchased a home after months of living in an apartment.
The husband-wife skydiving duo has discussed the possibility of starting a family, but with both still committed to competing in the sport, it doesn’t appear to be in the cards, at least for now, he explained.
“We have some friends in skydiving that have kids but as a career skydiver, I wouldn’t want to have kids. There is a danger factor,” he said. “The biggest thing for a lot of parents in skydiving is they don’t want to be on the same plane together. If one’s on the plane, the other is on the ground. With our current situation, being on the same team, it doesn’t really make sense. But I think we might be getting closer to moving in that direction.”
Byrd’s traces his infatuation with skydiving back to his high school graduation, when he and a group of friends collected their diplomas and headed straight to a local drop zone.
“It’s just something that we had talked about, and we did it,” Byrd said. “It was the coolest thing ever. I knew I had to keep doing it.”