Tips for Staying Calm from a Professional Skysurfer
Sean MacCormac says the keys to his success are ballet and breathing through the panic
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Sean MacCormac is 45 years old with three kids and a mortgage. But that’s not going to keep him from jumping out of airplanes. A legend in the skydiving world, MacCormac specializes in the bizarre niche of skysurfing, where he drops from 10,000 feet on a snowboard. He’s been named the national champion in the sport multiple times and won X-Games gold in 1996. Over the years, he’s trained Navy SEALs in skydiving and performed stunts in blockbusters like Iron Man 3 and the 2015 Point Break remake. More recently, his job has only gotten more out there: he’s taken to the skies as a member of the Red Bull Air Force, a gig that has him skysurfing through thunderstorms while being filmed.
“There’s no more surreal landscape than the sky,” MacCormac says. “And jumping through clouds is the most magical thing in the world. You’re shooting towards a cloud at 100 miles per hour, flying along a face, and you’re seeing all these different colors that you don’t see anywhere else. And then there’s lightning, and the whole cloud around you illuminates. It’s terrifying and beautiful at the same time.”
MacCormac, who grew up in New York City and raced motorcycles as a teenager, discovered skydiving when he was 18. “I was not this ‘no fear,’ gung-ho guy, but when I jumped out of that first plane, I had this moment of realization that this is where I’m supposed to be,” MacCormac says. “I was quiet when I landed. It silenced me. I had this real spiritual feeling.”
And that was just the beginning. MacCormac soon started to pursue skysurfing, a significantly more dangerous version of skydiving because you have to manage the board strapped to your feet, which MacCormac says acts like a huge foil. It takes strength, acrobatics, and creativity to master, but once you learn how to maneuver the board, it gives you unprecedented control. “Eventually, it becomes a wing and a propeller that does all the work,” MacCormac says. “I can use it to go faster or slower if I want a longer flight.” One of his signature moves is the “Invisible Man,” where he holds a spin for 15 seconds while his body completes 12 rotations per second. When he was first perfecting the trick, g-forces caused capillary damage in his hands that resulted in temporary paralysis.
To handle the physical and mental requirements of his flights, MacCormac trains constantly, working out at least five days a week and focusing mostly on strength work and yoga. His goal is to be fast and flexible, much like more grounded adventure athletes. “I’m 45. I’m at an age where things typically fall apart,” MacCormac says. “I don’t care if you’re a skydiver or an Uber driver, if you have any hopes of being physical as you get older, you’re going to need to train. There’s no quick pill for flexibility or endurance.”
“I don’t care if you’re a skydiver or an Uber driver, if you have any hopes of being physical as you get older, you’re going to need to train.”
MacCormac puts a premium on flexibility in particular, because he says being bendy helps mitigate the damage of bad landings and painful parachute openings. He practices yoga for an hour and a half twice a week and performs daily 15-minute stretching tune-ups. He especially likes heated Bikram yoga for his long sessions—he says the added element of heat helps loosen up his joints. But his suggestion for athletes who really want to take their range of motion to the next level? Ballet. “I was forced to take a ballet course while in theater school after high school,” MacCormac says. “Stretching at the barre let me find a lot of strength throughout my range of mobility. It changed everything. I can still do the splits at 45. Find a stretching routine and do it every day. A little bit every day is better than a lot once a week.”
Still, MacCormac says the mental requirements of skysurfing are even more demanding than the physical aspects. “You need to be ultra-present and available to react and learn from every situation,” MacCormac says. “Each jump is 60 seconds long, so you’re trying really hard to survive for that 60 seconds, and then take away every lesson you can from the experience.”
The consequences of losing focus during skysurfing might be more dire than losing focus during a trail run, but MacCormac’s visualization and breathing techniques can certainly be applied to earthly pursuits. He spends each prejump plane ride visualizing exactly what he will try to execute during his 60-second flight, repeatedly working over the moves in his mind, a technique many downhill skiers and mountain bikers use. MacCormac pays special attention to his breath, trying to mimic the smooth, easy breathing he’ll need midflight while spinning at 12 revolutions per second. “You’re trying to make seconds feel longer,” he says. “The information you’re taking in during fractions of those seconds needs to be so much more than what you’d normally see in a blink of an eye.”
MacCormac’s breathing technique is circular—the bottom of the breath leads seamlessly into the top of the breath without any pause. He carries that round breath pattern throughout his prejump visualization and into his flight, regardless of the circumstances. “This kind of preparation costs me nothing, and I can overtrain it as much as I want,” MacCormac says. “Doing those rounds of visualization and breathing is how I manage panic when a malfunction has me spinning around and I’m about to pass out.”
Skysurfing is a precarious proposition, and MacCormac says his own relationship to risk management has evolved over the years. He no longer does research and development, which previously had him test-flying products for companies and the military. (His worst injury, which resulted in multiple fractures to the face, came from testing a parachute prototype when he was 19.) But MacCormac says he won’t stop pushing the envelope during his flights, because the reward is worth the danger. “Anytime you’re in a high-stakes experience, it makes you become extremely present in every aspect of your life,” he says. “I think you see more colors. You feel more love. You feel less hate. Nothing puts shit in perspective like falling from 10,000 feet.”