ZEPHYRHILLS — Jay Sanders spends most days welding, thick gloves shielding his hands and a heavy visor protecting his retinas. But there are days when Sanders feels free, when he's falling from 5,000 feet.
His body spirals toward Earth until he nears a pond and levels his trajectory. He tugs his parachute's toggles to glide across the surface, low enough to dip a toe and send up a rooster tail of water.
Welding pays the bills. Skydiving — the feeling of "freedom" — is what Sanders lives for.
In particular, he's drawn to an elite subset of the sport called canopy piloting or swooping. Reaching speeds of 70 mph, the swoopers skim the surface of a pond, navigating inflatable buoys, before attempting one of three maneuvers: a 75-degree turn, a precision landing inside a 2-by-2-meter area, or a distance glide, where they sail as far as they can just above a pond to a grassy surface.
This week, about 125 of the nation's best swoopers will compete at Skydive City in the United States Parachuting Association's canopy piloting national championship.
In March, Pasco County awarded Skydive City $25,000 to promote the event as well as the world championship in November. With better promotion, the little-know sport could draw big crowds, given its daredevil appeal, said Skydive City general manager David "T.K." Hayes.
"It's technical, it's close to ground so spectators can watch it, and it's a really good adrenaline sport," he said.
Admission to the event is free, and a raffle will be held daily for spectators for a free skydive, a $200 value.
Swooping has been around about 10 years and is gaining a following, said Hayes, who's hoping to make the championship an annual or biannual occurrence at Skydive City.
At a hangar where dozens of swoopers awaited a practice session last week, Sanders quietly smoothed the folds of his nylon parachute, or canopy, before tucking it into a deployment bag that will sit alongside his reserve chute. Several others did the same. The atmosphere was relaxed. Heavy metal blared from speakers.
Like others, Sanders said he used to feel tense before a jump, but after thousands of dives he looks forward to the rush of jumping from a plane. He likens it to "freedom and the closest thing to flying."
He's part of a team, Alter Ego, that competes nationally. Like the others, he saves up to travel to competitions, which can run thousands of dollars each for lodging, food and flights. His gear is donated by manufacturers. His aim is to finish at least among the top eight to represent the United States at the world championship. The top three finishers receive medals. No cash. "Bragging rights" motivates most of the swoopers, Sanders said.
Compared with Sanders and the others, Logan Donovan, 22, a software engineer from New York City, is a novice, even with 1,050 jumps to her credit: "In the swooping world, that's not a lot."
She started skydiving while a student at Columbia University and is one of a half dozen women at the meet. She won't compete but will make some jumps and hopes to get her name on the leader board someday. She said she was drawn to the sport because of its technical challenge.
"I'm kind of an analytical person," she said. "At first it was an adrenaline overload. I fell in love with it. Now, I like that you can manipulate the air. It feels like you're flying."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.