There is much to love about spending time in America. For every little chuckle outsiders have about the way they do things here there is a cultural counterpoint that raises the place above its oddities. For every ludicrous psychedelic foodstuff lining the shelves of Walmart there is a dining experience that you will talk about forever, and for each curious use of language or baffling advertisement there is an example of doing things with such brio and flair it will makes you wish wherever it is you are from was a little more like it is over here.
It has been a long while since the World Championships was held in the United States. Eloy presented the World Cup in 2005 but not since 1993 has skydiving biggest shown been to town. When discovering a place like Skydive Chicago it seems curious that it has been so long. Rook Nelson’s SDC is a great example of American bigness in the way the space and resources available here are presented. Manicured grass spills out and rolls off in every direction, looking for all the world like it is someone’s job to perpetually ride a mower in the manner of Sisyphus pushing that rock up that mountain. Uniform aircraft proceed in a unbroken cycle around a bespoke creation in a land-load-takeoff cycle eating up the ever increasing demand for lift capacity as one nation after another arrives to shake off the jet lag and get used to the place.
By Friday the floorspace in the huge hanger is at a premium as there are more than 800 competitors from 37 nations scheduled to arrive from all over the world in time for the opening ceremony on Sunday afternoon. We are a well connected bunch so there is lots of catching up to do - perhaps just days have past between friends and rivals - or there are those have not seen since the last world meet in the Czech Republic two years ago. Teams weigh each other up. Progress is mostly hidden in the sky so much of the judgement is expressed about who has the nicest delegation gear to wear about while on the ground. This is parachuting’s biggest affair so everyone acts like it - style points, swagger, matching colours, matching luggage. The colourful menagerie of the length and breadth of skydiving is present - everything from nations where parachuting is largely a military concern representing proudly in canopy formation work and accuracy jumping, through the storied history and wide appeal of flat flying to the fresh faced kids turing up to throw down the new new way in the artistic categories.
By the time Sunday morning arrives the place is packed out. A day of heavy rain broke the oppressive humidity of earlier in the week but also flooded out the ancillary dropzone at Cushing Field (‘Swamp’) - so every category is here trying to get in their final practice efforts. Jumping only goes until noon to allow for the briefings and draws and to allow time for everyone to get to town for the opening ceremony. The usually perfectly adequate manifesting software was been set aside in favour of good old paper and pencils for which the result is a gigantic snake of humans at the window putting names in for thirty loads down the line. Pressure builds as we get closer to the start of the competition and everyone is deep in their own affairs - but getting this done should be recognised as no small achievement by the SDC staff as half a dozen aircraft do multiple passes and multiple heights - juggling every single category and jumping everyone safely.
Some nations present huge delegations for the FAI Worlds using their full allotment of qualifiable teams. France, Great Britain and the USA itself each bring a small crowd to Ottawa Township High School brandishing flags to be introduced and applauded in turn. It is the smaller delegations though that raise the biggest cheers - the UAE has three representatives, Israel two, but the crowd rise to their feet for Cuba and India - nations both with a single member in the competition.
The UK is not so far removed from the USA - we have been trading culture back and forth for a long time. Even so the images of a thousand movies echo in my imagination as we parade around the local high school football field in our delegation uniforms and it makes me wonder how representatives from more exotic nations find it here. The bleachers, the line of proud veterans with old bolt-action rifles, the national anthem perfectly timed with a formation flypast from the SDC aircraft and an enormous flag demo - Old Glory blazing in the strong afternoon sun. Americans are good at this stuff.
The competition kicks off in the morning with an early start for some and a more relaxed call of noon for others. For now though we are thirsty and intent on embracing the invitation of hospitality from the mayor and the local community as we ooze out of the school into the town and the setting sun.