Canopy Piloting's rising star: Cornelia Mihai

Words: Dirk Venter | Photos: Gerome Rich

In a skydiving discipline dominated by men, one woman is taking them on and changing perceptions. Cornelia Mihai is Romania's contribution to this elite group of athletes, representing Dubai, UAE. We chatted to her around the braai after a day of competition at the recent South Skydiving African Nationals, held at the Pretoria Skydiving Club.

Photo by: Gerome Rich

Q: How did you get started in Swooping (Canopy Piloting), and did you have another discipline of choice before that?

Cornelia: 4-Way Belly (Formation Skydiving). I always wanted to compete – in anything - and then I heard about the Dubai competition, the Dubai International Parachuting Championships (DIPC), which was so big, with cheap registration. That was at the end of 2011, the 3rd DIPC. I really wanted to go and my idea was to take a 4-way team. I just couldn't put it together so I thought, "What could I do as an individual?" There was only classic Accuracy and CP, and so I chose CP as I was closer to that. I thought, "I'm gonna try."

Q: And were you swooping at your home drop zone in Spain at that stage?

Cornelia: Yes. At that stage I was landing my canopy pretty well, but I had never flown over a pond and I had never actually thought of swooping at a competition, but I just wanted to compete.

Q: What canopy were you jumping then?

Cornelia: A PD (Performance Designs) Velocity 84 (84-square feet).

Q: How did that meet go?

Cornelia: Ah, pretty bad! Well, actually no, I wasn't last. Considering that I had never swooped over a pond before, or competed in a Swoop meet, I did okay.

Q: So your first Swoop competition was at the end of 2011?

Cornelia: Yes. And I had never been over a pond before, so when I saw that 110-metre long pond, I thought, "Oh oh." But that competition made me continue, even though I was at the end [sic] of the leader board. I had one round in Distance, with the old rules, where I made over 100 metres and that was good for me. I was so happy and thought, "Hmm, maybe I will continue with this." [The 'old rules' for Distance did not require water dragging through the gates, enabling longer swoops.]

Q: Did you stay in Dubai after that?

Cornelia: Yes, when I was there, they offered me a job in Dubai because I am a tandem instructor. So on my days off I would swoop.

Q: And what was your next competition?

Cornelia: I went on my own to Italy. It was a small competition. And there I met Billy [Sharman]. He was competing for Dubai. It was so hard there. After three jumps I tore my pants. I hurt my elbow and was crashing. I thought, "Ahh, this is bad!" And then Billy started helping me out with my turn and everything.

Q: So that was the first active instruction you received in CP?

Cornelia: Yes.

Q: And after that?

Cornelia: I went back to Dubai to continue to do tandems. Then at the end of 2012 was the Mondial, in Dubai [a world meet with three or more disciplines represented]. I really wanted to compete there so I completed all the paperwork to be able to complete for my home country, Romania. Right before I did final registration, Billy approached me and asked if I would want to compete with them for the UAE. That was the first time I competed for the UAE. So I wasn't in the UAE swoop team yet; I just competed with them.

Q: How did the Mondial go for you?

Cornelia: I performed well, but my scores didn't reflect it. My dragging off the water wasn't clean, so I lost a lot of points there and so on.

Q: But you improved your position in the standings?

Cornelia: No, not really. I ended 93rd out of 129 competitors. I could've done better. After this they asked me to join the team at the beginning of 2013. I was still doing tandems until June 2013 and then joined the team full time.

Q: Since you joined the team, how many training jumps have you done?

Cornelia: I would say around 800 to a 1,000.

Q: And competitions you have done since joining the team?

Cornelia: We went to a couple of FCPA (Florida Canopy Piloting Association) while I was still doing tandems, and then once I joined full time, we went to Russia for their nationals and the World Cup in Kolomna 2013 (16th overall). I then did the World Games in Cali, Colombia and came 16th or 17th place. And then my last competition at the last DIPC, which I consider my best, I came 4th overall. It was quite tight as at one stage I was fighting for 3rd place.

Q: How did you do in the individual events?

Cornelia: 3rd in Speed, 5th in Accuracy and 9th in Distance.

Q: And that was the first time you beat Billy? That must be quite a milestone.

Cornelia: I think so, yes [laughs].

Q: What are you jumping at the moment?

Cornelia: I have an Icarus Petra 72 for Accuracy and an Icarus Petra 64 for Distance and Speed. I bought my first RDS especially for my first competition because I saw in videos that no one has a pilot chute. So I thought, "I should at least look cool!" [laughs]

Q: Who is coaching you at the moment?

Cornelia: We coach each other really. No real external coach.

Q: So you don't get an external coach out to look at your landings and coach you?

Cornelia: What is quite nice is that I see the UAE do get someone out to video their competitors’ landings, which they can then debrief later.

Q: But who leads that?

Cornelia: Well, that is a part of CP that I like. We help each other and assist by giving each other tips.

Q: At the top level I guess it is easier to give each other advice?

Cornelia: Once you reach a certain performance level you start having an idea of what you are doing wrong, so only need someone to point out small corrective actions. Also, our approaches are so different. What works for me would maybe not work for Billy, and so on.

Q: What are some of the differences? Are there things you do that are unique to you?

Cornelia: I'm not sure if my teammates do the same, but they have their consistent turns; where they start, NOT where they finish. I have my own consistency, but I work more on where I finish the turn. So sometimes it looks like an ugly turn, but due to weather conditions I needed to make it work, and the result is still good. If there are varying upper wind conditions this helps me a lot, as I am pretty consistent when coming at the gates.

Q: Why do you think there are so few female CP competitors?

Cornelia: Well, they see only men doing it.

Q: But something has distinguished you from the average female skydiving competitor, right? I know a lot of very tough women in this sport, but few look to CP.

Cornelia: I think a bit of it comes from inside. If you told me to do Freestyle [a skydiving discipline judged like gymnastics] I would never do it. You could never put me in a tight suit and make me point my toes. That is not me. Some women just like to be like that. They are very feminine and love it. My tail bone hurts all the time, my shoulders hurt, but I still don't want to stop. It doesn't matter whether you are a man or a women, it just depends on the drive within you. Women might just think, “Why would I do that?”

Photo by: Gerome Rich

Q: They don't like the discomfort level maybe?

Cornelia: Also, women are generally smaller and lighter than men. I put 16 kg of weight on (maximum legal competition weight) as I am not as heavy as Billy. So yes, I agree that it is the discomfort level perhaps.

Q: Do you use your front risers or do you use your hips?

Cornelia: I use both. Front risers more so with my Velocity than with my Petra. With my Petra I tend to not touch my front risers.

Q: How much physical strength is involved? I assume with the size canopy you jump, the physicality is not as much?

Cornelia: It is pretty physical. Even some guys complain. But so is 4-Way FS if you are aiming for the top. Freefly is the same. On the side, I am doing some VFS (Vertical Formation Skydiving) and in the tunnel I am done! It is so, so hard. More than Swooping!

Q: Are you going to the next World meet in Zephyrhills?

Cornelia: That's the plan.

Q: What would you like to achieve there?

Cornelia: Third place. Last year, I started without expectations and at the end of the year, at the DIPC, I did really well. Once you get up to that level, you start realising that those top competitors aren't invincible. They also make mistakes. Now that I know more I can recognise their mistakes as well.

Q: So, lastly some stats. When did you start skydiving?

Cornelia: 2002, Romania, Static Line.

Q: How many jumps do you have?

Cornelia: Almost 6,000.

Q: How many jumps did you have 2 years ago when you started Swooping competitively?

Cornelia: Probably around 3,500. In Romania, I didn't do many jumps. When I really started to jump was when I became an AFF [Accelerated Freefall] instructor in 2010 and then it all picked up once I moved to Dubai.

Q: How does your training jump schedule work?

Cornelia: We do around 8 jumps a day, 5 days a week.

Well, good luck with the training and we are expecting some exciting results at the next World meet!

And so, after this interview and without much fanfare, Cornelia went on, as guest, to whitewash the Canopy Piloting field at the 2014 South African Nationals, placing 1st in all the events with a massive distance run of 163.77 metres in round 1.

To speak of Cornelia in the context of gender does her skill and success a disservice, as she is simply an outstanding athlete, shooting to the top at a ridiculous pace. But it certainly does (again) raise the question of why we still have female categories in some other skydiving disciplines, with no physiological reason.