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Ukrainian women skydivers
Four Ukrainian women skydivers were the only European athletes who took part in the recently held parachute jumping championship in Asia, and won in their event, competing against men parachute jumpers.
These four parachutists are Olena Nastenko, Oksana Kovalchuk, Anastasiya Klyaznyko, and Alyona Herasymenko; they are members of the Ukrainian team Alfa-Fox of the air group acrobatics, or skydiving. They are the youngest skydiving team in the world; they have participated in several international competitions and won the open Asia championship in Malaysia in 2006. In addition to being world-class athletes, they are beautiful young women and interesting personalities.
Yevhen BUDKO, Mizhnarodny Turyzm senior editor, recently interviewed Olena Nastenko, the cheerful captain of the Ukrainian skydiving team.
Is the beauty one of the qualifications for being chosen for your team?
No, not really. It was a chance that brought us all together. The main qualification was being able to do things the right way in group air acrobatics. In the parachute sport it’s the most difficult event. Since our team was formed, only one person has left and been substituted by another one. It was Antonina Yakovleva from Odesa. Olena Herasymenko joined us instead. Antonina did not want to move from Odesa to Kyiv and for a team it is important to stay geographically close together for practicing in competitions and training.
Did you ever have a fear of jumping with a parachute?
I took my first jump at the age of nineteen. There was no fear, really, some anxiety maybe. I had wanted to do it very much for quite some time before that first jump, and once I did it, I realized I was doomed to wanting to do it again and again. In the past, you had to attend training courses for several months, learning how to fold the parachute properly, how to do other things; then you had to get health and other kinds of certificates, and only then you were allowed to jump. These days things have been simplified. The other members of my team were introduced to parachute jumping by their parents and other relatives.
Had you done any sports before you started jumping with parachute?
Yes. At the age of six I started doing rhythmic gymnastics, then I tried other kinds of gymnastics, then aerobics, then swimming, then karate… I also liked riding very much. But there always came a point when I would lose interest. With parachute jumping it’s different. In this sport there are practically no limitations connected with age, weight or gender. You can endlessly improve your technique. But the main thing is that you absolutely enjoy it. I saw all kinds of people doing parachute jumping, aged people too. I saw even one-legged man jump with a parachute… It’s a great feeling when you are moving through the air in a free flight! And you can learn to control that flight. Some little movements with your hands, legs or the body — and you change the direction of your flight, or do all kinds of tricks in the air at a speed that ranges from 160 to 400 kilometres an hour! I miss jumping so much when I do not do it for some time.
Do you remember well your first jump?
Of course, I do. Every second of it. I jumped from an altitude of about one thousand metres. My parachute was an old-fashioned one, and it was opened not by me but by a simple device that deploys the canopy when you jump off the plane… That step into the sky is unforgettable.
I heard that some people begin to get very nervous after a certain number of jumps.
I admit that now, when I’ve been in skydiving for quite some time and know of some accidents and of possible dangers, that I may get apprehensive, but that first time there was no fear at all. The freefall, that special feeling that you get flying through the air make me want to do it again and again. And after I started jumping, I began to love life and the people I care for much more.
Because of the possible danger that you face?
Probably. Accidents do happen, and in most cases they happen with experienced skydivers who get much too confident. If a parachute has been folded and packed a bit carelessly, it can result in a tragedy too… I myself had to use the reserve parachute twice.
For most of us competitive skydiving is an extreme sport. Group air acrobatics sounds very exotic to my ear.
Competitive skydiving events now include: classical style, in which the diver completes a series of timed acrobatic manoeuvres; accuracy trials, in which the diver has to land on, or as close as possible to a target for a number of jumps; relative work in freefall, in which a number of divers build a prescribed series of formations; canopy relative work, in which divers build formations after their chutes have opened; and freestyle, which involves a mixture of free-form acrobatic and gymnastic manoeuvres by the diver combined with relative work involving a videographer who is another skydiver who jumps with a video camera to document the activity. In our case, the team of four plus the videographer jump off the plane at an altitude of four kilometres and within 35 seconds we have to show five or six formations. There are 16 basic formations and 22 variations which are called “the star”, “the accordion” and so on. Then we separate and open the chutes. Once on the ground, the videographer gives the tape to the judges who assess the performance.
Is skydiving a full-time occupation for you?
Yes, sort of. But not for the other members of my team. Olena is a student; Nastya is a student too. Both of them are from the city of Chernihiv, it’s not too far from Kyiv. Oksana is a lawyer… By education I’m a teacher of geography. I used to work as a manager of a tourist agency. Then I wanted to start my own business — to set up a tourist company that would deal with ‘extreme” tourism such as skydiving, mountain climbing, sea diving, but soon I realized I could not do it and continue my parachute jumping at the same time. This sport takes very much of my time. Even weekends are given to training. But there’s something else I’m involved in — I’m managing the production and release of a compact disk, Tourist Resources of Ukraine, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.
We talked about your first jump — now, what was the first official competition you took part in?
It was the Malevsky Cup competition held in Moscow. At that time we were not ready to compete at a high international level. Among the twenty-one teams that participated in the competition we occupied the twenty-first place. When those who understood the requirements of skydiving saw the video of our performance they said, “Girls, you are so good looking, you’ll attract attention on the ground anywhere in the world — why do you want to be noticed in the air?” We were not too pleased to hear that, I can tell you… But we just knew we could do much better and we tried hard. And in April 2006, at the open Asian championship we proved it by winning gold in our event. Incidentally, before the competition nobody took us seriously, saying, You are too good looking to be falling from the sky — you’ll be much more successful on the ground! It did make us mad. But after our victory the same people saluted us in a military manner. The prize was presented to us by the King of Malaysia himself.
You must have been very determined to continue taking part in the skydiving competitions after that fiasco in Moscow...
It was a setback but it did not put us off. We knew we had the right sort of potential, we were the youngest skydiving team, and we were determined to improve our performance. And we did it. At each next competition we did better than at the previous one.
Where do you do your training?
Mostly abroad. There are only a few wind tunnels that can be used for skydiving training — in the United States, in Malaysia, in France, and recently a new one was built in Great Britain. Besides, here in Kyiv, you have to wait in line for your turn to jump from the airplanes, and say, in Arizona, USA, there’s no such problem. So we combine training and participation in competitions.
Could you provide some more details about that championship in Malaysia where you came out the winners?
It was held April 12 through April 22, with teams from Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, and other countries taking part. It was an open championship but there was only one team from Europe — ours. In fact, initially we just wanted to use the Malaysian wind tunnel for training — it is the cheapest in the world. You have to pay 300 dollars per hour of training. Compared to 1,500 dollars in France it’s cheap. Once there, in Malaysia, we decided we’d give it a try at the championship. Frankly, the organization of the championship left much to be desired — there were many problems, disruptions and delays. We were not even given a chance to take a training jump which was a gross violation of the rules. All of it created a lot of unnecessary tension, but at the competitive jump we felt much more relaxed — we had seen the performance of other teams and we realized we could do much better. And we did. In spite of the fact that the training possibilities of other teams were much better. And our competitors were much better financed too. It was a great shock for the Muslim men to lose in a competition with women.
I understand there were no special requirements set for competing men and women skydivers?
No, the rules in our event are the same both for men and women. In fact, there are very few women teams in the world. And we proved we could compete with men and win.
Men often say that in an all-women group all kinds of tensions and jealousies can destroy the team effort...
No such thing in our team. We are all equal, we are all of us eager to do our absolute best. We are team and we have to rely on each other. Without proper coordination and full trust we can get ourselves in a big trouble. Of course, there was such a thing as “character adjustment” but we have proved to be fully compatible with each other. We are very close to each other too, like close relatives. And that goes not only for the time of the competitions or training.
Is anyone in your team married?
I am the only one married. We have no rich fathers or wealthy husbands or boyfriends to support us financially but we know how to talk potential sponsors into helping us. We get no support whatsoever from the state in spite of the fact that we represent Ukraine at the international competitions. Before we can go abroad for training or take part in competitions we have to find sponsors who will provide financial support. Then we pay back by advertisement opportunities. The insurance company Alfa was the first sponsor that supported us financially. That is why the name of our team contains the word Alfa. The word “fox” was added later — somebody suggested it and we accepted. We do wish we had a strong and steady support. Lack of funds causes us more problems than our opponents at the competitions.
Are you going to take part in any competitions some time soon?
Not competitions but an attempt to set a new record. On June 17, at the airfield Chayka in Kyiv we’ll take part in an event that involves 20 or more skydivers joining together in a very large formation in the air.
Photographs are from the archives
of the Alfa-Fox team
Two airfields in the vicinity of Kyiv, Chayka and Borodyanka, provide services for those who want to do some skydiving. The prices range from 150 to 1200 dollars. The equipment can be purchased or hired. The airfields in the cities of Dnipropetrovsk, Chernihiv, Mykolayiv, Sevastopol and Odesa also provide similar services.