Viva the Divas! Skydiving team on permanent cloud nine

They might live in one of the worst countries in the world to practise aerial acrobatics, but the Danes managed fifth in their first international tournament

November 26th, 2011 12:00 am| by admin

Kate Cooper-Jensen’s office is a cloudless blue sky.

While the rest of society is packing lunches, she packs a parachute. While we’re on the Metro, she’s in a plane speeding 3,000 metres above Arizona, Thailand, Dubai, and Venezuela. And while we’re finishing some paperwork, she can be found strapping 10 kilos of lead to her jumpsuit because a regular fall just isn’t fast enough.

“Skydiving: it’s the art of hurtling yourself at a planet and missing,” she said.

Believe it or not, but jumping out of a plane is another day at the office for American expat Kate Cooper-Jensen, one of the world’s most renowned skydivers. The coach of Denmark’s new female national skydiving team holds 14 different world records across multiple disciplines and has jumped in six different continents (“I’m still waiting for the chance to go to Antarctica”). She has helped organise massive simultaneous jumps – with as many as 400 other people taking part – and notched a whopping 9,500 jumps in her career thus far.

To put that in perspective, it’d be like jumping out of a plane once every day for over 26 years.

In reality though, she’s been doing it much longer than that. This whole ‘jumping out of planes’ business dates back to her first year at The College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, Virginia, US), 33 years ago this month. Cooper-Jensen’s friends told her that they were going to go skydiving on Saturday and, like any adrenaline-craving teenager, she wanted to join them. She knew that she would never be allowed to jump out of a plane, and she was underage, so she forged her mother’s signature and went anyway.  

“I told her [about the jump] afterwards obviously; she had to figure it out eventually,” Cooper-Jensen said with a smile.

She remembers looking down at the ground a couple of thousand metres below and being “insanely scared”. Cooper-Jensen knew that she had a parachute on her back, she understood the mechanics of it all, but it still took a “leap of faith” to let go of that aeroplane and fall for the first time – and each of the nearly 10,000 times since.   

“When you’ve transcended that leap of faith, it’s like something breaks inside of you for the better,” she said. “I decided at that point that I would do 100 jumps and see what it was like, and of course I was hook, line, and sinker long before that.”

Today, Cooper-Jensen works as an independent skydiving consultant, organising events and instructing skydiving clinics all around the world.

She met her husband, Carsten, at one such camp in Arizona and moved to Copenhagen as a result. Skydiving quickly evolved from a weekend hobby to a lifelong endeavour, and she has learned that the “leap of faith” mentality is not only applicable to when you’re plummeting towards the ground at 200 kilometres per hour.

“It made it easier to do many, many other things in life,” the longtime California resident explained. “I’ve been insanely scared doing many, many things in life, but you just inhale and exhale deeply and think: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’”

Cooper-Jensen’s most recent leap of faith came last winter, when she and a past teammate spontaneously decided to put together a women’s team for a competition in Dubai. They recruited two other women, did a bit of individual training in a wind tunnel, and ended up taking fifth place without a single practice jump together beforehand.

“I’d never even seen one of these women before,” she said. “But [afterwards], I thought: ‘Okay, well maybe we should do something about this – maybe we should actually practice next time.’”

They contacted the Danish Parachute Foundation and received permission to represent Denmark in international skydiving competitions.

Together, Cooper-Jensen and company formed the first women’s national team in Denmark’s history: the Danish Divas.

The Divas compete in a discipline of the sport called four-way formation skydiving, which involves a 35-second sequence, in which the four divers complete as many separate formations and manoeuvres as possible, being videotaped from above by a fifth jumper and given to judges on the ground for scoring. As you could imagine, co-ordinating these jumps between four divers – and making sure that everyone falls at the same speed – is no easy task.

The sport’s heavy hitters, including the United States and Great Britain, have nearly unlimited access to equipment, aircraft, training, and world-class coaches to practice these sequences. The French and Russian sides have already accumulated thousands of jumps together.

Team Denmark, on the other hand, is comprised of an IT engineer, an anaesthetist, and an advertising employee. Two of them have kids and all of them have purchased their own equipment, which Cooper-Jensen said cost between $5,000 and 6,000 each.

“We still haven’t jumped together, but we’ve been practicing. We have matching jumpsuits,” she said with a laugh. “What we really need to do is just get to a training camp.”

Skydiving is a clear weather sport, making Denmark about the worst place on Earth to practice. Ideally the team would travel somewhere warm, like Spain or the southwestern United States, and nail down its timing with 100 jumps or so. For now, a lack of sponsors and the dreary Danish winter has left the Divas with limited options. They focus on visualisation, a cheap and effective training technique for any sport, and move through their formations on mechanical creepers once a month.

“We want to make Denmark proud,” Cooper-Jensen said. “We have the talent, skill, and energy, but there’s a certain amount of training that needs to get in there.”

Against these odds, Cooper-Jensen believes that the team could finish in the higher end of the top 10 at the World Championships in Dubai next winter. The Divas still have plenty of time to train and believe the generosity of a few sponsors could make all the difference.

Even without training, Cooper-Jensen knows that she is still capable of achieving her number one goal for this entire process. “Laughter,” she said, smiling once again. “Nothing’s any good if you don’t enjoy it.” And enjoy it she will, just as she has for the last 33 years.

Whether the Danish Divas make it to Dubai or not, her office will always be a cloudless blue sky.

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(all photos: Daniela de Lorenzo)
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