In 1987 she moved to her current home in Torrance, Calif.—"skydiving paradise," Stuart calls it—and continued jumping, mostly doing group formations, such as snowflakes, stars and doughnuts, with four or five jumping buddies. Then she saw a movie that changed her life: a mid-'80s skydiving film called From Wings Came Flight, which showed some of the first footage of aerial freestyle. "When I saw that movie," says Stuart, "it was like discovering a new dimension. Instead of belly to earth, I saw people doing flips and loops and still remaining in total control. I thought of the moves I did as a high school gymnast, and I imagined myself doing them all in midair."
She soon realized how difficult these moves are to master. "Sky divers appear to be weightless," Stuart says. "But when you're in the air, there's a tremendous wind rushing over you. It feels like you're standing on the roof of a car going 120 miles per hour, but the wind resistance is what allows us to do all these moves." To perform while in free fall, Stuart makes subtle motions that manipulate the force of air against her body, rotating her one way or another. Freestyle takes a surprising amount of strength—Stuart compares it with a workout on the rings in gymnastics—and, at the same time, is extraordinarily precise. "If everything isn't perfectly aligned," says Stuart, "you'll fall right out of the move and start whirling around."
Stuart learned all the moves done in Wings and then began inventing her own techniques. She had been practicing freestyle for about a year when she spotted an announcement in a skydiving magazine for the first world aerial freestyle competition. She decided to enter. "I never do anything halfway," she says. "Once I made the decision to compete, I committed myself to it." Stuart embarked on a demanding training regime: "For each move, I studied and practiced until it was polished to perfection. I worked until there was not so much as a bobble." She won the competition and has yet to relinquish her title.
Stuart trains more than other women in the sport. She devotes one week a month and every weekend to practicing for the annual championships, freestyle's biggest event. She makes about 700 jumps a year. She quit her job as an aerospace engineer to allow more time for freestyle and is now setting up a company that specializes in computer graphics and animation. She recently bought a large camper in which she sleeps while at training sites, and she equipped it with a TV and VCR so that she can immediately review the footage of each of her jumps. "She is so committed to creating the best routine possible," says Cottingham, a chemical-process engineer who has also worked as an aerial cinematographer for films, "that I sometimes worry about our overtraining."
Stuart is as dedicated to safety as to flawless routines. She is so exacting when she packs her parachute that she has had to use her reserve chute only once in more than 3,000 jumps. Her worst skydiving injury was a bruised ankle. And her perfectionism is starting to pay dividends. While freestyle competition doesn't offer any cash prizes—"It's how I dispose of my disposable income," says Stuart—she has hopes of continuing to land well-paying skydiving stuntwork for television and movies. But fame and fortune, should they arrive, are not likely to soften Stuart.
"This may seem difficult to believe," she says, "but for this year's championships, I'm going to train even harder."