If you asked the little kid version of Jeannie Bartholomew what she wanted to be when she grew up, she’d have said figure skater. As a
teenager, she might’ve said stylist, fitness competitor or renowned cheerleader. She would not have said professional skydiver. Not at age 18, or even at 28. And yet today Jeannie is the top female freestyle canopy pilot in the world and in the US, and is ranked fourth in the world against her male peers.
Together with her husband, Curt, Jeannie owns the The Alter Ego Project Canopy School and is a member of Team Alter Ego Fastrax. Jeannie has more than 8,500 jumps, several ratings and, no surprise, numerous sponsors. SSK is proud to be among Jeannie’s supporters and we are thrilled to have both Jeannie and Curt as members of our family of sponsored athletes. This is Jeannie’s story –
Spirit of Adventure
It was clear from the giddy up that Jeannie would go far … and fast, high and hard. Both of her parents raced cars and motorcycles – an unusual choice for women at the time, and still, really – and they encouraged their kids to stretch their limits and soar.
True to form, Jeannie’s big sister went skydiving right after she turned 18. When five-year-old Jeannie saw the video, she knew that she too would skydive when she grew up. In preparation, little Jeannie jumped off everything, most frequently from the chimney in their backyard. She tirelessly experimented with canopy options – pillowcases, blankets, umbrellas; anything that might slow her down and give her some semblance of control.
While Jeannie didn’t end up skydiving for the first time until age 24, the skills she developed along the way have everything to do with her success in the industry.
When Plans & Pivotal Moments Collide
Growing up in Lodi, CA, Jeannie had year-round access to a number of extra curriculars. She played soccer and baseball (and was the only girl on the team); she did tumbling, gymnastics, cheerleading and ballet. But Jeannie’s heart was in figure skating. She was disciplined – skating daily before school, after school, and after dinner – and aspired to be an Olympic skater. She trained with elite coaches and had the potential to go all the way.
Jeannie’s little brother spent all of his time on the ice too. He was an all-star ice hockey player and, even at age 14, was being recruited by prestigious schools across the country. While away visiting a school of interest, Jeannie and her brother were goofing off around the hotel pool – confidently doing stunts as teenagers do – and, tragically, paid the price. Her brother was seriously injured. All bets were off.
In time, her brother physically recovered, but the accident took an emotional toll on the whole family. Jeannie stopped skating. Even the smell of the ice was triggering. It symbolized the future that they’d both had, but had slipped from her brother’s grasp. One minute the path ahead was clear, and the next they were both without direction. She turned inward.
Not Afraid of Hard Work
At age 16, Jeannie switched gears, channeling her energy into a future she could have more control over. First she got her cosmetology license and rented a booth at a salon. Then, within a year – and with the support of her family – harnessed her independence and savings and moved out. She went to class, to cheer, to work. Rinse; repeat. She relished in the routine of her own making and the opportunity to redefine herself.
Before graduation, she took on a second job: retail. Before long, she was promoted to management and traveled nationwide opening stores and learning the industry. She began to study Fashion Merchandising and, realizing fashion was more hobby than career, switched to Kinesiology and Nutrition. She added a personal training certificate to her portfolio of credentials and started competing in fitness … and opened a cheerleading company. (Jeannie does nothing halfway.)
Jeannie went on to join the United Spirit Association (USA), one of largest cheerleading companies in the country. As head instructor, Jeannie ran clinics and camps all over the US. Her personal passion was to recruit teenage boys who lacked purpose and guidance. Many who joined the program went on to attend college on cheerleading scholarships.
Time to Fly
At age 24, Jeannie made good on the promise she’d made to herself at five. Following in her sister’s footsteps, Jeannie did her first tandem at Lodi. Two days later she did her second. She signed up for AFF, completed all seven jumps in one day, and learned how to pack. But she wanted more. She’d been trained to go all in, and so before she barreled forward she wanted to go deep.
She called Skydive Magazine with the aim of buying “every book about skydiving” they had. Mike Truffer answered the phone and not only gave Jeannie guidance on next steps, but he also sent Jeannie a box of books at no charge.
Jeannie followed Mike’s good advice, but unfortunately was paired with a bad apple. After a solid day of ground school with a great instructor, Jeannie was irresponsibly talked down by a different instructor who was both a misogynist and egotist. She landed with her heart in her throat, her knuckles bloodied and her tailbone bruised. He declared, “You’d better stick with cheerleading; you’ll never stand up a landing.”
Well, you don’t tell Jeannie Bartholomew that she can’t do something. Those unkind words were all she needed to light the fire that continues to burn bright within her. She vowed that day that she’d land a parachute better than he ever could.
That’s What I Want To Do
Then Jeannie met Wyat Drewes.
She was terrified under canopy and so, at 50 jumps, went to Skydive San Diego for a canopy course with Wyat. She watched in awe as Wyat – at that time one of the best object swoopers in the world – came in at 100 mph. Everything came into focus for Jeannie: “That! That’s what I want to do. I will be a canopy pilot.” And so it was …
In 2008, with only two years in the sport, Jeannie resigned from United Spirit Association, moved to DeLand with Mirage Systems, succumbed to also fulfilling a cheerleading job at Stetson University (and then led the collegiate team to championship), and jumped, swooped and, later, coached every weekend to her heart’s content.
Go Big …
A few years into life in DeLand, Jeannie’s future looked radically different from the view at the top of the USA pyramid. With support from Jay Moledzki, Greg Windmiller and her beau, Curt Bartholomew, her competency and skills as a skydiver and competitive swooper were progressing exponentially. Advancing to the national or international stage would require that she take more than the weekend to train.
In 2015, Jeannie left Mirage and turned pro. Everyday was dedicated to coaching, training and competing. By then, she and Curt were official and income enough for two was slow at first, and the comp circuit was fast and furious. They scrimped and saved, camping out and eating in while competing so they could make rent back home.
It was worth every sacrifice.
… Get the Goods
Today Jeannie is a US Parachute Team Member, holds 19 state and national canopy piloting records in speed and distance, and has a list of hella impressive comp results as long as your arm. Those of which she is most proud include taking 3rd in Saudi Arabia at the 2019 Swoop Freestyle International Open, placing 4th in Freestyle at the World Cup in South Africa in 2019 (she was also the top female freestyle pilot), and winning the 2017 Italian Swoop Tour.
The Alter Ego Project Canopy School boasts 15 instructors who coach canopy piloting across 16 different countries in many different languages. The School trains more students per year than any other canopy piloting institute in the world. In fact, Curt and Jeannie themselves coach between 900 and 1000 students per year.
Jeannie does. not. stop. These days it’s coach, train, compete. Rinse; repeat. Year-round. Every life experience has gotten Jeannie to where she is today. All of the sports and activities … the highs and lows … the guidance she gave, and that which she took. It’s all paid off in spades.
Next, she aims to surpass her place as one of the top female freestyle competitors in the sport and to be among the best of the best, male or female. Something suggests that she’s not far off …
You Are The Future
Jeannie perceives the future of skydiving as bright. Coming up, she was inspired by Kaz Sheekey, Jessica Edgington and Diana Blackburn, and now there are numerous female skydivers who are advancing the sport and setting a strong example for the next generation of greats.
What’s more, Jeannie is encouraged by the attention and respect canopy piloting has earned on the international stage. With Swoop Freestyle now having its own FAI event and Air Sports Group championing Swoop, the discipline has grown in popularity and more people are thinking about the importance of CP skills. Jeannie shared, “People spend time perfecting their freefall game to be a badass skydiver, but the injuries are happening on landing. Retaining people in the sport means improving curriculum and training for canopy flight.”
Having spent her entire life either being coached or coaching others, Jeannie is a staunch advocate for the important role of solicited support: “What you learn in one arena is directly transferable to the next; it’s comprehensive. Failure is an opportunity to grow. If you lack confidence, you need patience, compassion and empathy – in skydiving, of course, and in other areas of life. When you strive toward peak performance, you have to build your self esteem. When you believe in yourself, you can do anything.”
Keep doing what you’re doing, Jeannie. It’s working! We are grateful to you for sharing your story and for blazing a trail so many others will be inspired to follow. Blue skies! Or as you would say – Pink Skies!!