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Swoopers Chute the Works

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Times Staff Writer

The plane had just reached 4,000 feet when Jonathan Tagle leaped. He plummeted, belly to the ground, reaching 120 mph before deploying a rectangular parachute.

At 600 feet, closing in rapidly on a shallow pond, Tagle plunged into a spiraling dive. He accelerated toward Earth, veering horizontally at the last moment in an L-shaped turn that took him so close to the ground that his heels skimmed the surface of the pond.

Tagle, 36, belongs to an elite fraternity for whom mere parachuting isn’t enough -- he is a swooper. In swooping, the newest discipline of sky diving, the preposterous and counterintuitive collide. The journey starts with stepping out of an airplane in flight and concludes with accelerating to the ground in hopes of dragging a limb in the water -- proof of a swooper’s derring-do.

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This weekend in Perris, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, Tagle is competing against dozens of other top contenders in the U.S. Canopy Piloting Grand Prix, one of 60 U.S. contests. On Friday, he set a world record for distance, swooping 494 feet. In July, he hopes to compete in the World Games in Germany, which will for the first time feature a swooping -- or canopy piloting -- event. A campaign is underway to include the sport at the Olympics.

Swoopers use smaller, high-performance parachutes that leave scarce room for error. A split-second hesitation at a critical moment can mean injury or death. In the community of swoopers, breaking a leg is so common that it has become a verb, “to femur.”

But to Tagle, the current world champion of swooping, the sport is a lot like golf.

How’s that?

Both demand extreme mental focus, he says, and the amount of time doing the actual sport is minimal.

“In a day at the course, a golfer only spends a few minutes actually swinging the club,” Tagle says. “In three or four minutes of canopy flight, swooping is six seconds.”

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Tagle doesn’t see himself as an extreme sports junkie. He sold his motorcycle because he believed it was too dangerous.

Yet flight fascinated him. As a boy growing up in Aurora, Ill., the son of Argentine immigrants, he had recurrent dreams about flying through the halls of school or from a tall building.

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Five years ago, Tagle was the online marketing director for Infogrames Inc., the company that acquired Atari. He wore suits, got exasperated by Silicon Valley traffic and gleefully envisioned himself climbing the corporate ladder. Then, on a lark, he and some work buddies decided to try sky diving.

Tagle had no shortage of other hobbies, including fencing, roller hockey, windsurfing, outrigger canoeing and flying small planes. But he was hooked after his solo sky dive. It reminded him of his boyhood dreams.

When he first saw swooping, he knew had to try it.

Tagle left his job and moved to Murrieta, close to the sky diving meccas of Perris and Lake Elsinore, places where land is cheap and flat. He hired the best coaches, blew his savings and maxed out his credit cards, racking up 1,600 jumps in two years.

And he acquired a new uniform: jeans, T-shirts and black suede Vans. His dark hair is combed straight back. His tongue and left nipple are pierced and a small tattoo of a scorpion graces his right bicep.

At first, he supported himself by coaching and shooting videos of sky divers. Then he started working on his own, doing Internet marketing for a friend’s business, work that allowed him to swoop when he wanted.

Tagle says swooping is more about Zen than adrenaline. It clears his mind of everyday concerns, leaving him feeling centered and peaceful. And it has taken over his life like nothing else. He finds himself thinking about how to tweak the technology so he can eke out just a little more, fly a bit further.

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Longtime swooper Jim Slaton cannot fathom that someone wouldn’t grasp the sheer exhilaration of his sport. “It’s like being a Blue Angels pilot but with a parachute,” said Slaton, 34, who lives just north of Bakersfield. “It’s like combining NASCAR racing with aviation.”

Such high-performance thrills come at a price. So far this year, there have been eight deaths among sky divers, said Chris Needels, executive director of the U.S. Parachute Assn. In 2004, 21 sky divers were killed -- the lowest number in 12 years. While swooping deaths are not calculated separately from other sky diving deaths, pilot error, not equipment failure, causes most deaths. And in many cases, a turn executed close to the ground, as divers do in swooping, is the culprit.

“There’s a certain risk involved with the sport; we all agree to the terms of those risks, just like a soldier does,” said Tagle, who has no health insurance and has never been injured swooping. “ ... I know the risks and I try to minimize them.”

Most sky divers dance delicately around the subject of danger. Shannon Pilcher, 33, has broken two vertebrae and his leg. It hasn’t dampened his interest. “I do it because it’s new and exciting for me,” he said.

John Charles Colclasure, 34, always says a prayer just before his first jump of the day. He has swooped for 12 years without injury. Close calls? Plenty. Like last year, when he swooped Mont Blanc in France and encountered turbulence that caused his canopy to buckle and bounce. He narrowly averted a crash.

“I was definitely afraid,” Colclasure said. “Would I do it again? Absolutely. If you want the excitement, you’ve got to put up with the risks.”

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Colclasure would rather wring the most out of a short life, he says, than live a long one with the prospect of some slow moments.

“I honestly didn’t think I’d live this long,” he said.

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Parachuting was developed as a last-ditch means of escape for a pilot in jeopardy. The billowy silk teardrops developed to save lives bear little resemblance to the small, rectangular parachutes used by swoopers. “Who’d figure,” Tagle says, “that we’d turn an emergency procedure into a sport?”

In the high-risk world of sky divers, swoopers are the sport’s bad boys. They are a subculture within a subculture, one in which grown men skateboard and have names like Sonic and Turbobo.

A swooper’s career lasts only as long as his reflexes. As Tagle put it, “There are some older guys who are swooping; some are even in their 40s.”

They don’t wear jumpsuits and goggles, as sky divers do, instead favoring sunglasses and shorts or capri-length swoop pants. They don’t worry about getting cold since they’re in the air for less time than traditional parachutists who jump at around 13,000 feet. In the vernacular of the sport, they “hop and pop” -- jumping from 3,000 to 5,000 feet and popping open their chutes.

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In the world of swoopers, Tagle -- relatively new to the sport -- is a wunderkind.

In February, Tagle won the World Cup of Canopy Piloting at the Florida Skydiving Center in Lake Wales.

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The event drew 70 competitors from 17 countries. In the course of the competition, Tagle set a record for swooping distance by traveling 479.8 feet along the pond and ground.

“Tagle is jammin,’ he’s rockin’ and rollin,’ ” gushed Colclasure, who placed fourth. “He’s picked it up and is really shining.”

Swoopers compete against one another for accuracy, distance, speed and style. Most competitions involve a shallow pond, a more forgiving surface than the ground for skimming. Contestants sail through a 5-foot-tall entry gate at one end of the swoop pond, triggering a video camera and timer.

In the speed competition, swoopers “carve” through a course, traveling from gate to gate, in the style of a slalom skier. In freestyle, contestants perform maneuvers like the Blindman, in which they fly backward across a pond, dragging a foot or arm in the water. Or Lazyboy, in which the contestant drags both feet in the water while leaning so far back that his hair is in the water.

Freestyle, Tagle believes, is his weakness. His strength as a swooper springs from his technical prowess.

Tagle’s World Cup victory reflects how the sport is still evolving. Before that contest, swoopers believed that lighter canopies and rigs would allow greater speeds and distances.

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Tagle, the newest member of the Performance Design team, wore an unprecedented 60 pounds of weight for the competition. For the distance event, he chose his biggest, not smallest, canopy. This weekend, distance swoopers will almost certainly lean toward more weight.

Tagle, meanwhile, is worried about how he will stay ahead. Can he add more weight? Can he squeeze more from his canopy?

For Tagle, fame has created pressure. “I feel like I have a target on my back,” he said. “If I make a mistake, there’s 20 guys waiting to capitalize on it.”

He has thought out his game plan. He must stay focused, he tells himself.

He will, he vowed, swoop to conquer.

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