Luckily, skydiving videographer Elliot Byrd doesn’t let his gender keep him down. “I am an Open Female Champion in 4-way skydiving,” he grins. “And I have the gold medal to prove it.”
The road to that gold medal was a long one – and a shared one, too. Elliot shares his gold-medal status with his wife and teammate, Lauren Byrd. The team that made that storied podium is the all women’s 4-Way FS team Phoenix XP, based right here at Skydive Paraclete XP, and they’ve taken the sport by storm since they swooped in to fill the gap created by the Female Golden Knights’ disbandment. Elliot’s position on the team is that of their official skydiving videographer cameraperson (okay: cameraman) – a job he loves, but took a very different road to get there than other camera-wielding skydivers at his level.
But perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning.
Elliot lived in Vermont until he hit high-school age and was shipped off to a boarding school in Connecticut. From there, he went to college in Colorado. That’s where he started accelerated free fall training (AFF): at Denver’s Mile High Skydive Center. As a starving student, unfortunately, he was only able to make a few jumps there. “I saved up through college to get my license,” he explains, “and once I graduated, I couldn’t find a job in the Front Range that would support skydiving as well as everything else. Then I got the opportunity to be part of a startup in North Carolina that my brother was involved in, so I made the move to NC.”
When he moved to NC, one of the first things he did was to look for a dropzone. He found one – Triangle Skydiving Center – about a 45-minute drive from his new home. Luckily enough, the dropzone was also local to the woman who would become the love of Elliot’s life. When he showed up for his refresher course ground school, there was Lauren – right there in the classroom. Interestingly, sparks did not fly. In fact, by Elliot’s own admission, Lauren “didn’t really care for [him] at the first impression”, but the two became good friends and started dating a year after that meeting. In any case, no more powerful incentive to skydiving was ever known to man (or woman, for that matter).
As love was budding and the funds were finally available to find his skydiving stride, Elliot found traction in the working world. He was doing marketing at a ten-person company, carrying out big data analysis contracts for the military. After that gig, Elliot worked with a couple of different startups until the inevitable mergers or buyouts, then settled into work at a big clinical research firm. Lauren was working as a CRA in a clinical research organization, so she traveled around the country to various doctors’ offices that were conducting clinical trials and make sure they were following protocol; Elliot worked for a company that was a competitor. “We were working against each other for two years,” he laughs, “And Lauren is really competitive.”
Elliot’s background in marketing started to manifest itself as his skydiving progressed. Already facile and skilled in the art of social media, product presentation and curation, the good stuff coming out of the camera on his head during jumps was starting to get some attention – though he didn’t think much of it at the time. “I was one of those people that strapped a GoPro on my head,” he smiles. “I wasn’t shooting dedicated video. It was more of a happenstance: I have a GoPro on here, so I am going to film stuff.”
Elliot’s first time ever really doing dedicated video was, uniquely enough, at the USPA Nationals in 2013 – and it was kinda-sorta an accident. It was Lauren’s first time going out for 8-way at a big competition, and Elliot had some big plans cooking.
“I thought it would be a good idea to propose to her at the Nationals,” he explains. “It was not a good idea. I don’t recommend it to anyone, but that’s a story for another time. Anyway, I had told a couple of friends I was going to do it, so they could take pictures, and I told her team captain to make sure I wasn’t going to interfere. Word got around that I was going to be there. A friend reached out and asked me – since I was going to be there anyway – to be the skydiving videographer for his team. I had never flown 4-way video – or any dedicated video, actually – but I figured why not. So my first dedicated video jump was the first round of Nationals that year.” Suffice it to say though: Lauren said yes (and married Elliot during a skydive, to boot).
Elliot had also found a new artistic, athletic and entrepreneurial outlet. “I decided I really like doing this video stuff,” he smiles. “It is cool; it is something I am decent at. I didn’t get any video busts that first year, so I figured I would pursue it more. From there, I pursued any team that would have me the following year so I could continue to pursue video flying.”
That was the way of things until December of 2016: work all week, jump all weekend. At that point, the couple had been jumping at Paraclete for about a year and a half, making the hour-and-a-half commute from Durham every weekend. It was starting to be a real drag – and an unmissable opportunity suddenly popped up on the horizon. Lauren is a competitive 4-way athlete, and the reigning American team in that discipline – the female Golden Knights – were retiring. Lauren had the idea of putting an all-female 4-way team to be the US representative in the female category. The team was to be called Phoenix XP. Elliot was to be the designated skydiving videographer for them.
“We had been wanting to quit our jobs and go full-time, but pulling the trigger on that kind of life change is a difficult thing to do,” Elliot says. “With the Knights retiring, we saw this opportunity – to make it onto the US National team! – that doesn’t come around very often. So we quit the jobs, got a house in Raeford, and moved down in February. She held tryouts for Phoenix, and they put a team together.” And then, just like that, Phoenix XP were the best all-female team at Nationals. They were on the US National team. Boom.
While Lauren was putting Phoenix XP together, Elliot was busy founding Byrd’s Eye Studio to focus on the editing side of the skydiving video production world. “I had been editing videos ever since I strapped a GoPro to my head,” Elliot explains, “so starting a business doing skydiving videography editing was the next logical step. I am shooting video anyway, why not offer editing services as well.”
“There are a lot of amazing events going on in this sport,” he continues, “that nobody knows about, because nobody is out there telling the story of the event. You will see a picture or two on social media, but nothing substantial that shows people what an event is really about. I thought that I could fill that gap with Byrd’s Eye Studio. My aim is to do ‘live’ coverage of an event. Post pictures throughout the day, followed by a video edit that sums up the days activities. This way, friends and family of participants back home can follow along -and those who decided not to come can still see everything they are missing. It drives interest and grows events; grows the sport. It’s really satisfying.”
“I am working a lot harder at being a skydiving videographer than I did at any other job,” he continues, “but it is stuff that I really enjoy doing. I live and breathe skydiving. It’s a lot harder than my previous jobs, but a lot more fun – more enjoyable than sitting in an office all day.”
All that might sound like a fairy-tale stretch, but Elliot insists that building a full-time life in the skydiving industry is very doable for the dedicated. And if you’re looking for your own Cinderella (Cinderello?) story, Elliot has some sage advice to get you through the hard parts. “A lot of people get really down on themselves when they don’t get it right away,” he insists. “You have to keep reminding yourself that we all started at the same spot. You have to let yourself make mistakes; let yourself fail. And never, never give up.”