In The Zone

Page 4 of 7

Amy smiles at the tandem students, smoothes her sleek white suit and takes off her Walkman headphones to chat a bit as the plane makes its way to altitude. Amy's training for this year's competitive circuit, and is up and down all day, rushing from each landing to catch the next plane up.

Her furious pace continues after sunset, when she steps behind the bar at the Bent Prop, where she works during the winter season as bartender. Last night, it seems, several of the skydivers were doing some serious beer drinking. Amy tells Greg and those around her about how Swifty, a British double amputee below the knees, and Punisher, a hulking skydiver from the East Coast, got into a heated arm-wrestling bout, in which Punisher actually lifted Swifty's truncated body off the ground.

The night ended, she says, with a woman cornering Punisher and begging for a kiss. And then the cargo door opens and the plane falls silent. Amy adjusts her goggles and headphones, inches her way to the back of the plane as bodies fall one by one, then casts a sweetly searing last grin over her shoulder as she flips out the door.

While Amy may be every Eloy skydiver's secret crush, Omar Algehelan is revered by his peers as one of the sport's great athletes. His talent has taken him to the very pinnacle of skydiving.

Everyone watches him in the air and on the drop zone. Even at a party held on the alternate landing site, he holds the crowd's attention.

He's handsome, cultivated and multilingual. But, unlike most places in Arizona, the drop zone has lots of people who fit that description. With so many foreign jumpers training during winter months, Skydive Arizona feels like an international summer camp. What sets Algehelan apart is what he can do in the sky.

A DJ spins techno one night as skydivers work their way through a keg, roasting hot dogs over several burn barrels that send embers shooting into the dark desert sky. Omar and the other freeflyers have spent the day competing in a meet, and much to no one's surprise, Omar has taken first in the free-flight discipline he helped pioneer over the last decade. His prize? Not much more than a backpack, discount coupons on equipment and a free latte.

Omar has a home in Eloy and teaches at the Freeflight School he founded in 1998, just five years after his first dive.

Inspired by watching a scene from Moonraker in which James Bond straps on a chute and chases Jaws out of a plane, Omar says he knew right after he made his first jump in Maryland in October of 1993 that he wanted to be a world champion. It was just a matter of time.

Luckily, he had the money to make his dream happen in short order. A silver spoon can be a fast track to the higher echelons of this sport, provided focus and talent are also present.

Omar's the son of a Saudi sheik who was once ambassador to the United States. He grew up in Spain, Brazil and the U.S. and admits he wore "many different hats" before devoting himself to skydiving. After a stint as an equity dealer, Omar ran a sushi restaurant outside of Washington, D.C. Before that, he says he produced a charity concert that raised $2 million for Bosnian children. He says the band Ambrosia reunited at the gig.

Then he went skydiving, and decided he had to become the best in the world.

Within a year, he took second place -- losing the gold by one point -- in a World Freestyle Federation competition in Eloy.

Instead of the aerial square dancing that the tamer relative arm of the sport entails, Omar's freeflight style is like break-dancing at serious speed. He spins, flips and corkscrews through his freefalls. With freestyle, there's a decrease in wind resistance, because jumpers point their heads straight down and "track" through the air by pulling their arms to their sides, rolling shoulders forward and straightening their legs. This allows them to shoot toward the earth at speeds of from 200 to 300 mph.

In a decade, freeflying has become one of skydiving's most popular disciplines, and Omar has been its world champion 10 times -- winning firsts in competitions in Turkey in 1996, Finland and California in 1997, California in 1998, Eloy in 2000 and 2001, and Poland, Chicago and Spain in 2002.

His focus on the sport remains steadfast. Despite the 14,000 jumps he's made in the past 10 years, he's not bored a bit. "It's like going up to a kid who's playing in a sandbox and saying, 'Aren't you bored yet?' I have the biggest sandbox in the world."

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Susy Buchanan