At 9:15 this morning three reserve parachutists leaped from an Air Force Reserve plane with the puzzle pieces for the National Jigsaw Puzzle Championships finals strapped to their chests. Until just before the jump, the pieces had been locked in a bank vault here, keeping their new die cut and design a secret.

Welcome to the National Jigsaw Puzzle Championships, the largest meeting of jigsaw puzzlers in the world and the only event of its kind, which slated 425 participants in the timed singles and doubles competitions, with $1,000, $750 and $500 going to the first-, second- and third-place finishers in both divisions.

Shelly Melton, a self-proclaimed "jigsaw junkie" from San Antonio, Tex., warmed up for this, the second annual championship, by donning a Sony Walkman and piecing puzzles to the sounds of the theme from "Flashdance." Melton rolled into town a week early to warm up for the timed singles trials by piecing four or five puzzles a day. She placed sixth in the singles event last year and was judged "most fanatical puzzler."

By Friday, several thousand jigsaw puzzle enthusiasts, friends, family and fans from 34 states and Canada had flocked here for the championships, jamming local motels and causing Ohio University to make dorm space available for those in need. While many of the puzzlers came to compete for the prize money, others came just to meet fellow puzzlers who share their fascination with the little pieces.

"I do them all the time, but after a while you start to think you are some kind of freak," said Mary Donelson of Youngstown, Ohio. "It is great to meet all these other fanatics," added Donelson, who entered the doubles contest with her aunt and confessed to putting together puzzles in her dreams at night.

The participants in the singles event competed against the clock to qualify for the top 15 slots in piecing 500-piece puzzles. The doubles teams pieced 1,000-piece puzzles against the clock for the top 15 doubles slots in the finals.

John Blythe of Denver, the only male to qualify for the singles finals last year, was back, but he didn't make the cut this year.

"If you can sit down with someone and do a jigsaw, your conscious mind becomes absorbed and concerned with the color and shape of the pieces while your subconscious releases, and your more deeper feelings come out," said Blythe. "If you try it, some very interesting conversations will take place. It diffuses a lot of defenses because it is so innocuous. That is why this is somewhat of an anomaly, having a timed contest."

Joellen Beifuss, a Duke University political science major, won the singles event by piecing the multi-colored floral pattern "Please Pick the Flowers" in 59 minutes and 43 seconds, shattering last year's record by more than two hours and amazing fellow fanatics with her ambidextrous speed. Beifuss, a shy, modest puzzler, said she "did a couple of puzzles" as practice.

Lisa Heiser and Lori Reeves, sisters and last year's doubles champs, got off to a slow start, but again won as doubles champions in the finals, finishing "Jigsaw Jamboree" in 2 hours, 20 minutes and 35 seconds. Heiser said later, "We choked. I didn't like that puzzle." Like it or not, the sisters, who are coworkers at a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, yelled "jigsaw" first in the doubles competition to signal their finish. Reeves plans to buy a new dishwasher with her share of the cash, which is fine with her husband, Cord, who doesn't do dishes much or puzzles at all. Heiser will bank her money, using it for her college education at Ohio State University.

The puzzle competition was the brainchild of Mac Thayer, president of a local banjo company. Thayer dreamed up the idea when vacationing with his wife and 9-month-old baby while doing jigsaw puzzles because they couldn't go out at night. Thayer presented the idea to the Athens Chamber of Commerce and got "ha ha's," but the Dairy Barn Cultural Committee, a local arts group, liked the idea. The committee sold the idea to Hallmark, the corporate sponsor of the event that itself pieces together a good chunk of the $40-million-a-year puzzle business. The event included an evening puzzle swap where cows serenaded the puzzlers and a bluegrass band chimed in.

Last year, women dominated in both the singles and doubles competition. This year Andy Bradburn, from Chicago, finished third in the singles finals with 1 hour, 16 minutes and 34 seconds behind Terri Laspata of Glassboro, N.J., who won the second-place prize with a time of 1 hour, 14 minutes and 30 seconds. Jeff and Pat Andrew, from Allentown, Pa., finished second in the doubles in 3 hours, 7 minutes and 27 seconds; Nigel Foster and Susan Howitt, of Pittsburgh, came in third at 3 hours 15 minutes and 37 seconds.