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Chasing Gold—JaNette Lefkowitz Tells the Whole Epic Tale

Chasing Gold—JaNette Lefkowitz Tells the Whole Epic Tale

By Annette O’Neil

Features | February 2020
Saturday, February 1, 2020

JaNette Lefkowitz starts by saying, “There’s just so much to it, so many stories leading up.”

A lot of stories, after all, fit into 13 years. That’s how long SDC Rhythm XP (colloquially known as “Rhythm”)—the banner 4-way formation skydiving team for both Skydive Paraclete XP in Raeford, North Carolina, and Skydive Chicago in Ottawa, Illinois—has been around. In fact, it’s been a full decade since powerhouse couple JaNette and Steve Lefkowitz quit their jobs to pursue the sport full time. Since then, Rhythm has become a household name on drop zones everywhere—not only for their pile of wins, but for the fact that they’re one of the world’s best-known and -loved sources for continuing education in skydiving. In any case, no matter what discipline you jump, you know Rhythm. And you should.

“We formed Rhythm just with the idea of trying to be the best in the Midwest,” JaNette Lefkowitz said, “and then from there it was, like, ‘OK, what’s next?’”

Starting the Journey

Rhythm came together in 2007, taking third place in advanced 4-way FS at the USPA Nationals right off the bat. The following year, Rhythm scored a 16.9 average in the 4-way FS advanced class, the highest score ever in that division, and started hosting well-attended tunnel workshops at the Paraclete XP wind tunnel in Raeford. By 2009, sponsor Skydive Chicago had become the team’s home, and everyone involved was understandably dreaming about being the best in the country. Maybe, they thought—just maybe—they could be the best in the world, even. By that point, they had already started building up a coaching business and, of course, training a ton. JaNette and Steve moved out of Chicago. They bought a trailer at SDC and a house near Skydive Sebastian in Florida.

“Since then it’s just been, like any journey, never like what you expect it’s going to be,” Lefkowitz said, laughing. “We’ve been working really hard. A lot of people, when they talk to us, focus on the setbacks.” There have been plenty, over the years: the long slog, the accidents, the teammates who got recruited away.

“I mean, those definitely formed who we are,” she said. “But when I think back on the last 10 years, it’s the positive stuff that I really remember. When you have a dream like this, you get to shape what it means. For me, it has all been about enjoying getting better and enjoying my teammates. Of course, I still wanted to be the best, but with plenty of conditions: I wanted to do it in a way that I enjoyed and with people that I enjoyed.”

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The “people element,” as any competitor will tell you, can easily make or break the podium dream. “It’s easy to pick the most talented person at the moment you’re making your choice,” Lefkowitz advised, “but if they don’t fit long-term, it’s not going to work, especially if you have a project that involves a lot of training and a lot of time together.”

Doug Barron (tail) and Andrew Happick (point) came on in 2016, adding their energy and talent to the mix. The following year, Rhythm beat longtime national champion Arizona Airspeed for the first time, at an indoor meet at Paraclete. “That was the beginning of believing we really could do this,” Lefkowitz said, grinning, “because at that point, we actually had. The goal was always very much to win. And suddenly, that win felt within reach.” Things were looking decidedly up.

A Bumpy Road

That year—2017—the USPA Nationals took place at Skydive Perris in California. When the day came, Rhythm started strong. Rhythm took the first round, then launched into a neck-and-neck, one-or-two-point volley with Airspeed that lasted all day. Deep into the second day, they lost five points on a bad round and, despite a strong showing in the following rounds, were never able to recover. 

“It was the closest we’d ever been,” Lefkowitz said. “OK, it was devastating, but it was also one of the best losses I’ve ever had. As a team, we cried together, but we were simultaneously really motivated to just get back to it and start training. We knew this proved, in some way, that we’d break through and do it the next year.”

For a while, everything was pointing directly at that win. Then, in April of 2018, the bottom quite publicly fell out. Barron had an accident during a routine training jump in Sebastian. It was bad. He broke both of his legs and his back. He was in the hospital for a while, undergoing multiple surgeries. He couldn’t walk for a long time.

To stay relevant and active in the face of that blow, Rhythm had to dig deep. They tapped a previous teammate, Rob Radez, to go to Nationals that year; they committed to a lighter training schedule; they started talking through sanity strategies. “We started to have conversations, figuring out how we could, as a team, stay together in a way that made it so we weren’t burnt out by the time Doug could jump again,” Lefkowitz said.

“It changed everything,” she added.

Specifically, Rhythm’s goals changed. They frankly didn’t know when–or if—they’d ever be nationally competitive again. “We refocused on staying together and getting back to the level we were at,” Lefkowitz said. “And that was it. That’s all we could kind of work on at that point. It was tough, for sure.”

Barron’s goal was to jump again the following April, in 2019. By December of 2018, he felt ready to get back in the tunnel, so Rhythm signed up for a meet in Empuriabrava, Spain. As they started training for that comp, it quickly became evident that Barron couldn’t stand on his right leg to do an entrance into the tunnel. The solution: to rotate the slots around so the team could enter the tunnel in a way Barron could manage. That new configuration lost the team about a second on every entrance, but they packed their bags and headed to Spain regardless.

“We did that meet and we performed,” Lefkowitz said, smiling. “Actually, we did our best meet average we’d ever done, and we were kind of shocked by it. That was really motivating.”

They kept the momentum. A Paraclete XP indoor meet—where Rhythm members were sponsored, hometown heroes—was coming right up. Barron was getting stronger throughout January and February training; finally, he was able to do the entrance the “normal” way. During the meet, Rhythm scored a rather miraculous 30.

“It showed us that, as defeated as we felt, everything that we’d done together as a team was still there,” Lefkowitz said, beaming, “and was still valuable. All the work we did together—all the teamwork—came back very easily for us.”

With Barron’s goal set to come back to the sky in April, Rhythm doubled down on training at Paraclete. But once that target month rolled around, the going was slow—and, for Doug, quite painful. “He couldn’t jump a lot,” Lefkowitz remembered. “He would be in a lot of pain after a number of jumps, and eventually the rest of the team would say, ‘OK, we’re done.’ He would be, like, ‘I can, you just have to carry me to the plane.’ And our response would be, ‘You can’t stand up. We’re not going to jump with you, Doug. Sorry.’”

The Run-Up

The run-up to Nationals was nuts. The team—despite Barron’s injuries and Happick’s and Steve Lefkowitz’s commitment to the Paraclete 8-way team—was able to make about 200 total training jumps at Skydive Chicago. The team’s new videographer, Justin Wageman, hung with it admirably. The bar was achingly high. At Nationals in 2017, Rhythm had a 25.2-point average. In practice they were doing 22s, 23s and maybe a 24.

Happily, the 2019 USPA Nationals were at Skydive Paraclete XP, which had joyfully supported Rhythm since 2008. The members of Rhythm knew they needed as much of an edge as they could get, so they rocked up to Paraclete a week early to slot in a packed training schedule.

“Everything just clicked,” Lefkowitz said. “We showed up and we started doing. We did two draws right away with no warm-ups, and all of a sudden the draws were 25.9, 25.2. The jumps just felt great. We were all just trusting each other and enjoying each other and going for it.”

“Before Nationals even started,” she continued, “I think the four of us were just so happy to be back in this place. Of course, we wanted to win Nationals for a decade. But at this moment, we were just stoked that we had reached our goal to get back to the 2017 level, and now we could actually be competitive.”

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Striving

Finally, it arrived: round one. Rhythm was on the first load. There were low clouds rolling in. Lefkowitz remembers chomping at the bit to get out of the plane. “The jump was awesome,” she said, grinning. “It just felt so smooth, so together. It felt exactly like all the practice jumps.” She remembers tracking away and the warmth of the morning sun spreading out golden across that layer of cloud, looking like a good portent. She remembers how beautiful it was.

They finished that round one point ahead. Then, like in 2017, they spent the day in a back-and-forth battle with Airspeed. Rhythm got Airspeed by one on round one; Airspeed got Rhythm by two on round two and another on round three; Rhythm got a point back on the next one. The trend continued. Going into round seven, the teams were tied.

“And then, on round seven, we came out, and the exit was almost catastrophic,” she said, cringing. “I was supposed to be below Steve, and I was starting to come up above him. It had this, like, wave in it. It went flat, but we salvaged it.” Videographer Elliot Byrd—who was filling in for Wageman—saved the day. “Elliot is just on it,” she continued. “He got right up over top of it like a champ. When you’re tied, you could probably say this about every detail, but if he hadn’t pulled that off, it might have cost the entire meet.”

Rhythm landed knowing they’d had a rough round. Airspeed, on the other hand, landed knowing they’d had a great one. Airspeed took it by two points. Lefkowitz was encouraged; on their roughest round of the whole meet, Rhythm had lost only two points. She knew they were still in the game. They went home and rested and regrouped for the next day. “We knew that all we needed to do was just keep focusing on what we’d been steadily focusing on for the last four years: the togetherness and the attack and the trust,” she said.

The next morning saw Rhythm tie Airspeed for round eight, and in round nine, Rhythm managed to pick up three points. Now, going into round 10, they were one little point up.

It ended up being a good round. The judges returned a 25 for Rhythm and a 26 for Airspeed. So, 10 rounds in, the two teams were tied with a 26.2 average. That was, quite officially, the best Rhythm had ever done, by 1 full point. So, then the judges called for a jump-off to clear the tie. The jump-off was a three-block round (dive pool numbers 17, 22, 16), eerily similar to the round that cost Rhythm the meet back in 2017.

“It was just so amazing to be here at this point,” Lefkowitz said. “We had been working so hard together for so long and we had tied Airspeed, who had won every single year for the last 13 years.”

She continued, “When you’re in baseball, you imagine what it would be like to be at the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded. This is something I’ve been dreaming about for 10 years, and being tied in round 10, going into a tiebreaker scenario ... it’s a thing of dreams.”

Rhythm proceeded to prep the jump-off under the eyes of every other competitor on the drop zone, for whom Nationals were a done deal. The two teams got into the plane. Airspeed was out first. 

“I remember sitting on the plane with my teammates,” Lefkowitz said, “just feeling so grateful to be there. My whole life, for years, had been leading up to this moment, sitting in that plane with my teammates, about to go do this jump. I just felt so ready, so confident in myself and in my teammates. Everything we had done had proved to me that we were ready to perform the best we could, and I was excited to go do that.”

Airspeed exited. Rhythm approached the door.

“It had that round-one feeling,” she said, “but I didn’t feel like we were nervous. We were confident, trusting, and we went for it. The jump just felt ... happy.”

The team hugged like mad in the landing area, but they didn’t know how it was going to go. “If [Airspeed] beat us, then they were just better than us,” Lefkowitz said, pragmatically. “Simple as that. I wanted to win, sure, but I knew we’d done the best we could and that was that.”

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The breathless team tromped in to watch the judging. It was an excruciating two minutes that felt to the team like hours. Rhythm was judged first. They had gotten to the 22nd point but, with a bust, ended up with 21. Then the panel started judging Airspeed. Airspeed had, as it turns out, also gotten to the 22nd point … but with two busts. On the screen, they had a 20. But then the judges started looking at it again.

“The judges looked at it and looked at it and looked at it,” Lefkowitz said, “and we were just gripping each other, waiting. There must have been 400 skydivers in the room, but it was totally silent. Then it posts: They got a 20, and we got a 21. And the whole place just erupted.”

It was one of the most memorable moments of Lefkowitz’s life.

Reaching the Destination

“We have a lot of support as Rhythm,” she said, “and a lot of it is directly related to the fact that we work with a lot of people. For me, that’s been a huge part of what’s kept me going: Helping other people and being involved in other people’s journeys, so that when I’m not having success, someone else that I’m working with is. And that kind of helps me get through it. But I’ll tell you, it was really cool to see all the people that were so excited for us. It reminded me of that part of the journey.”

Afterward, jumpers kept approaching Lefkowitz to tell her the stories of people around the world—people who weren’t at Nationals—putting everything on hold to see the result. At Skydive Chicago, for instance, there was a load of tandems about to go up just as the jump-off was being judged. The tandem instructors were sitting in the boarding area with their phones, refusing to get on the plane until the results were announced, their students looming over their shoulders, equally transfixed after having been told what was going on.

Then, there was longtime friend, Rhythm sponsor and DZO of Skydive Chicago, Rook Nelson, who had his Caravan fueled up and ready to go. “He flew directly to Raeford to be there for the award ceremony with us,” Lefkowitz said, laughing. “Apparently, he was just barely going to make it, so he called [Paraclete XP General Manager] John D’Annunzio and asked him to stall in any way he could, so John pretended there was a technical difficulty. The intermediate awards were just starting, and we heard this plane pull up right in front of the hangar. We peeked out and it was the Skydive Chicago Caravan. We brought him up on the podium. It meant a lot to me, and to us.”

Now Rhythm has the World Championships in August in Siberia to train for. 

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“The agenda is just train our butts off for that and focus 100 percent on Rhythm,” Lefkowitz said, “and that’s what we’re doing right now.” Rhythm is tucking into training again at full bore at Paraclete, Skydive Chicago and Sebastian, knocking out oodles of tunnel time and shooting for between 800 and 1,000 jumps. It’s going to be a serious uphill climb to pull off, but Lefkowitz is ready, Rhythm is ready, and she doesn’t really care what anyone else has to say about it.

“Don’t worry so much about what other people say or whatever other people think,” she said, smiling. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. Just keep doing the right things, and just keep going, and don’t worry about the setbacks. And enjoy.”


About the Author

Annette O’Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.

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