The World Air Games. One of the most prestigious events our in our sport. It is run by the Olympic Committee along with the World Games. One of the reasons this event is held in such high regard is, not just because it is run by the Olympic Committee, but that it is run only every handful of years. Usually about every 4. The last time the World Air Games was held was in 2009…over 6 years ago. To put that in perspective, Nick Batsch had just clawed his way up to the elite top few in our sport, and 2009 was Curt Bartholomew’s first year of competing in Canopy Piloting. What put even more on the line, Nick was trying to catch up to Curt’s 4 World Titles having just become only the 3rd person in our sports history to achieve more than one World Title earlier in the summer. Curt is chasing the all time World Title record of 7 titles held by Jay Moledzki. Curt also held all of the 3 other possible World Titles, the World Championships, World Games, and World Cup. Curt also turned 30 December 14, 8 days after the end of the WAG. He wanted that under his belt before turning the big 30. He had been told over and over during his early training days to back off and calm down. Nobody gets any good at swooping until they are well into their 30’s. What a better way to enter your 30’s than to prove them all wrong. Another reason this was such a big event was the how elite the competitors were. Only the top 2 from every country (with a few additional Wild Cards) was allowed to compete, with the previous World Championships decided who went. It was very difficult to qualify and have the honor of attending. The vibe going into meet at the beautiful Dubai Palm Island DZ was very strained and tense, like most World Title meets. They just feel different. There is more on the line, there is more pressure to win. After all these don’t come along often. Competitors are quieter, more focused, and in some cases more agitated. There is a little bit less wishing each other good luck with the exception of close friends and team mates.
One of the other special things about the World Air Games is the fact that each sport is sharing the sky with many other types of air sports. From hot air balloon racing, to air ships, to glider aerobatics, to indoor RC planes, to paragliding, to helicopter and gyro events. It was a spectacular sight seeing so many different athletes that all share a love of the sky in so many vast and varying ways. It was a thing of beauty.
The competition began with Zone Accuracy and the most beautiful weather at a World meet since 2011. It was a very slight head wind and not a cloud in the sky. The competitors were supposed to have a full day of training at the Palm the day before the comp started. The evening before, they were informed that they would receive one training jump in the morning and then we would continue straight into the competition immediately after. Each day, we had a time slot allotted with a few hours. These times were very strict due to all of the other sports, sometimes jets would be taking off at a different airport and would use our airspace. Delays could cause huge safety concerns. So the night before the competitors had to switch gears and get themselves competition ready for the next day. With the conditions, naturally everyone had great scores in the practice round. Going into the first round everyone made small adjustments and had even better runs. Nick came in on the first round and stomped a perfect 100. Curt came in with a mistake and didn’t have the power he needed in the winds. Everyone was surprised, including Curt himself, when he somehow made his 79 Comp Velo keep carrying all the way to a 96 point score on the course. The two learned Nick skipped over the first water gate on his run, losing 21 points of the 100 he thought he had received. Nick got another in the box landing but went down on the second run, giving him a 90. Curt came in and stood up in the box, hearting both up and down from different judges. A video review was done to a close call, but he was awarded the 100. Nick responded by nailing a perfect 100 on the third round, with Curt getting another 96. The Zone Acc podium was rounded out with Curt in 1st, Christian Webber in 2nd, and Nick in 3rd. Curt and Nick had poised themselves nicely to lead the way for the rest of the comp.
The competitors adjusted as best they could to a stop and go style. It was better than in the past, were they had to only complete one or jumps in a day period. It seemed they were going to average 3 jumps a day if not more. They had a time slot in the morning, a few hour break, then they would come back in the afternoon and get another jump, maybe two if there was time. When distance started, it was great conditions again. Every day it was a light head wind in the morning, with a light downwind or crosswind in the afternoon. Cornelia came out swinging in Distance, trying to close the gap that formed in Zone Accuracy. Guillame Bernier got the farthest distance run trying to make up some points after a mistake in the last round of Zone Accuracy. Pablo Hernandez also put up a top score. Curt and Nick kept their heads down and charged on with a lot of support from each other. Nick did have a rough first round after being distracted by almost hitting a whole flock of sea gulls sitting in between the entry gates. Curt was still struggling a little bit from a gear issue he had just finally pinpointed during the DISL. He had been making great progress with new gear, adjusting his style and getting great results. The more comfortable he got, one problem kept nagging and cause a lot of chatter in the recovery arc. He was doing his best to fly around the problem, changing his style to suit the situation. It still affected his performance, but he kept his focus with help from Nick and Jeannie. The second round saw fairly similar rounds, with Nick having the 2nd best run without almost killing some seagulls. Curt almost got a zero, but with a last minute sashay and saved the run, still scoring over 88 points on the round, the only jump of the competition that he did not score at least 90 points. The 3rd round of Distance was started, with the competitors being told only 1 of the 2 loads of the round would go up. The 2nd plane would finish the round later, in possibly different conditions. Some competitors got upset, others stayed focused on what they needed to do. This also meant Curt and Nick were done for the day, they let it drop and relaxed. Taking some much needed rest and relaxation in a city with a lot to distract you from the stress of competition.
The next morning, the competition was continued with Speed. The competition would finish with the 2nd half of the competitors who still needed to finish Distance. This put some added pressure on Curt due to the problems he was having in that event at the time. It was time to focus on Speed though. The first round saw Nick and Curt put up awesome scores in another beautiful day of weather. Their times were only hundredths apart. Their excitement showed when they landed and high fives and slaps on the back were exchanged. The second round saw an almost identical run from Nick, and a small mistake from Curt. His adjusted style made him too tight on the gate and another sashay was needed to make the entry. There was some controversy during Speed as the judges carried out their weight checks. Some competitors had requested more weight checks earlier in the season and the FAI judges had done a great job from then on. A few of the competitors were found to be overweight and given zero’s for the round they had just completed. There was some griping over the way the weight checks were conducted by a few of the competitors, but everything was resolved in the end. He pulled everything out of his bag of tricks and still had the 3rd fastest time, 3 one thousandths behind Cornelia, and only 1 tenth behind Nick. This also meant Nick was slowly closing the gap to Curt. The third round of Speed saw Curt with a normal score, and only hundredths separated him from Nick’s score again. Nick took home another Gold for the USA and Team Alter Ego with the fastest score in all 3 rounds and a perfect 300 out of 300 points, and Curt another Silver. But the pressure was mounting.
Nick and Curt could still be seen giving each other extremely heart felt encouragement, but they were still both pushing for the win. Nick had the edge going into the last round since it was his specialty, Distance. Curt had the advantage with a 13 point lead, but they both knew that could go either way with a great run, or a mistake. Curt pushed the problems he was having out of his mind and gathered all the focus he could. Nick did the math and was pushing very hard to catch up. Cornelia was the first of the big hitters to come in and set the farthest run. Then Nick came in with a decent score, though not one he was 100% happy with. Curt finally had a smooth Distance run with a score that was enough to stretch the gap to 20 points and bring him the title. The spectators could hear Curt cheering even before he landed, and once his feet touched the ground his emotion boiled over with some well-deserved cheering. Nick was the first to run up and give Curt a congratulatory hug. Swooping was done for the day, and a lot of the stress that was boiling over was finally gone for everyone. There were heart felt congratulations all around as some people hit personal bests, and others weren’t satisfied with their performance.
Competitors began having a lot more fun, playing paintball, racing go carts, and just relaxing at the pool or in the mall. The following day saw the first official FAI Freestyle event. It was held separate from the overall standings, but was the first time Freestyle would be awarded FAI medals, after the FAI had spent a lot of time working on the rules. Not all of the competitors participated, but it was a great experience for everyone. This time the competitors got to exit helicopters instead of the normal Twin Otters. The first round was compulsory and the swoopers were only limited to one of the more simple moves. All the normal names were at the top of the list, Nick, Curt, Gage Galle, Abdulbari, and Cornelia. Nick put down an impressive run with his signature move, the blindman boomerang. Curt also did his signature move, the boomerang, switchblade, cowboy. He got a little aggressive, carving so hard he planted the wingtip in the water and was unable to get the canopy back above his head. It still made for one of the loudest cheers of the event, everyone loves a good crash! Nick finished the competition off with a blindman boomerang superman. Adding a 3rd move into the already difficult combo. Gage put up 2 more very sooth runs as well. Curt finished with a new move he had been doing, a wingover blindman. He pulled it off for a good score and some more skills to work on for next season in Freestyle. Nick took home the 1st Overall and the Gold. Gage took home 2nd overall and the Silver. Abdulbari snatched 3rd and the Bronze. The last event that was scored at the WAG was also the Team event. It was comprised of the competitors from the countries with 3 athletes in attendance. Team USA comprised of Curt, Nick and Gage took home the Gold with a commanding lead. Team France was 2nd and Team Denmark was 3rd. This also means that USA brought home 5 of the 6 Gold medals at the event. Between the 3 USA athletes 11 of the 18 medals were brought home! Alter Ego brought home 9 of those, making that half of the medals and an important 1-2 overall podium. Everything was run very smoothly and fairly by the Judges and by the hosting Skydive Dubai. The team would like to send out are sincerest thanks to all of them, events like these would not be so incredible without the people who run them both out at the pond and behind the scenes. We all look forward to the next one!