Steve Lefkowitz – From ‘No Thanks’ to ‘No Limits’

Friday, March 22, 2019

Cover Photo and Header Photo by Chris Goller of Gearless Chris Productions

Steve Lefkowitz, Outside Center for SDC Rhythm XP,

has been taking skydiving medals since 2006. (Eleven of those are national podiums, four are international.) To date, he has logged more than twelve thousand jumps, a goodly number of which have been alongside his wife and Rhythm co-founder: the inimitable JaNette Lefkowitz, a founding member of the Women’s Skydiving Leadership Network and also an athlete of significant note. Along the way, Steve has contributed enormously to the sport, whether it be the prodigious amount of top-shelf coaching with which he has leveled up the skydivers who come to him, or through the technological means, he has co-innovated to spread good information even further (more on that later).

…So perhaps it’ll come as a surprise that he pretty much-hated skydiving for a good long time.

Photos by Jakes Akins and courtesy of Steve Lefkowitz

As it turns out, Steve’s star-crossed love story with skydiving started with a decidedly un-star-crossed love story with JaNette. It all starts between 1996 and 2000 when Steve was studying Chemical Engineering at MIT.

“I think like a lot of people that get into Chemical Engineering really like chemistry but don’t want to be in a lab all day long,” Steve muses. “I enjoyed it, but college went on and I started to feel anxious because I had learned a ton, but I hadn’t built anything. Chemical engineers at MIT at the time didn’t build anything; we just made a lot of spreadsheets. I took two courses because I wanted to make things: I took an intro to mechanical engineering course where we made an engine, and I took a woodworking class where I made a stool. I ended MIT with my diploma, my stool, and my engine.”

Luckily, that isn’t completely true. He left that little school in Cambridge with something else: someone extraordinary. JaNette was there at MIT, too, studying Mechanical Engineering. They met at smoothie night at Steve’s fraternity. The magnetism there was instantaneous. She was a lot to keep up with; luckily, Steve is also fast on his feet.

“I always did running, track and pole vaulting,” he says. “Honestly, I was a very mediocre pole vaulter, but I loved it and really enjoyed it. After graduating, I ran 5ks since it’s much harder to find pole vaulting outside of college. I ran about 45 miles a week, every week, religiously.”

Steve Lefkowitz swoops in under his PD Sabre 2 canopy
Photo by AJ Johnson

After graduation,

Steve went into business consulting, and JaNette’s cousin, Hal Spence, introduced her to skydiving with a tandem. She loved it and immediately signed up for her AFF. Steve, who was living in another state but still seeing JaNette at that time, agreed to come along — despite a total lack of interest.

“I didn’t really particularly enjoy it,” he laughs.

“JaNette came down,” Steve remembers, “and her instructor was, like, ‘Wow! You did great! That was awesome! What a good job!’ And I’m sure she did. But when I came down, my instructor just told me, ‘Wipe the snot off your face’ and in my debrief, he told me ‘You didn’t do a count at all. You kicked and flailed for a while. Then you calmed down and then you pulled and landed fine.’ Now that I was an AFF instructor for a while — although I’ve given up that rating since — I know that when a person does the jump and if they pull for themselves and land safely, that’s a huge success. But my instructor really didn’t make me feel that way. Between that and never really being that interested in doing it, I didn’t wanted to continue.”

JaNette, on the other hand, loved it. She jumped for the next three years, as much as she could afford. As much as she could, she went out to the drop zone — joined a team — excelled. Sometimes, Steve would go to the drop zone with her and run.

Turning into skydiving

One fateful day, JaNette won free tunnel time at iFly Orlando in one of her skydiving competitions. When the team went down to Florida to fly the time, Steve came along. If it weren’t for the fact that JaNette’s parents live close by, he insists he wouldn’t even have gone.

Team Skydive Chicago Rhythm XP
Photo by Amanda Kubik

“Back then, when you got tunnel time, you had to get entire blocks,” Steve explains. “You couldn’t alternate with people — or you had to find someone to alternate with you and arrange it yourself. If you had 15 minutes to spend, you had from 7:00 to 7:15 am. You didn’t have 15 minutes out of a half hour.  What that meant was the team couldn’t possibly use all the time they had, and they didn’t have someone to share with. So they said: Steve, it’s just going to run, so get in there.

He did. And — miracle of miracles — he liked it.

“Pretty much immediately, I got to appreciate the athletic challenge — the fun of flying your body and controlling yourself in the wind and being able to move around,” he remembers.

For the next session, when they asked him in, he said yes, no arguing. By later on in the day, he was asking them.  By the end of the weekend, he had logged about 40 minutes — nothing to sniff at, especially for someone who had no intention of doing any.

SDC Rhythm XP exits the Twin Otter
Photo by Adam Elkin

“I remember getting out of the wind the last time and looking at JaNette and saying I’m going to get my license. I’m going to do this,” he laughs. “She looked at me, just shocked. That was the last thing she expected.”

After he had that A-license stamp in his logbook, he was jumping every moment he could. When he was still in business consulting, he’d tell work that he was working from home, go to the dropzone and jump. When he took calls, he’d sprint out to take it in the cornfield, just far enough from the loudspeaker that it wouldn’t blow his cover.

It wasn’t long before he joined a team. (Not with JaNette, of course.)

“She was so much better than me that any team would have JaNette was too good to take me,” he laughs. “Eventually there was a team that — well, honestly, my impression is that they had no other choice. They asked me to join.” In the end, when both teams were done, Steve, JaNette, and one of Steve’s teammates — Laurent Beaudouin — wanted to keep going. They tapped Robert Cromy as a player-coach and started Rhythm.

Steve smiles while putting his skydiving helmet on a little boy.
Photo by Chris Goller

Not content with simply competing, Steve and JaNette — at this time, comparatively quite new — immediately took on the mantle of Coach.

Taking teaching to a new level

“We said: okay, we think we have got some good information,” Steve recalls. “We may not know the most, or have the most experience just starting out, but we can be the most professional. [Everyone on the team] came from professional backgrounds. All of us are working in consulting and business management. One thing we definitely knew how to do was provide a professional product.”

“Then, of course, over the years we’ve learned more and more,” he continues. “Now we are experts — not only able to deliver in a professional way but the content as well. We know our stuff very, very well. Then we said we want to be great at coaching and teaching, not just great at knowing this stuff. It’s one thing to know how to do things, and it is another thing to be a great instructor, explainer and coach. We wanted to set ourselves apart. We didn’t want to be the cheapest – we wanted to be the best.”

Every team debriefs their training, sure — but Rhythm takes that much farther. As a team, they debrief — every time — their instructional performance at coaching events and activities.

“We have a well-defined structure,” he explains, “and, just like everything else we do, we talk about what we can do better, and how can we make our events better. I think that’s huge to making what we have done the best out there — and way better than it was when we started.”

Steve and JaNette give each other a high five in the landing area
Photo by C. Zapla

One of the additional methods Rhythm are using to get their hard- and long-earned knowledge into the skydiving community is one of particular interest to other optimization-minded skydivers: the Rhythm 101 mobile app. This incredibly rich resource puts soup-to-nuts information on a wide swath of topics into a well-designed, simple-to-use ready reference, and should be on every skydiver’s phone. (It’s free!) Rhythm 401 is the perfect mobile companion for any skydiver looking to expand her horizons and learn more about 4way. It has a lot of free functionality — plus, a paid subscription provides access to hundreds of videos.

If you need even more, here’s another great example of Rhythm’s passion for purposeful progression. Justin Wageman — Videographer, new to Rhythm this year — holds a Ph.D. in Education. Last year, when he was a student of theirs, Rhythm asked him to come out and to shadow the team for one of their coaching events and to do a deep debrief. He volunteered his time, came out for the weekend and took extensive notes.  

“He told us here’s what I saw, here’s what you’re doing really well, here’s what you could do better, here’s the leading thought on coaching for sports and the type of thing you are doing,” Steve says. “That, I think, was huge to make us much better coaches. I’m proud that we did that, and I don’t think there is anybody else out there devoting such time to being the best coaches in addition to trying to be the best skydivers they can be.”

More than anything else, that’s what propels Steve, as a skydiver and as a person-at-large. It’s quite evident that the core value Steve is chasing, when it comes down to it, it is the idea of continuous improvement.

“What it comes down to,” he insists, “is getting better and better by continually evaluating your performance and pushing yourself to be a better coach and a better person, as well as a better athlete.”

CYPRES is proud to support Steve Lefkowitz and SDC Rhythm XP. To reach out to the team for coaching, contact them through their website at  Download the Rhythm Skydiving 401 app and Rhythm Skydiving 101 app for iTunes or Android.

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