What started as a way to celebrate and honour the women in the US who fought for the right to vote 100 years ago, soon became a global message – women get sh%t done. It was a project that was years in the making, overcame a global pandemic and smashed a World Record. Twice. The ladies who organised, trained and set a new Women’s Vertical World Record are simply badass. But what was it actually like to be a part of this event? And what challenges are there being a woman in a male dominated sport? We asked two Skydiving Athletes, Karine Joly & Shayni Couch, who had key roles in Project 19 these questions and more.
A little bit about our ladies
First up, Karine Joly. This Skydiving Goddess is frankly a legend in our community. You’ve probably seen images of her jumping over a pyramid or two. Win a few gold medals. Zip around the sky under her JFX2. If you ever have the opportunity to get coaching from this lady, take it! Have a look at her Instagram, you won’t regret it…
Shayni Couch is a Kiwi local. Yep, you heard that right. This amazing lady is a born and bred New Zealander and we love her for it! Her insta is full to the brim with photos of her wingsuiting over spectacular backdrops. Seeing Shayni zoom around the sky in those giant wingsuits is something else. Honestly, she makes it look easy!
What is Project 19?
It’s a new era. The origin of the project was to gather 100 women for the 100 years anniversary of the 19th American Amendment that gave women the right to vote. The goal is to encourage and inspire women from all around the globe to go after their dreams, raise their voices and live the life they choose for themselves.
Project19 is a women’s vertical world record but with a greater purpose. It is a way for us to use skydiving as a platform to bring awareness to the women’s suffrage movement. What is this movement? Well, some badass women decided that having the right to vote was probably a good idea, after all, it was the 19th century! They lectured, marched, and practised civil disobedience to turn women’s voting rights into a political issue that had to be dealt with. Fun fact: The first country to give women the right to vote was New Zealand!
Why did you decide to do this project? And why was it chosen to be a vertical record?
It resonates completely with everything I want to share and spread now in my career. The idea came from a group of female freeflyers, already leaders in our sport. I find it great as we know how hard and challenging head down big ways are. The fact that women master their flying skills and mental game is pretty badass!
I wanted to be part of this project, not only because I love the challenge of big way skydiving, but because it brought awareness to a movement that I felt connected with. As women, we are the minority in this sport, and we were given this opportunity to use our abilities as skydivers as a way of highlighting important women’s rights issues. The project honours those who came before us, those who made it possible for us to have the rights we do today… so it seemed like a no brainer really!
Why a vertical record? Well, I can’t speak for the organisers but a vertical world record is always exciting and it was certainly going to get the most attention. An important part of the record was to ensure that the message associated with it was going to be heard loud and clear.
You had skydivers from all over the world, how was the training organised and what was the selection process like for you?
Training took place all around America and Europe. I can only say how sorry we felt to miss some Russian ladies in those selections. As a record lover, I helped Domi and Anna with some European camps. And it’s actually challenging to go back to normal slots after being so many times in the base, without training. I really enjoy the challenge of having to adapt as fast as possible.
There were regional captains from all the countries involved and the training began with local camps, coaching, and events which then lead to big way camps and selections. It was well organised to ensure that everyone would be given an opportunity to train and then try out for a slot. The selection process for me was great. The challenge was to get current again after Covid and most of us had to earn our slot back again.
What were the main challenges with this project? And how did you overcome them?
Definitely the cold that affected my sinus a lot. Although I was lucky enough to be at the rear of a plane, early in the morning we were freezing! But here is my trick: I jumped with a nose clip to be able to clear my ears through the freefall. I would definitely have been stuck on the ground without it. On top of that I had essential oils of peppermint and eucalyptus on a tissue to breathe all the way up to altitude 😉
The pandemic was for sure the biggest challenge we faced as a team, everyone was starting to get un-current, events were cancelled or postponed and DZs closed. Against all those odds the project bounced back and everyone showed up with their game faces on, ready to make it happen! We had to work hard to get current again and get back to a place where we were confident and ready.
Building a record this big has its obvious challenges too. While the jumps were high intensity, I was ready for them and in a slot where I felt confident. I was also asked to be co-plane captain which for me was a big deal, I had to keep the stoke on our plane high, give inspirational speeches and help organise our group for the dirt dives, and coordinate boarding. Phew, as challenging as that was, I think I pulled it off.
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The atmosphere on the day of the record looked electric, what were your favourite moments?
When you feel the energy of “we are all connected” going through! Like a six sense, all of the sudden, you just know it’s on.
The whole event was electric, not just the day we broke the record. It had a totally different feel from other vertical record attempts I’ve attended. I think some of that was the fact that we were not just doing it for ourselves, but that it had a bigger mission. I also credit the vibe of the event to the organisers and the process we were following. It was methodical. You know that saying, slow is smooth, and smooth is fast? Well, apparently it works!
We followed the steps to progress the formation, starting with a solid base and building on that. There was a day when only the Base jumped together, there were many jumps with no grips just flying in your slot and on level, and following a specific sequence for approach, so by the time we got to doing jumps with grips, we had it dialled. These were the most solid formations I’ve ever flown in. My favourite moment was in freefall, on the record jump, where all of a sudden it was silent and calm and the formation was flying with us all connected. It’s f%cking magical.
There are many challenges being a female in this industry, what do you do to keep motivated?
My love for the sport and all it arises in us keeps me going. Every skydiving trip is an adventure, you get to discover new places and meet new people. My biggest motivation is to share this passion with others, especially women as I feel we can definitely show a new way of leading and teaching with kindness and attention. Just like it’s been done by Amy and the Women Skydiving Network: we can be badass AND kind. Ending the competition that somehow tends to appear between women and elevating each other instead. Be bold, be brave and shine brighter together.
Yes, there are challenges, but I see women in our sport accomplishing some incredible things despite those! It might be different for me than it is for someone who has made skydiving their full time profession and I’m sure I am not faced with the same challenges as some. Skydiving and flying are my reset. It’s something I do because I really enjoy it and I am a better person when I’ve been able to get in the sky. That’s all the motivation that I need to be honest, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love it.
And what were/are those challenges?
Being a woman in this sport surrounded by a majority of men, it’s like we need to show no weakness to avoid criticism and be respected. I don’t blame the men in the activity, this comes from a deeper layer imbued in our society. As per the physical part, we need to prepare our body more to avoid injuries. When we learn skydiving, the rigs are too big as they are made for male bodies. The size of our canopy is so huge we need strong arms to flare properly.
Lack of confidence is my biggest one. I know that is really a personal challenge but I have often felt intimidated in our sport, mainly because I wasn’t always sending it as hard as most and felt that everyone around me had a higher skill level. Turns out that’s actually great because you learn A LOT! I’ve also been grateful to have the support of other women in the sport and a skydiving team which has given me guidance and opportunities to build that confidence and my skills.
For women beginning in their skydiving journey, what advice would you give?
Find the person who inspires you in the sport and have a chat with her or him. Surround yourself with coaches who will treat you right.
It really depends on what path they decide to take because that changes the advice. We do this for fun, right? So keep following the stoke. The more humble and open you can be, the more opportunities you will get for growth and progression.
Canopy piloting can be intimidating for everyone, what advice would you give women wanting to improve their canopy skills? Particularly those wanting to move onto high performance canopies.
Send it! (Just kidding). Well, I see canopy piloting as driving a motorbike. It’s fast, reactive and potentially very dangerous but just like you would do with a race bike, you can handle it going step by step. On the first landings of a smaller canopy, I would switch into “fast mode”, expecting a lot more speed than what I’m used to and prepare for it. I learned the hard way but understood that flying a high performance canopy requires being like a sentinel, it’s a constant analysis of your surroundings, analysing your angle, speed and conditions.
Not one landing is the same as the other, you have to adapt constantly and that’s what makes it so intense and interesting! If you want to downsize or speed up, go for it but be smart: ask experts in canopy piloting for the right type and size according to your weight and experience. If I was starting now, I would definitely try to speak with women doing canopy piloting competitions. They might have that extra tip from one woman to another 😉
Particularly those wanting to move onto high-performance canopies. Take a canopy course, find a trusted coach, and take it slow. There is so much that you can learn on just one canopy and rushing progression to fly a smaller, more high performance wing is a no no. Also, what advice would YOU guys give… asking for a friend…..Lol
And finally, what can we do to encourage more female skydivers and improve the gender diversity in skydiving?
I think women need more benevolence and kindness. Treat them with respect, lift them up, tell them they can do it, and boost their confidence. For some reason I’ve noticed most women are too hard on themselves. Give them extra advice, tips, recommendations; feeling supported will help them overcome their fears.
Well, that’s the big question. I can share my opinion but I don’t have the answer. I think that building a community for women who want to progress in their canopy flying skills would be a good start. Whether that be on social media or an initiative that you have your female athletes lead, I’m not sure exactly what that looks like from a logistical standpoint. Speaking from experience – it can be intimidating to ask for advice or seek coaching but I felt better talking canopy progression with Cornelia than I did asking my spouse haha.
Photography is the article is credited to Ewan Cowie Photography, Norman Kent Productions & Nikko Mamallo
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