Interview with Eliana Rodriguez

Photo by Dennis Sattler

Photo by Dennis Sattler

There’s a name in skydiving that’s synonymous with world-class, a driving force in skydiving, and someone as humble as could be for a stacked resume in this sport. We were fortunate enough to catch up with former Arizona Airspeed member, Eliana Rodriguez, get to know her a bit more, and catch up on what life has been like since her return from Dubai.

Give us the skinny. How old are you, where are you from?

Working Girls Promoting their Load Oganizers

Working Girls Promoting their Load Oganizers

I am 42 years old.  I was born in Passaic, New Jersey. When I was 14 months old, I spent a year in Colombia with my grandmother.  Mainly grew up in Connecticut & Rhode Island then moved to Florida for all of high school.  My parents are both born and raised in Colombia, and they gave me the gift of being able to speak Spanish, which I learned at home.  

I have moved a lot in my life, so I feel like I’m from many places.  About 6 months ago I moved back to Casa Grande, Arizona after having lived 6 years in Dubai.

What were you like as a kid and do you have any siblings? 

For my first 11 years I was an only child and then my brother was born.   As a kid I was always the adventurous one in the family.  Loved the big roller coaster rides, and big water slides.   I was very active, a bit shy and always loved to travel.

What did your family think of you getting into skydiving? 

My dad has always been super supportive and he was the one that put a seed into my head about skydiving.  I don’t remember what we were talking about, but one day he asked me if I would jump out of an airplane, if I would go skydiving.  I thought about it for a second and said YES!!!  I was about 15 years old and immediately called a dz in Florida, they informed me that I needed to be 18 years old to make my first jump and they told me the cost, as 15 year old with no job it seemed like a lot of money at the time.   I forgot about this idea for a few years until I joined the Army at 17 and started asking my recruiter if I was going to be able to jump out of airplane when I joined.  Three years later I did get to jump while in the military but not for the military.  

My mom was more concerned and she didn’t stop me from going but she was definitely worried and thought it was a big risk.

The rest of my family has been pretty supportive, they think it’s cool and they admire that I was able to make it into my career.

What are you looking forward to this year?

I have a few trips planned, but the one’s I’m looking forward to the most is the one to Italy, it’s one of my favorite countries. We’ll be in the mountains, it’s gorgeous there. I’m also going to Colombia, I’m visiting my 93-year-old grandmother, she’s healthy and doing great!

I’m also looking forward to jumping with my teammates from Airspeed at the US Nationals this year.  We are getting the original Airspeed Odyssey line up back together for the 4-way competition.  That’s the line up with Craig Girard, Andy Delk, and Brian Johnson. Justin Price will be doing video for us.  We haven’t jumped with Brian since he left the team at the end of 2006.  It will be a reunion for fun, with minimal training.

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Photo from NSL

As the Brits would say, tell us about your kit. What canopy do you choose to fly, container you choose to sit in and all the rest? Insert your sponsor shoutouts! 

My sponsors totally rock!  They are the best in the business and they have been incredibly supportive of me and my team for so many years.  I can’t thank them enough.

Main Canopy:  Performance Designs Velocity 96 and I’m getting a Valkyrie 96 in about one week.

Reserve:  Performance Designs Optimum 106  (save my life about 7 times )

Container:  Sunpath Javelin Odyssey

AAD:  Vigil II

Altimeter:  Larsen and Brusgaard Optima Audible and Viso II+ for altimeter.

Jumpsuit:  Tony Suits Pit Special

Helmet:  Cookie G3 Skydiving Helmet

SunPath Products - Maker of the Javelin Odyssey Skydiving Rig

 

The average career span for most skydivers is five years… you’ve been at this for a long time. Tell us when you made your first jump and under what circumstance did you decide to make that jump? 

I made my first jump Oct 1, 1995, in Raeford, NC, a few days before I turned 21. I was in the Army and stationed at Fort Bragg, NC for a year. I was really hoping that the Army would send me to Airborne school, at that time I didn’t know the difference between civilian skydiving and going to the Airborne school.  I had been in the military for 3 years and had requested a slot in this school at two previous locations where I had been stationed. The previous units were not Airborne so they turned down my request. When I arrived in Fort Bragg I was excited because I was stationed with an Airborne unit and I thought I was finally going to get my chance to skydive. I spoke to my leaders and asked if I can request the school and they were very encouraging and sure that I could go. Later when they were looking for a school date for me the Army realized that I had less than a year left on my contract and they would only send me to the school if I reenlisted. I didn’t want to reenlist at the time and I was bummed that I got so close to this opportunity and it didn’t work out.  

Later one of the guys from my unit mentioned that there was a place nearby that you could rent the parachute and go jump. The guys at my unit had only done Airborne jumps, which are static line jumps with round parachutes from a really low altitude. They had never done a regular skydive and they were interested to make a skydive too, the plan was to go together. After multiple failed attempts to get the group to go, I decided to go on my own and check out this place. I naively thought they would just rent the parachute and I could finally jump. I thought it was going to be like a rollercoaster ride, something I would do once or twice a year for fun, like going to an amusement park. Little did I know it was so much more and it was going to change my life forever.

Upon arriving at Skydive Raeford (now Skydive Paraclete XP) I found out I needed to do a tandem first and that it wasn’t as simple as just renting a parachute and jumping.  There was a lot more training involved before I could get to that point. I went ahead and did my tandem and loved it!  

In Feb 1996, I signed up for a static line progression course with the 82nd Freefall Club, a military club where I could take the course for fun, at a discounted rate. It was perfect for me at the time. I was leaving the military in about two months and wanted to be off student status by the time I left. After about 10 jumps, I switched over from the static line progression to AFF in order to finish on time.

I have been jumping for about 21 years and the thing that keeps me in the sport is definitely the people.  It’s an amazing blend of people from all walks of life, from all over the world.  It’s great to be part of this family.  

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Photo by Dennis Sattler

 

Most memorable jump you’ve ever made that brings a smile to your face when you think about it? 

I’ve had some amazing jumps in my life, but the one that always comes to mind and puts that smile on my face and in my heart is Round 10 at the 2001 World Championships in Spain, it was a life changer.  It was my first world meet and I was competing with Synchronicity women’s 4-way team. We had previously won the World Cup in 2000 in Arizona and we were selected to represent the US at the World Championships, this was the first world meet for the women’s event.  Between the world cup and the world meet it was only about 6 months time. We decided to do more training, hire a coach, and really go for it.  Up until that point, I had only done about 100 jumps per year, in those six months we did about 300 jumps and lots of tunnel time.  We were ready for the competition and felt confident that we could win.

In the first round we started off tied for first place and the next two rounds we were penalized for some of our mistakes and lost some points, our spirits were very low. In the 4th round, we were scared of losing more points to penalties so we lost another round because we were flying so cautiously.  After 4 rounds we were down by 5 points, it was going to be difficult to make up. We had a conversation as a team and we decided we were not going to skydive cautious anymore, we were just going to do our thing and we went for it! Round by round we started getting closer to the leaders and gaining momentum. Going into round 10 we were only down by one point. We had an amazing round, we ended up winning by 3 points!!!

Winning this competition felt different, not only because it made me a world champion, but we had invested a lot of money and effort into the training.   It was the most I had ever done up until that point, and then we had the battle of our lives.  After being down the first half of the meet and having to work our way back up to finish on top that was what really got me totally hooked on competitive skydiving.  It was then that I decided I had to figure out a way to do this full time!  Changed my life!!

What was your skydiving path that led you to try out and getting onto Arizona Airspeed?

After winning the 2001 World Championships, Arizona Airspeed asked me to try out for the team. They were losing two members and they had been looking around for teammates. Without me knowing, they had already been considering me and had their eye on my performance throughout the world meet. Six months later I went out to Skydive Arizona for tryouts. One month after that, Dec 2001, I had moved to Arizona and was training with the team.

Before Arizona Airspeed I was on the following teams:

Illusions women’s team:  Dec 1998- May 1999  (Intermediate 4-way team), we did the Florida Skydiving League and planned on going to the US Nationals but my mother got very sick and passed away, so I had to leave the team in May, only a few months into our training.

Deland Tunnel Rage: Jan-Oct 2000  (Intermediate 4-way Champion at US Nationals)

Synchronicity women’s team:  Nov 2000- May 2001  (2000 World Cup Champion & 2001 World Champion)4006

What was it like being the only woman on the team (the good, the bad, the ugly)?

I won the lottery with being on a team like Airspeed. Not only was the team one of the best skydiving teams in the US and the world, they were a great group of guys.  They completely believed in me and made me feel very included and welcomed from the start.  They had many talents and skills that made the team great.  It was the perfect environment to develop myself as a professional skydiver but also as a person.  I was surrounded by great teachers and leaders.  One of the missions of the team has always been to share knowledge and be open so that they help improve the level of skydiving worldwide. They were just as open with me, they shared their knowledge and supported me wherever I needed some help. I learned so much from them and from being on team. Lessons and skills that extend beyond skydiving.   

You still have been the only woman on Airspeed. Do you think that this might change in the future?

I definitely think there could be another woman on the team in the future.  When I was asked to join the team, they said they chose me because they felt I was the best person for the team at that time, not because they were looking for the best woman.  Every day there are a lot of great woman coming up in the sport, it wouldn’t surprise me if they had a woman on the team in the future.

There are lot of things to think about when choosing a teammate for a team that is at a high level like Airspeed.  Not only is the team looking for someone who has great skydiving skills but it also has to be someone who they like and can connect with as a person.  The latter being even more important because the skydiving skills can be developed, it would be more difficult to change the person.  They will be spending a lot of time together and it has to be someone who they feel is open to feedback and is committed to doing hard work.   Someone you enjoy being around every day.  

What was your favorite moment on the team?

Being on the team 9 years I have enjoyed many great moments, lots of laughs throughout our training day. I really loved the 2003 World Championships in Gap, France. It was a beautiful place, my first time in France. It was my first world championship with Airspeed and in 8-way. We only focused on 8-way the whole year and the learning curve was huge for me. It was a blast having everyone together, the previous year we were two 4-way teams and now I got to jump with all of the Airspeed team members.  We had an amazing competition and were performing our best. I was once again in battle for first place, this time with the Russians and it felt good. After 10 rounds we tied the Russians. We went up for an 11th round jump off and we tied it too! Even though we had tied after 11 rounds, we ended up with a silver medal due to the old rules they used for the tiebreaker. I’m still very proud of that silver medal, we had flown our best and given it everything we had. I love that silver medal more than some of my gold. Awesome memories!

Photo from NSL

Photo from NSL

From what year to what year were you on the team, and what were your accomplishments?

I was on the team from Dec 2001- Dec 2010.  In that time my accomplishments with Airspeed are:

INTERNATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS:

Formation Skydiving World Championship (Gold): 2004 (8-way) & 2008 (4-way)

Formation Skydiving World Championship (Silver):  2003 (8-way), 2006 (8-way), 2010 (4-way)

Formation Skydiving World Cup (Gold): 2005 (4-way and 8-way)

Formation Skydiving World Air Games (Gold):  2009 (4-way)

Dubai International Parachuting Championship (Gold):  2010 (4-way)

Dubai International Parachuting Championship (Bronze):  2011 (4-way)

Anton Malevsky Memorial International Cup (Gold):  2007 (4-way)

Anton Malevsky Memorial International Cup (Silver):  2005 (4-way & 8-way)

 

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS GOLD

Formation Skydiving US Nationals 4-WAY:  2007, 2008, 2009, 2010

Formation Skydiving US Nationals 8-WAY:  2003, 2004, 2005, 2005, 2007, 2008,2009  

Formation Skydiving US Nationals 10-WAY:  2007, 2008, 2010

Formation Skydiving US Nationals 16-WAY:  2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS SILVER

Formation Skydiving US National Champion 4-WAY:  2006

Formation Skydiving US National Champion 8-WAY:  2010

Formation Skydiving US National Champion 10-WAY: 2003

Formation Skydiving US National Champion 16-WAY: 2003, 2005

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS BRONZE

Formation Skydiving US National Champion 4-WAY: 2005

Formation Skydiving US National Champion 10-WAY: 2004, 2005, 2009

INDOOR CHAMPIONSHIPS

World Challenge 4-WAY (Gold): 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009

The Gauntlet 4-WAY (Gold):  2007, 2008, 2010

Paraclete XP 4-way (Gold): 2007, 2008

Other accomplishments while on the team:

Complete sweep of all FS events at the US Nationals:  2007, 2008

WORLD RECORDS

Largest Formation:  300-way (2002), 357-way (2004), 400-way (2006)

Women’s Formation Skydiving:  151-way (2005), 181-way (2009)

Women’s Vertical World Record: 41-way (2010)

OTHER RECORDS

Guinness Book of Records, World Mass Drop:  672 skydivers (2004), 900 skydivers (2006)

Women’s Arizona State Record:  27-way (2010)

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What led to retiring from the team?

I had been on the team 9 great years and I started to feel like I needed a change.  My body was asking for a break, one of the sacrifices of being at the top of the sport is that sometimes, many times, you have to train with injuries.  My back really needed a break from going so hard for so long.  It can really take it’s toll on the body.   

I’m happy with the decision, I think it was the right time to pass the torch!

 How long were you in Dubai and what was your role there?

I was in Dubai for 6 years. I worked as a full-time coach with the National United Arab Emirates (UAE)  4-way and 8-way team.  We started from scratch, many team members with very few or no jumps at all.  It was a fun and challenging project and the guys became like family to us.  

Most people don’t know you were on a Vertical World Record! What inspired you to do it?

Amy Chmelecki was my inspiration for getting on the Vertical World Record, she believed in me. I didn’t feel like I was ready for it, she had done some jumps with me and felt that I could do it.  I trusted her and if she said I could do it, then I was going to go for it and she was right!!  It was very cool!!

How was the experience as a whole and what were the biggest takeaways for you?

The experience was pretty amazing.  I was way out of my comfort zone and I had to focus and work really hard on every jump.  I had total trust in the organizers and got amazing support from the ladies around me.  It was good to push myself in a different way and it felt like was a huge accomplishment for me.  

Now that your back from Dubai, what are your goals?

Even though I’ve been back for a few months, I still feel like I’m in the process of getting settled in the US.  My goal is to continue to share the knowledge that I got to learn thru all these years thru coaching, organizing and creating events.   I’m also in the process of brainstorming some ideas and events that raise some money for organizations that are doing some good in the US and the world.  It’s an idea that’s been on my mind for a long time.

I’m also currently taking a health coaching course.  I’ve been curious about health and nutrition for many years, you can say it’s been my hobby to learn and read about it, so I’m taking a step to see if this is something for the future for me.  

What keeps you motivated to still be jumping so hardcore today? 

 Definitely the people! It’s a big part of what keeps me engaged and wanting to stay in the sport.   From the people I coach to all the other skydivers we get to meet and engage with at dz.  

 

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Section III – Fast Facts

Favorite Cuisine? 

Colombian Food

Favorite junk food? 

Pizza!!

Favorite food that you enjoy that most people would consider disgusting?   

I like escargot, it’s a French dish, it’s snails.  I think anything you cook with garlic and butter is delicious!

Favorite place you’ve visited: 

I love both Italy and Switzerland! Both beautiful places with amazing landscape & great food.  

Place you want to visit that you haven’t been to yet? 

There are so many places I still want to visit, like Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Hawaii, Cuba, Nepal

Pet peeve: 

When people are unkind.

What you said as a kid: “When I grow up I want to be ___________________.” 

I wanted to be everything as a kid, a doctor, an actress, a pilot, a travel agent, a dancer.

Something about you that few people know about and would be surprised to learn? 

Like you mentioned in the question above, a lot of people don’t know I was on the Vertical Women’s Record and some people still don’t know that I joined the military at age 17.

Best book you’ve ever read? 

Throughout the years I’ve read many books about health and biographies, but one of the books that has really inspired is me is The Promise of a Pencil by Adam Braun.  It’s about a guy who starts a non-profit with just $25 in his account and ends up building schools all over the world.

If you were to write a book, what would be the title? 

Probably won’t be writing a book anytime soon.  ☺

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About James La Barrie

James La Barrie is passionate about marketing and changing a company's service culture. Originally from the Caribbean island of Antigua, James melds his approach of marketing and delivering elite service together as one. James has injected his 'service marketing' approach throughout his career to transform companies from good to great.

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