Swooping: Not Your Grandfather's Skydiving

For those who think sky diving is a thing of the past, here's the latest extreme sport craze to consider.

Swooping, or canopy piloting, is a low-altitude version of its sky-diving counterpart in which "pilots" fly dangerously close to the ground at high speeds, testing their skills and accuracy through dives. Swoopers parachutes are smaller and lighter than sky divers', which allows them to glide through the air at speeds of up to 90 mph -- the faster the better.

The sensation of soaring through the sky and performing tricks above land and water has hooked Shannon Pilcher, a 37-year-old professional swooper.

"To travel this fast, this close to the ground ... it feels amazing," Pilcher said. He has broken many records in various swooping competitions.

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Swoopers jump from 5,000 feet above the ground, which is half the distance of ordinary sky dives, and open their parachutes immediately to set up the perfect swoop. The low altitude is what makes this sport both dangerous and exhilarating.

"We're going like 80 mph at the ground, and you're trying to pick up as much speed as possible but still stay in control," said Jessica Edgeington, 27, a swooper from Denver.

At the Swooping National Championship in Longmont, Colo., which took place Aug. 25 to Sept. 1, stunned spectators watched as dozens of jumpers maneuvered freestyle dives, ran through airborne courses and tested their accuracy by landing in a man-made pond, just 3½ feet deep.

Edgeington, one of the best swoopers, got her start when her parents gave her a sky dive for her 18th birthday.

"When I started jumping, I told my mom I would never swoop," Edgeington said. But "after [skydiving] for a few years, I had like 600 or 700 jumps and just started playing with [swooping] more and more, and kept, like, progressing. ... You work your way up to it. So it's small steps at a time."

She's one of few women currently competing in the sport, dazzling young spectators with her fierce skills and daring tricks.

"When I take off my helmet [...] you hear kids and they're like, 'Oh, it's a girl,'" Edgeington said, beaming with pride. "They think it's awesome and I'm always like, 'Yes!'"

Competitions push swoopers to the limit, but also offer the chance for pilots to show off their best skills.

"It's like the pressure to do it and do well, and you're pushing that edge a little bit," Edgeington explained. "You want to go the furthest, you want to go the fastest, so therefore you've got to -- it's definitely pushing yourself harder."

While there are great rewards, there is also great risk associated with swooping. Last year, four people died, spurring debate within the skydiving community that the sport is too dangerous.

"I've seen many people break themselves or even die," said professional swooper Pilcher, who still defends the sport. "That's just the way it is."

Swooping draws a crowd, which has proved to be a major challenge for the sport of sky-diving, where the action takes place too far from the ground for spectators to enjoy it.

General interest in skydiving has waned over the years, with 100,000 fewer jumps tallied in 2007 by the United States Parachute Association than during its height seven years ago. Some professionals believe that swooping could be the key to restoring interest in their sport.

"It's rare that we have these kinds of competitions, these meets, so swooping is rarely seen," said Ed Scott, executive director of USPA. "The more competitions we have, the more people see it ... [and] the more it will catch on."

Some swoopers already have corporate sponsors and tour the world. One professional league, the Pro Swooping Tour, hopes to bring swooping to a mainstream audience and is searching for television networks to broadcast competitions.

But swooping has already caught on in many sky-diving circles, and many professionals and fans are convinced that it will continue to push skydiving to new heights.

"There's nothing like it," Edgeington said, who revels in the sport. "It's the closest thing to human flight."