Largest annual skydiving competition comes to North Carolina

RAEFORD, N.C. (WTVD) -- More than 500 of the top aerial athletes around the nation are in North Carolina this month for the largest annual skydiving competition in the world.

These athletes are competing at Skydive Paraclete XP in Raeford, looking to take home medals and lock down a spot on the elite US Parachute Team to compete in the 2019 World Cup.

The competitions include Formation Skydiving (4-way, 8-way, 10-way and 16-way events), Vertical Formation Skydiving, Mixed Formation Skydiving, Artistic Freeflying and Freestyle, Wingsuit Flying, Speed Skydiving, Accuracy Landing, Canopy Formation and Canopy Piloting.

For them jumping out of an airplane is just another day at work.

Stephanie Strange and her husband Jason Russell's weekend getaways always involve a plane ride, but unlike other couples, they land off the tarmac.

"It's awesome," Strange said. "We get to spend a lot of time together. We're both very passionate about what we do."

"It would be difficult otherwise," said Russell. "We both travel a lot. Some of the biggest amount of time that we get to spend together is when we're team training."

The couple, both two-time world champions, are in North Carolina competing in vertical formation skydiving which is a team of four people and a photographer who build different formations vertically in the air.

"When we exit the door we get 35 seconds to do as many formations as we can. After 35 seconds we all split away from each other and land. The judges judge us by however many we do in 35 seconds."

Stephanie did her first jump when she was 18.

"It was a gift from friends," she said. "I didn't want to skydive but they gave it to me for my birthday. I don't know how to explain it. It just takes you."

"It's fun to be the best," Strange added. " It's also fun to hopefully have other people try to take that from me and keep trying to stay on top."

"It's not like the first time that I jumped when I was pretty stressed out," said Russell. " It's certainly enjoyable just in a different way. I think it's transformed now into something where you can be in the moment more than your regular life."

On practice days the team will do around 15 jumps a day and when they aren't practicing for competition they're coaching other skydivers. It's a full-time job neither anticipated having.

"As skydivers we see people doing extreme sports," said Russell. "From my perspective, this is not crazy. Base jumping is crazy, skiing with a parachute is crazy. Some of the other really extreme things that we see people doing. This is relatively tame and certainly much safer than the motorcycle racing that I was doing for 10 years."

The couple said skydiving is just like any other sport.

"You have a lot of mental preparation that you need to keep up with," Russell said. "You're 20 minutes up in the plane where it's so easy to get distracted from what you're doing. You really need to bring your mind to focus."

"Just like any other team you practice, practice, practice, go to competitions and then you just keep having fun."

The competition wraps up Sept. 27.
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