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Interview with 2007 US Champion Dean Stratton
By Rob Sporrer for Paragliding Magazine
For the first time in history we had the same pilot win the Rat Race, and also become the US champion. This same pilot broke Tom Truax’s California state distance record in the Owens Valley by flying 147.4 miles just 2 weeks before the competitions. Who is this guy, and where did he come from? Most of his sky tribe on the south coast of California call him “Deano”. Mike Hailey was calling him “Mean Dean Stratton” when handing over the hardware at the two big paragliding competitions this year. Dean is only “mean” when he’s racing his paraglider. You couldn’t ask for a more humble and genuine guy to steal the show. Dean Stratton made paragliding history and this is his story.
Dean Stratton lives in Santa Clarita California. He started paragliding in early 2003 in Santa Barbara California. His father started flying paragliders at the same time and his uncle and two cousins jumped into the sport as well last year. Dean has a long history in competitive sports but paragliding has firmly taken center stage.
He runs his own business, and gets away to fly with the rest of the South Coast Paragliding Association air junkies when the WX looks favorable. The South coast offers him year round flying in the Santa Barbara Mountains, The Topa Topa Mountains in Ojai, and big flights from Pine Mountain (near Ojai) in the summer and fall. Dean got his first 100+ mile flight from Pine Mountain in August of 2005. Pine Mountain is known for its XC potential. Long time South Coast pilot Toni Deleo set a State distance record of 139 miles from Pine Mountain in 1999, snatching Tom Traux’s previous state distance record of 124 miles set in 1994. Tom Truax took the record right back with a flight of 145 miles from Walts Point in 2001. The record has changed hands once again with Dean’s 147 mile flight in the Owens Valley in June 2007. Dean has blogged his California State Distance record in the Owens on the South Coast Paragliding Association forum.
Dean may have been relatively unknown to some of the pilots competing at the events this year but the competition regulars knew he was someone they would be chasing. Dean showed up at the US nationals in Sun Valley last year with a UP Targa 3 competition wing, and finished 5th overall. He spent time training with Airwave team pilot Marty DeVietti and UP team pilot Andy Palmer in the months leading up to the competitions on the South Coast and in the Owens Valley.
There is no doubt that Dean was on a mission to win at the Rat Race and the nationals, he seemed to always be pushing. You would see him leading out, stomping the speed bar and finding the next climb most of the time. This must be why he won four of the six tasks at the Rat Race competition, and found himself racing Franky Brown to goal at the end of the longest task in US National’s history. Frank Brown is a Brazilian pilot who has been flying for 25 years, and was once ranked second in the world. Every pilot who competes at the world level knows Frank Brown.
Let’s get some answers from our new Rat Race and US champion.
Rob Sporrer: Congratulations on your back to back wins at the two premiere paragliding competitions in the US. I imagine it was a bit surreal winning both events. How did you mentally prepare for each day of racing, and did you focus on anything in particular?
Dean Stratton: Surreal is exactly how I’ve been describing the state I’ve been in over the last two weeks. It’s too bad you can’t just walk into Wal-Mart and buy a bottle of Surreal Feel, what a drug…As to mental preparation, I keep it fairly simple. On each task day I do my routine gear setup and mentally map the course once the task is given. For newer comp pilots I can’t say enough about having a mental map of the course line for the day. If you hadn’t had the chance to fly the site prior to the event you’ll be much more efficient in the air and be much less confused when the task begins if you have some idea of where you’re going and what terrain you’ll be flying over. After the gear setup and mental map session what I really FOCUS on is DISTRACTION. That’s a bit of an oxymoron but that’s exactly what I do. Talking with friends or helping newer pilots with comp related questions on launch puts me in a much more relaxed state. There’s plenty of time for stress once you’re in the air.
RS: How long have you been flying a comp wing? Was it an easy adjustment mentally and physically?
DS: I bought my first comp wing, a UP Targa 1, from “Bad” Brad Gunnuscio just before the 2005 Rat Race. Physically I’d say I slid into it like an old comfortable shoe since I’d been wanting more speed. Sure, it was a bit more to handle but I’d been flying a Zoom up until then and it had its own set of behavior problems. So, from a glider management standpoint the upgrade to a comp glider didn’t seem too big. Mentally, however, I believe I was a victim of the old “cart before the horse” scenario. I’ve heard it said many times before, and I’m now a great believer, that if you’re making goal consistently behind the leaders and making confident decisions during the race, the glider is probably holding you back if winning a comp is your desire. If this is not the case then there’s really no GOOD reason to step up to a comp glider. In my case the wing served me more like a crutch rather than a tool to improve my efficiency. I didn’t know how to exploit its potential yet and the big competition picture was still a bit fuzzy. The picture didn’t really take shape for me until the Rat Race in 2006. Soon after Eagle Paragliding put me in a UP Targa 3 just before the 2006 US Nationals in Sun Valley and it was “love at first flight”. I haven’t flown any of my other gliders since then. I even flew it in the Owens Valley this year.
RS: Tell me about your local and favorite flying sites? Were these sites similar to what you had to deal with at the two competitions?
DS: I’m very fortunate to live where I do. I don’t live close to any of the flying sites but I’m central to all of them. I’ve got the Santa Barbara mountain range on the coast an hour and a half to my East for some great winter technical flying, Pine mountain two hours to my NW for summer and fall big air and XC, the very consistent Marshall an hour and a half to my SE which works from spring to winter and is great for working on basic skills, and of course, Owens Valley three hours to the North for big, big air and great XC at select times of the year. I can fly virtually year round if I wanted. The Santa Barbara range and the Owens Valley are still my favorite, the views are unmatched. These sites are very distinct from one another and they’re great preparation for a wide variety of conditions. Santa Barbara is a good prep for the Rat Race and is usually good to fly up until just before the event. Pine Mountain and the Owens Valley, both high deserts, were good training for Lakeview. I feel like I’ve got all the flying I could want at my doorstep, finding the time to take advantage of it is another story…work sucks!
RS: What was the one thing you did consistently well while racing at the two competitions?
DS: I’ll say it, it’s been said many times before, and many more after me will continue to say that a good task start is vital. I was fortunate enough on almost all the tasks to get great starts. A good start sets the tone for the entire task. Get a good start and you’ll have plenty of options to choose from, get a bad start and you’ll spend the entire task catching up, usually making risky moves to do so and ultimately putting you in a stressed state. I might not have gotten to the starts early every time but I did manage to get there in time to join the lead gaggles, and this is where the efficient team work begins.
RS: What are the things you do to try and get yourself in a position to get the best start possible?
DS: Most importantly, I get in the air early enough to give me plenty of time to explore the air and determine where I want to start. Maybe I’ll plan to start upwind of the start cylinder while on launch but find conditions are better suited for a downwind approach once I’m in the air. Again, I like the options that getting into the air early will give me. I used to think I was smarter than the rest by staying on launch until the last minute. After all, why waste energy turning in endless circles when you don’t have too – right! I’m a bit dense and it took several bad starts for me to realize that the consistent race leaders that were always in the air early were actually on to something…HELLO!
RS: You led out quite a bit after climbs. Do you look over your shoulder to see if the rest of the leaders are starting a climb, or are you just focused on the terrain or clouds ahead in order to find your next climb?
DS: Most of the time my focus is straight forward if I’m high or very familiar with the terrain. If conditions along the course line change, get ugly, or I get real low my head is spinning like a top looking for options, but I try to hold the course as much as possible. I’ve learned the hard way that indecision costs you both time and altitude so I try to plan two or three moves in advance and commit to that line with minor course corrections along the way. Usually it works out but I’m certainly no stranger to landing out. There were a few occasions during the Rat Race, that I’m sure other pilots witnessed, that could’ve turned ugly and put me on the ground early. Luck is always a good wingman to have around when you need him.
RS: How do you keep your cool when you get low and need to find that climb to stay in the ball game?
DS: I wish I had a great answer for that but I’m still fighting my patience demons in flight, it’s something I’m trying to work on. Usually when I find myself low I’m not alone and I’m inspired to stay in the game by others struggling as much as myself. Put me in that same situation all alone and my mind starts to think about all the great ice cream that might be had at the little store below me if I landed out. I’ve seen some flight decks where pilots have put inspiring notes to themselves for their flight. Words like “Believe” or “Never Give Up” are popular and the notes are a smart idea. I think I’ll do the same but my note will read “Free ice cream at GOAL”.
RS: What did you learn while racing at the two events?
DS: I came away from the competitions with a few thoughts. First, I learned that I’ve still got a lot to learn about this amazing sport that we’re all very fortunate to have found. Secondly, sometimes things just seem to work out heavily in your favor and what may work one day may not work the next. I have to be ready to change gears quickly. Last, but most important, I’ll never underestimate my competitors. Just when I thought I’d given them the slip during a task I’d look over your shoulder and there they were, bearing down on me.
RS: Any last comments?
DS: Winning one event fulfilled one of my paragliding dreams, the second was a surprise bonus. The ultimate for me is making the US team and I’m going to work very hard to try and make it happen for 2009. If you’re reading this and these dreams sound very familiar, then all I can say is put yourself in good position for it to happen, the laws of attraction certainly apply here. For the last 3 years I’ve read, cut and copied every article I could find related to competition from our PG and HG publications and websites. I also strongly suggest you pick up a copy of the Dennis Pagen book called “The Secrets of Champions”, it’s loaded with great tips. With a good bank of information and strong flying skills you’ll be ready for the last ingredient; the best equipment you can afford. Len Szafaryn wrote in a previous article, and I absolutely agree, that you should buy the very best equipment available that could give you the edge you’ll need to pull off a win. As I mentioned earlier I love my UP Targa 3, I’m completely confident and comfortable flying it. I bought my first pod harness this year, the Woody Valley X-Rated 4, and I believe it too has given me another slight edge that I didn’t have before. Eagle Paragliding also provided me with a Flytec 5030 before the events. After flying with the 5030 at both events I feel foolish for not having one sooner. I used to think it was an unnecessary item but I was completely wrong. It cut my flight instrument stress and workload to a fraction of what it used to be, it virtually does everything for you. I know the 5030 and 5020 aren’t cheap but knowing what I know now I’d pay double for it. Just one GPS mistake can ruin your day and potentially destroy your chances for a good standing at the end of the event. Trust me and buy one, you won’t regret it. I hope I have inspired some of you to jump into the competition scene. Besides making you a better pilot it will boost our overall talent pool and give us a stronger field in the competitions which will in turn make us all better pilots. I’m hoping to see some new faces at the next competition.
The way things are shaping up for the worlds in Valle 2009 is quite interesting. Valle is a frequent haunt of American pilots in the winter, and most fly the Monarca Open which is held there every January. The US has a good shot of getting another American on the podium in 2009, and I know Deano is up for the challenge.