Catching Up With Olav Zipser

Friday, October 6, 2017

Some Things You Might Not Know About Olav Zipser, The Inventor of the Discipline

If the sport of skydiving had a heart, Olav Zipser would be its left ventricle. For thirty years–and in, arguably, more ways than any other human has been able to do, this powerhouse human has pumped freshness and life and vitality out into the skydiving world. So far, he has innovated an entire discipline, founded skydiving schools on three continents and been the first civilian to skydive from the stratosphere. Not only is Olav a multiple-time world champion–medals that share shelf space with his Emmy award–but he has trained multiple world champions. Oh: He also invented the space ball. And he’s training to be an astronaut.

If You’re Not Freeflying Your Mind, You Aren’t Freeflying

Even if you know all that about Olav Zipser already, there’s a good chance there are still a few things you don’t know. (This is pretty much the most interesting man in the world we’re talking about, n’est-ce pas?) Here are a few more juicy details for your collection:

1. A little bit of Olav rides with you on every skydive.

“In my early days, I had no AAD, no altimeter, no goggles, nothing. Instead, we had a simple rule: when the things on the ground got bigger, you were supposed to pull. I probably pulled 400 or 500 times–with awful gear, in the 80s–at 1,000 feet. That was a normal thing back then.

olav-zipser-helmut-cloth
Helmut Cloth and Olav Zipser at CYPRES headquarter 2015

I met Helmut when I was already a world champion, back in the early 2000s.  I was already known to be the only one who does this freeflying stuff–but that was before freeflying even had a name. It was long before it was in the magazines; before my schools; before it was popular.  Helmut gave me a big black box to collect the data from my crazy jumps, which I took with me like a tandem. That data showed Airtec all the different possibilities, from going super-fast to super-slow. Because only I flew these early freefly tests, a lot of the useful data which keeps people alive today came from my data. I’m proud of that.”

2. He very nearly didn’t become a skydiver.

“I was born in the middle of Germany, but I didn’t start jumping there. At that time–in 1986–there was too much paperwork, so it was suggested to me that I go to Holland. As luck would have it, I got there during the first weeks of the European test trial of AFF. I was one of the very first students who could appreciate this AFF thing. That was good for me; otherwise, I probably would have stopped. I still hate static line to this day.”

3. If that timing hadn’t worked out, he’d be Olav Zipser, DDS.

Olav Zipser June 1999
Olav Zipser June 1999

“My first job as a young man was as a licensed dental technician. After I learned skydiving, I told my boss that I was going to take a vacation for three months. My AFF instructor had told me that, with my talent, I must go to America–to Zephyrhills, one of the only big dropzones in the world at that time–and pursue my skydiving. My boss did not understand that, so I fired him. He said, ‘You can’t fire me! I’m your boss!’ I said to him, ‘I must have three months’ vacation and then I will come back. Will you keep my job open? Yes or no? If no, you are fired.’ So we both fired each other that day, and I never went back to that job.”

4. He knew he was in it for life by jump number seven.

“My seventh jump was my first true solo. I finished AFF with six jumps instead of the normal seven, and I was full of a sense of possibility. I was only 20 years old. That jump was the first time I had ever felt so independent.

The jump was over Texel, Holland. I remember that it was a complete cloud ceiling. It really changed my life because, up over those clouds, I was utterly alone. I didn’t even see the planet, only the clouds. That picture is still in my mind even 31 years after. I explored swimming in the ocean of air, even if I didn’t call it that at that time. It was just a gut feeling; an inspiration. It was because of that jump that I stopped fixing teeth to come up with my own ideas for flying.”

5. Partying used to shock him.

“I came from a very sheltered dentist family where I had to do whatever father and mama asked. Then, suddenly, I was 20, and I was alone in Florida, deciding for the first time as a young man what my own life would be. I was completely shocked by what the skydiving world at that time was all about–and the whole world in general, maybe. There was a lot of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It was just like I had seen it in the movies, and there I was, part of it. It was a very educational–and maybe even probably a very dangerous–time. You could jump without altimeters; without goggles. We had people, well…not ending up very healthy. Even dying every couple weeks or so. It was a very crazy time. It was the first and the last thing I ever experienced of Woodstock, I think. Honestly, it was fantastic.”

6. There have been a few times he questioned his choice.

Olav Zipser Freefly Clown #1
Olav Zipser Freefly Clown #1 – CYPRES advertising 1999

“I’ve questioned my decision to do this on several occasions. Honestly, is not a clever business choice, even if I did end up trademarking freeflying and founding the first freeflying schools on three different continents. I have developed all the teachers, created the training programs, flying around the world, persuaded air clubs to include this idea as an official discipline. It was a lot of work, and during that time, yes, I doubted many times because the path was never clear in front of me. I just had a deep feeling–a beautiful idea–in my own mind, which makes my path very artistic. Of course, I never quit.”

7. He’s in Africa right now. (You’re invited.)

I’ve been following adventure for 30 years. That’s what brings me to Africa. It is my third try in Africa, to bring free flying.

I work with Skydive 4 Fun in Swakopmund, Namibia. We have a small turbine that goes quick. It’s a beast; it’s awesome. We have something like 20 places in Namibia where we can in-hopp any day we want to: next to a volcano; next to a game reserve; next to a game park lodge. You can jump right into a safari. There’s nothing like this anywhere else in the world.

My main project here in Swakopmund is to bring the first school of modern skydiving to Africa. I see an opportunity to create an African Eloy here. It takes a lot of resources, of course. It’s not America. You can’t go to town and find 20 places you can hit next month to find some support. It’s possible; it just takes a little longer. I’ve been here for six months, and I’m working hard on it. I’ve tried to do this in Botswana and in Tanzania, but those never really got off the ground. Here in Namibia, there’s a chance. It’s working.

8. He used to have his own plane. (Oh–and his own helicopter, too.)

All I want is to keep discovering the world. I want to use the skills I’ve learned in the last 30 years and keep contributing. That might make me a modern hippie or–I don’t know what you call it–but I am definitely not after the money. But I am not changing my life to hunt it down.   Yeah, at one point, I had my own plane and helicopter. I enjoyed it all–but then, one time, I was sitting on the beach in Venezuela, I said, ‘I must minimize. I must minimize.’ So I did. Maybe I minimized too much. I minimized so much that I thought for a moment that I must maximize again.

I need the dollar to survive, but I don’t care about the dollar to survive as a ‘retired’ person. I think that’s all bullshit. One should not wait to live.

Am I happy? Yes. Am I happy all the way? No. But that’s exactly the challenge I want because I get bored. When my stuff goes well, I give it up, or sell it, or go somewhere else. I can’t rest on success. I have only got one life, and I will use up as best I can because no one will live it for me.

CYPRES is proud to count the inimitable Olav Zipser as a core member of our athlete team.

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