Jeff Wells remembered being amazed by a skydiving team during Cheyenne Frontier Days.
Wells, a Sheridan WYO Rodeo board member, was impressed with the feats displayed by the Leap Frogs, the United States Navy Parachute Team. When the time came to think of new options to kick off the rodeo this summer, Wells asked about bringing the Leap Frogs to Sheridan.
His inquiry didn’t pan out, but this year’s rodeo will seemingly feature the next best thing: the Valor Skydiving duo of Jim Woods and Trevor Thompson, two former Leap Frogs and retired Navy SEALs.
Wells believes the new divers will fit in with past introductory performers.
“We’re in the entertainment business, so we’re always looking for ways to change things up, make things a little different and yet keep with the core of having a rodeo,” Wells said. “… When you have military with experience, they bring a little different flavor to it. It’s really emotional. It’s an emotional time for a lot of our crowd. It’s really unique and patriotic … Rodeo and the American Dream, patriotism, they kind of all go hand in hand.”
Woods spent 21 years in active duty service as a Navy SEAL and now works as a safety and training officer for the navy parachute team in San Diego.
Woods said his time on the Leap Frogs provided invaluable experience and ignited his passion.
“I honed my skills there and have continued doing that for years,” Woods said.
He has skydived for 35 years and totaled more than 20,000 jumps. Woods has sustained a few injuries in his more than three decades but never stopped jumping.
“It’s kind of like guys who go out rock climbing on the weekends or guys who go hang gliding or parasailing or scuba diving,” Woods said. “When you find a passion and you find something that you’re good at, it’s kind of, there is an adrenaline rush draw to it … People choose their thrill, you know what I’m saying? I think my thrill is the excitement of what I’m doing.”
To start four days of rodeo action, Woods and Thompson will jump out together and build a two-parachute formation, then tether an American flag between them and maneuver the flag around for a horizontal and vertical display before ultimately landing separately.
As one of only a few teams in the world that has mastered this specific craft, Woods said it requires an immense amount of training to pull off the complicated maneuver.
“It can take hundreds and hundreds of jumps to build the proficiency level to actually jump out of an airplane and land safely on a target inside an area like the rodeo,” Woods said. “You try to add that on top of, you gotta do quite a bit of jumps to be able to fly two parachutes together without it tangling and dying, and then you add a flag between that. I don’t think there’s a jump number for that, but there’s definitely an experience level and a maturity level to be able to pull stuff like that off.”
Woods also has a connection with Dana Bowman, the amputee skydiver who kickstarted the Sheridan WYO Rodeo for the past several years. They met in Panama in the early 1990s — at the time, Bowman was in the Army and Woods in the Navy — and kept in touch over the years.
Despite the similarities, Woods doesn’t view his job as taking the place of Bowman.
“When I look at what Dana does and what Dana’s program is and what he represents, that’d be a hard guy to replace,” Woods said. “I’d like to think of it more as the rodeo just wants to spread the love around a little bit.”
Indeed, Wells said the board hasn’t decided its plans for future years. It may invite Valor Skydiving back, ask Bowman to return or go a different direction again.
Regardless of how many times he participates, Woods is honored to begin the event this year.
“At the end of the day, it’s about the rodeo,” Woods said. “It’s about the people there and what they represent and their great sport … That’s why everybody’s there, so the fact that we can open it up with a patriotic parachute demonstration and stand there as veterans and patriots of our great country, I think that’s awesome.”
The introduction to this year’s rodeo will look a little different, but it will retain its militaristic flair for the dramatic.
Editor’s note: This story was published in 2019 Destination Sheridan, Sheridan WYO Rodeo. Read more online, pick up a complimentary copy of the magazine at The Sheridan Press or find it in businesses and racks across Sheridan County.