Shannon Pilcher: Life with an open palm

Friday, March 15, 2019

Above: Shannon exits a helicopter in the Italian Dolomites. Photo by JC Coclasure

A HUMBLE BEGINNING

Photo by Bruno Brokken

Long before Shannon Pilcher was a household name in the skydiving world, he was a small-town Georgia boy born of big-hearted parents. His Dad was a mail carrier and, together, his family managed a property for extra income; Shannon’s job was to clean the carpets. Sheltered within the boundaries of Riverdale, his beginnings were humble and happy, and he wanted for nothing.

An all-American kid, Shannon played most every sport most every year: baseball, basketball, football, even BMX. By the time he got to Riverdale High his boundless energy was focused on basketball and his capable brain was immersed in math and science. The first of his family to go to college. In 1989 he enrolled in the engineering program at Georgia Tech and began pursuing the first of his dreams: To be an architect.

SERENDIPITY

No sooner was he introduced to the Georgia Tech Sport Parachute Club that he found himself at the mystical-sounding (now defunct) Freefall Ranch in Warm Springs, Georgia jumping static line. With just 26 jumps under his belt, his A License in his back pocket, and new-found-turned-lifelong friends Kyle Collins, Ian Bobo, Scott Webb, David van Greuningen and Eric Taylor by his side, he began to compete in the most popular and coveted skydiving events at the collegiate level: 4-way Formation Skydiving.

Competing as Laminar Flow and, later, Team Genesis, Shannon and his pals accomplished the extraordinary. Not only did they win and hold the title as Collegiate Champions of the USPA National Collegiate Parachuting Championship for three consecutive years, but they stole the gold each time from prestigious military teams who had won the collegiate title consistently for decades.

DEFINING MOMENTS

Two years shy of his BS in Building Construction Science, Shannon joined the (then-nascent and now nationally-renowned) New South Construction team as Project Engineer and continued at the firm for a year post-graduation. Despite long working hours accompanied by sleepy close calls on the road home each night, he loved the job and was grateful to his mentors for investing in him.

Deland Genesis – 1998 US Bronze Medalists in 4-Way Open.Photo by Sandy Bobo

He was torn. Skydiving was feeding his soul, but it was riddled with risk. By the time Shannon finished school, he’d broken his back and a year (to the day) later he’d broken his leg. Not long after, his father unexpectedly passed away. Shannon had a pivotal decision to make. Live practically, or live passionately.

He decided to live his life with an open palm.

As became his only predictable pattern, he said yes. Travel the road and you will learn where it leads.

LIVING THE DREAM WITH BOTH EYES OPEN

Shannon, Kyle, Ian and David each scored gigs in the industry and moved South to DeLand to dive in head first to new careers. Shannon began writing for a Skydiving magazine. Kyle and David took jobs with United Parachute Technologies (where they served as integral members of the Vector3 Sport Container design team). And Ian was in systems analysis with Performance Designs, Inc.

Deland PD Blue (the original PDFT). Photo courtesy of Shannon Pilcher

Every day, Shannon and Kyle biked to work, reported for duty at their neighboring offices, ate lunch together, made workaday magic and mischief (including sneaking into each other’s buildings to lace each other’s snacks with paperclips), and then rode on home.

The four of them jumped constantly with the encouragement, subsidy, and sponsorship of their employers. They were young and green, and happy as clams.

And their journey was just beginning.


SIDEBAR: A CAREER OF UNPRECEDENTED PROPORTIONS

(Buckle up; this is mega.)

Starting in 1997, he became a high-caliber skydiving coach and began taking on gigs as a featured speaker. Over the course of the last 21 years, he has coached the Australian, Austrian, Brazilian, British, Canadian, Irish and Norwegian national teams.

He has earned four World Records. In 2000, he was part of a 16-way Formation Skydiving (FS) team, earning 19 points. In 2002 and in 2005, he garnered recognition in the Canopy Piloting (CP) Distance Event with 418 feet and 478 feet, respectively. In 2009, his team took the title for most 4-way formations in 35 seconds.

Shannon has consistently taken first and second place in national and international competitions since the early 2000s. In 2003, he served as an alternate on the DeLand Majik team at the US National Championships in Lake Wales, FL where they placed first in the FS 4-way Open event. In 2004 DeLand Majik took the same title at the World Skydiving Championship in Croatia.

Deland Fire skydiving team winning gold
Deland Fire receiving the gold medal for winning the 2005 Malevsky Cup

In 2005, while jumping with the PD Factory team, he placed second overall in the CP World Games in Germany. Simultaneously fulfilling his alternate role with the DeLand Majik team, which took first place in the 4-way FS event. At the 2005 US Nationals in Perris, Shannon jumped with a new team – DeLand Fire. Which ultimately won the FS 4-way Open event after a nail-biting jump-off round against the US Army’s Golden Knights, earning his team the right to represent the USA at the 2006 World meet in Germany. He was also first overall at the King of Swoop in Spain as well as at the Texel Beach Swoop in the Netherlands. This same year, no surprise, he was named Skydiver of the Year by Skydiving magazine Readership Poll.

PD Factory Team
The PDFT wins overall gold at the 2003 Pro Swooping Tour. Photo by Francisco Neri

In 2006, he dominated the competition at the US Nationals in New Jersey (CP, first place) and in Eloy, AZ (FS 4-way Open, first place). He also placed first in the FS 4-way Open at the World Championship in Germany. In 2007, he again conquered the CP event at the US Nationals this time in Chicago. And placed first in CP at the European Swoop Tour in Norway.

He continued to instill anxiety in the competition in 2009. Taking first in the CP event at the Last Big Splash Swoop Comp in Polk City, FL, second in CP and second in FS at the US Nationals in Spaceland, TX. In 2010, Shannon’s last major competition year, he took first in the CP Distance event at the 2nd Gulf Cup in Dubai and second overall for CP at the US Nationals in Spaceland.

2006 World Parachuting Championships. Deland Fire won gold. Photo by Jojo Priedemann

GROWTH MINDSET

Between 1996, when Shannon moved to Florida, and 2010 when he stepped away from career competition after a severe accident, Shannon and his team made skydiving headlines the world over. Consistently performing at the pinnacle of the sport. In 2002 Shannon and Ian established the PD Factory Team, history’s most recognizable high-speed canopy flight team. Made famous beyond skydiving circles by the documentary film, Sky Jumpers, the team swooped some of the world’s most picturesque and awe-inspiring locations, including the Fjords of Norway, the Dolomites, Mont Blanc, the Grand Canyon and the Swiss Alps.

Ahead of the PD Factory’s founding, Canopy Piloting was a new discipline; the rules, technology, and criteria for competition were still forming. Once established, and uber popular, Shannon, Ian and fellow PD Factory team members JC Colclasure, Jonathan Moledzki and Johnathan Tagle saw the need to formalize an advanced canopy flight curriculum and in 2006 officially launched the Flight-1 Canopy School.

In the last 12 years, Flight-1 has grown, expanded and revolutionized the skydiving industry. Comprised of the field’s most elite professionals, today Flight-1 is an internationally-respected skydiving school that teaches civilians and military parachutists how to better navigate and land their parachutes. Sanctioned by the US Military, Flight-1 facilitates the training of special operations forces charged with completing covert operations. The curriculum is also valued in several NATO countries, including England, Germany and Canada, and Norway and Australia are soon likely to engage.

The PD Factory Team flying over the Grand Canyon. Photo by JC Coclasure
The PD Factory Team flying over the Grand Canyon. Photo by JC Coclasure

Ever humble, Shannon attributes the accomplishments of Flight-1, the PD Factory Team, or indeed any other teams on which he has served, to the special group of brothers he’s been jumping with since the early days. He’s grateful for each of them, proudly speaks of their individual contributions, and graciously shares the credit.

NEW HORIZONS

In 2006, Shannon met Sharon Har-Noy at Skydive Arizona. Then a member of the Israeli Freefly Team, she was already a decorated and internationally-revered skydiver. In 2008 at the World Championships in France they became friends, and at the same event in Russia in 2010 Shannon realized he was falling for her.

The next month, he nearly died on a snow field in the Swiss Alps. And six months later, she found herself in DeLand with her own feelings beginning to blossom.

The Pilcher family! Shannon, Sharon and Arya. Photo by Shannon Pilcher

They married in 2015 and within a year were expecting a sweet baby girl. Not yet a year old, baby Arya is a world traveller. She has been embraced by Shannon and Sharon’s global skydiving family and already has visited seven European cities. Shannon and Sharon live in gratitude for their fulfillment. They recognize it’s not a lifestyle easily won and they are thankful that Arya will to have the opportunity to be enriched by it. Together, they improvise and adapt, all the while enjoying the journey.

CHANGE OF PACE

Throughout his career, Shannon has been fortunate to have been mentored by some of the sport’s most beloved and accomplished athletes, including Jack Jefferies. After Jack earned his Master’s in Organizational Development from American University in 2002 he shared its personal and professional affect with Shannon, who was intrigued.

In 2010 Shannon was no longer skydiving competitively and Flight-1 proving successful on an international scale. He was carefully considering his next chapter. His introspective nature and reputation for being a problem solver and trustworthy resource drew Shannon to himself explore Organizational Development (OD). A behavioral science that helps people navigate change. Based on the notion that the human system knows itself better than any expert can illuminate, OD upholds the idea that the solution to any problem lies within.

In 2013, armed with a generous recommendation from Jack, Shannon began pursuing his Master’s in Organizational Development at American University. One of the top three OD programs in the country, AU’s grad degree program is cohort-based and reliant on experiential learning. In 2015 Shannon completed the program and immediately got to work as a consultant, quickly witnessing powerful results.

Above: Shannon speaking at American University during graduation having received his Masters in Organizational Development. Photos courtesy of Shannon Pilcher.

From small, local organizations to those international in scope, Shannon applies his rich and widely varied school-of-life education with his formal degrees and is making a profound impact. He is dedicated to helping people at all levels of an organization understand that they have choices.

His message is simple. What’s next is up to you; you cast the stone that creates ripples for a lifetime.

MAKING MEANING OF CONVERSATION

Following more than 20,000 jumps over the course of 27 years in tandem with his significant time spent training, speaking and consulting across the world, Shannon has engaged in countless, incredible, life-changing conversations. Some are sensitive, others are broadcast-worthy, and he carries them all with him into each new day. He feels fortunate, perhaps even guilty, to be the sole beneficiary of such powerful sentiments.

And so Shannon has decided to share his seat at this table so often populated by greatness. Having built a studio in his Florida home, Shannon is producing a bi-weekly podcast and an accompanying blog. Called Choices, the goal for the show is to encourage listeners to harness courage, embrace vulnerability, feel empowered to take a measured risk; to consciously choose the ripples they introduce to the water.

The podcast is not by skydivers for skydivers, and it’s not by successful people for the successful. It’s deliberately designed to be for everyone. Those who have fought and won and those who are struggling to overcome. Six of his so far 10 guests have been skydivers and his list of who will be featured next is long. He hopes his audience will play an active role in the show’s direction, suggesting guests and initiating connections. He also hopes it will enable him to open a public portal to some of the world’s greats.

AN INTENTIONAL LIFE

Today, the lion’s share of Shannon’s time is spent “on the road”. Personally enacting the Flight-1 mission and consulting with organizations around the world as they navigate major change. When at home, he’s either in the studio making Choices or on the floor with baby Arya, living life in the little moments.

When Shannon thinks of his future, he feels confident his plan is in line with what everyone wants but won’t admit. He wants to work less.

In an ideal world, if everything else was taken care of, he would spend his days writing, speaking, podcasting, skydiving solely for pleasure, and traveling the world with his wife and daughter just for fun. He is casting stones of simplicity and fulfillment.

For now, he will continue to lean into all of the glorious opportunities life sends his way. Ever growing, always open, unrelentingly grateful.

YES. To all of it, the answer is yes.

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