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The definition of feminism today is up for debate, but the historic ideal is about equality – the true equality of women to men. As a woman who makes her career in skydiving, both outdoor and indoor, I feel the sport has created a truly equal space. Skydiving exists without pre-conceived gender connotations, and doesn’t divide competitions into men’s and women’s categories (other than FAI’s Indoor Skydiving World Championships, which feature a single women’s 4-way event). Women compete with men on an equal level, in an environment I’ve found to be welcoming to anyone willing to work hard and learn to fly. With this culture firmly in place, skydiving allows anyone, regardless of gender or ability, to shine as an athlete.
Women have been taking to the skies since the earliest days of air-sports, starting with Jeanne-Genevieve Garnerin’s parachute leap from a hot air balloon in 1799. The first woman to jump from a plane was Georgina Ann “Tiny” Thompson in 1913, just two years after the first recorded modern skydive. Today, skydivers of all stripes are inspired by Amy Chmelecki, the only female member of the Red Bull Air Force. In November, I joined Amy and 63 other female divers in setting the women’s world record in a linked vertical formation. Through 16 jumps and negative 13-degree temperatures, we were supported and cheered on by our skydiving family, men and women alike. Each of us was doing what we love, and doing it well.
I also recently went head-to-head with extremely talented men and women at the International Bodyflight Association’s final competition of 2016 in Seattle. Even though many of the women I’ve encountered excel beyond their male counterparts in skydiving, I’ve rarely experienced a bitter attitude in the sport. Men in skydiving aren’t threatened by successful women skydivers, and they gladly enter competitions where they compete on the same level. Women can shine both for being a female athlete and simply for being a skydiver. The tunnel is a great equalizer.
This attitude is positioning skydiving (and more specifically the indoor tunnel variety) to become a larger, more mainstream sport – perhaps even an Olympic one. The suggestion has come up for several years now, and the time could be right to expand the Olympic Games’ limited roster of mixed-gender sports. Tunnel flight is continuing to grow in popularity, and it offers a gender-neutral set of criteria and judging guidelines - a rarity in international sports. Unfortunately, many girls who want to wrestle or boys who want to dance still struggle with gender boundaries; young women and men who dream of being Olympic athletes in tunnel flying don’t have to. Skydiving and tunnel flight serve as a powerful example for other fields that mixed-gender competitions can be fair, fun and competitive.
Though men still outnumber women in the sport, I’ve seen an amazing number of young girls interested in pursuing skydiving. As a tunnel flight instructor at iFLY Seattle, I witness these girls take to the wind naturally and show the mental stamina needed to grow as a skydiver. Despite these seemingly innate abilities, women seem to leave the sport more often than men. The causes likely mirror the retention barriers seen in other careers, sports and hobbies – shifting priorities and family obligations. When women take time off to raise children, they may struggle to return, be more worried about risks, or simply have different priorities.
But as I’ve seen with the kids I work with, the inherent love of flight transcends gender. Tunnel flying also avoids forcing kids into a box they don’t quite understand or want to be in yet. There’s no inherent “masculine” or “feminine” qualities in skydiving, and kids who tunnel fly can focus on their athletic abilities rather than what society says makes them a boy or girl. This culture in turn creates adult women who charge ahead without worrying about breaking boundaries, and adult men who support their fellow skydivers and compete alongside them without a thought to their gender.
As other parts of society continue to move away from defining people and their abilities by their gender, the model provided by the skydiving community will be all the more important. I look forward to seeing the kids I work with today grow into the next generation of accepting, hardworking skydivers. The path is there for both young girls and boys to excel in this sport and become examples for others.
About the author:
Catriona Adam trains new groups of IBA instructors at iFLY Seattle. Her dedication to iFLY’s mission to bring the dream of flight to anyone in a safe environment is passed on to the classes she now educates. Adam refuses to be confined by the limits the world tries to set, and lives a life that proves any young woman can clear any hurdle with a mix of passion, dedication, and belief in herself.