This Weekend, Turn the Channel to Watch the Olympics of Wingsuiting

It’s what GoPros were made for. A break-neck mash of skydiving and base-jumping, wingsuiting is the extreme sky-diving discipline of flying mid-air while body-zipped inside an aerodynamic nylon suit. This weekend sees America’s second U.S. Parachute Association (USPA) National Wingsuit Flying Championships taking place outside Chicago where competitors will shoot for bragging rights in this emerging sport.

Nowadays participants can clock up to 200 mph while gliding and descend from planes at over 10,000 feet, but the sport’s origins hold humbler stats. The pursuit traces back to 1933, when French tailor Franz Reichelt jumped from the Eiffel Tower (to his death, for the record) while kitted in his own self-designed parachute-cape. A few technological advances later (think $2,500 jumpsuits featuring skin-tight wings with built-in altimeters) and wingsuiting has become the world’s fastest-growing aerial sport.

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The clear leader in the wingsuiting national pack is Travis Mickle, a Florida native who has climbed the sport’s totem pole from teen parachute-packer to America’s top flying squirrel. “The big kicker for me is the freedom”, he says. “With wingsuiting, you’re just a lot longer in the sky than a regular dive, and you really feel like a bird gliding across the air.” Mickle’s hoping to defend the double he won at last year’s championships in the two main categories: performance and acrobatics. “Performance is where divers are judged on the longest flight time, how much ground they can cover, and the fastest horizontal speed, while acrobatics is pretty much like synchronized swimming in sky,” he says.

Such maneuvers like mid-air “pancake” flips, or “angle attacking” like a bird of prey not only require balls but serious savvy. “You pretty much lead with your head while gliding, but every move you make determines your position, from pushing your feet to turn to raising your butt into a hollow hold to stay in the air longer. The turning is actually easy — it’s staying straight so you can travel four or five miles that’s the tricky part,” he says.

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Though growing fast, wingsuiting still retains a hardcore niche status. The USPA requires that all jumpers must have at least 200 skydives under their belt to participate in the sport. Even gear manufacturers like TonySuit impose minimum jump numbers before making a suit sale. Travis Mickle still has company though. A field of over 100 wingsuit flyers will compete for the title of U.S. National Wingsuit Flying Champion, with the sport’s inaugural World Championships taking place this November in Florida. Mickie’s banking on home-turf advantage.

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