Some people jump out of a plane for their birthdays. Others during a midlife crisis.
Professional skydiver Nick Batsch jumps for many different reasons. Whether he’s diving to break world records (which he’s done five times) or to commemorate fallen friends (who have accumulated over the years), Batsch says his motivation is always evolving.
The 30-year-old skydiver, a Longmont resident for six years, has toured the country and the world, collecting distance records and national and international championships at nearly every competition he attends.
And as if jumping out of a plane wasn’t exciting enough, as a canopy pilot, most of what Batsch does takes place just five feet off the ground.
Reaching speeds of nearly 100 miles per hour, canopy pilots, also known as “swoopers,” fly small, high-performance canopies — about 33 percent of the size of a normal parachute — to increase their speed and power. Swoopers jump from around 5,500 feet, spiral down toward the ground with their canopy deployed and take a sharp turn just before hitting the ground. They then fly horizontally through the air just a few feet from the ground, seeming to defy gravity. Their performance is measured in three categories: distance, speed and accuracy.
Since joining the sport in 2006, Batsch has not only tested his own limits, he has pioneered and pushed the limits of the sport itself, cementing him self as one of the best in the business, according to Nancy Koreen, the United States Parachuting Association’s (USPA) director of sport promotion.
“He’s definitely at the top of his field and has been for quite a few years,” Koreen says. “Some of the world records he’s set have far surpassed any of his competitors.”
In 2011, Batsch went up against 100 competitors from 24 countries at the World Cup of Canopy Piloting in Klatovy, Czech Republic. He dethroned the reigning canopy pilot champion, Canadian Jay Moledzki, who had long been considered the best in the sport.
“That was just an amazing moment for me — something I had been working up to for six years,” Batsch says. “It takes a long time to defeat someone who is such a great athlete in the all-around events.”
On top of winning the World Cup Championship, Batsch has set the distance world record five times, beating his own original record three times and setting a new record after the rules were changed.
He first broke the canopy distance record in 2008 when he flew 152.8 meters horizontally. Two months later, Brazilian Marat Leiras beat his record with 161 meters at the 2008 World Championships of Canopy Piloting in South Africa. Batsch came back just minutes later and set the new record at 169.9 meters. The next year, he set it again at 181 meters.
Batsch set the last record under the old rules in 2011 at the aptly named Big Boy Pants Competition, which does away with rounds to allow swoopers the most opportunities to break records — it’s basically the home run derby of canopy piloting. The competition was held at Batsch’s home turf, the Mile-Hi Skydiving Center in Longmont, which he concedes helped his chances.
“It really helps if you have a lot of jumps at a facility,” Batsch says. “It gives you an advantage knowing all the conditions, what directions the winds are usually at, how high you need to turn during what wind conditions.”
Once again, Batsch’s record was topped when California-native Jonathan Tagle came in at 195 meters. And once again, that new record lasted mere minutes; Batsch flew in with an astounding 222 meters — nearly two and a half football fields.
The distance rules were then changed by the International Parachuting Commission in February, and those new rules were adopted by the United States Parachute Association. The new rules responded to safety concerns and changed the process because athletes were flying beyond some courses’ limits, according to Jim Hayhurst, the USPA competition director.
Under the new regulations, pilots must drag a foot on water through the entrance, usually while traveling at speeds upwards of 85 miles per hour, and keep their body below the 5-foot level for 150 feet. After that, pilots can continue to glide at any height until they touch the ground.
In June, having mastered the new rules, Batsch set the new distance world record at 151.9 meters.
But swooping isn’t all about the records and numbers. Traveling the world is the most pleasurable part about being a skydiver, says Batsch, who spent a third of last year overseas. Competitions around the globe have led him to some incredible places in Italy, Taiwan, South Africa, the Czech Republic and Russia — plus countless locations around the United States. Some of the most stunning places to dive in the U.S. are Hawaii, Utah and Longmont, which of course offers breath-taking aerial views of the Rocky Mountains.
However, Batsch says, nothing tops Skydive Dubai, where skydivers jump from an extravagant facility on an artificial peninsula.
Despite his tours around the world, Batsch credits the high-altitude conditions at his home base in Longmont with helping him to become the world’s best swooper.
Because of the thinner air at a higher altitude, there is less wind resistance and therefore divers can pick up more speed and power coming into the turn to finish the course.
“You have to be a much better pilot to fly a wing at a higher altitude,” says Batsch. “My reaction time is that much quicker.”
Though Batsch and other swoopers have mastered the precision necessary to compete at high levels, due to the extreme nature of the sport, accidents do happen.
The most common injuries are broken legs and feet. Sometimes pilots come in at an awkward angle and can break their wrists or hands. For Batsch, a broken thumb and a few bruised hips are his worst injuries to date.
Artificial ponds are used as safety measures to protect swoopers from small accidents after they’ve completed the initial turn near the ground.
“Instead of breaking their leg, they walk away from the injury and learn a lesson,” Batsch explains. However, he cautions, if a swooper miscalculates the initial turn, “Sometimes the impact is too great at too great of an angle, and even on water it can be as hard as concrete at those speeds.”
“It’s hard,” Batsch reflects. There have been “a lot of tragedies over the years.” One of those tragedies occurred just last month, when 43-year-old Tagle, the Californian pilot who set a distance record in the 2011 competitions and one of the sport’s more influential canopy pilots, died after crashing while training in Norway. Tagle came in second place behind Batsch in the World Cup Championship in 2011 and had just earned a spot on this year’s U.S. Parachuting Team roster to compete again in the World Championships in Dubai in October.
“It never comes easier,” Batsch laments. “It’s just always different depending on how close someone is to you and how much they affected your life or how much you affected theirs.” Batsch also recently lost two other close friends within six months of each other. Teammates Emily Berkeley and Brady Kane, who had more than 500 and 5,000 jumps respectively, both died in swooping accidents.
“The more you’re in it, then the more people around the world you know who are … at higher risk because everyone is doing these new extreme things that have never been done before,” Batsch says. But, he adds, “it’s hard to have regrets when you’re doing something you love so much and so much passion is involved.”
Although the threat of death or serious injury is around every turn, Batsch says it’s better than “living one of those safety lives where you work 9 to 5 every day and then you end up at home watching TV and seeing what everyone else is doing with their lives.”
“It’s worth the tradeoff,” he adds. “Someone in 30 years could live a more full life than someone [living a safe life] could fill in 100.”
Having a supportive family and a skydiving girlfriend who understand his passion in the face of such real risks certainly helps. Batsch’s family has made it to all of his national meets in the last three years.
“They actually are a great driving force behind what I do,” says Batsch. “I couldn’t do it without them.”
After an 11-year career and nearly 5,000 jumps, Batsch says his motivations have changed and continue to change based on his accomplishments and accumulated experiences.
“Originally,” Batsch says, “[I was] comparing myself to other people.” He never expected to take his talent to the professional and ultimately global stage, he says.
“Then it became a motivational drive of wanting to become that world champion, beating that one guy who’s won so many times in a row,” he says. Eventually, that became a reality.
Over everything else, Batsch says his lost friends “were a big motivational force behind me winning the World Championships last year. They had been behind me the whole time anyway, so it was great to have that push and that extra motivation to get things done.
“I’m sure it’s greater than any other motivation,” Batsch says, “to want to do something for another person — in honor of somebody.”