I became a licensed skydiver on November 1, 2015. As I approach my one year anniversary, it got me thinking about how much the sport has changed me. As a Freefall University student, I learned about skydiving and how to fly a parachute. But, beyond the freefall, the knowledge and accomplishments I gained go far beyond what I imagined in the beginning.
Skydiving changes your life. The way you think, and the way you live are forever altered. I want to share my story with those considering this journey...and those who think they could never do something like this.
THAT moment WHEN...
That first moment you stand alone at the threshold of an airplane cabin, next to an open door with accelerated air rushing by outside is surreal. You're surrounded by the sounds of wind, engines, people talking, and the rehearsal of your training in your mind. Yet, somehow you have complete mental focus on what happens every second.
It's not like your first tandem skydive. While that experience is amazing in its own right, there's something different about standing there wearing your own parachute, forcing a smile on your face to your instructor by your side. You realize this is on YOU – the decision whether to exit is all yours.
In retrospect, it was in this moment I was faced with the broader decision of whether to embrace life wholeheartedly – with confidence, bravery, and resolve – or to simply back down to what I already knew how to handle. It was the moment that ultimately altered my perception of what I was capable of, and initiated a learning process that extended into all the parts of my life.
In those next 60 seconds in freefall, I simultaneously experienced immense thrill and wonderment, as well as intense concentration and awareness. I felt freedom as I flew my body. I felt control of my life. I felt excitement as I deployed my parachute and flew back down to my landing area. The first test of my training was a success, and I was overcome with pride. There is nothing quite like landing a parachute for yourself for the first time.
Freedom, control, excitement, pride. These feelings came to define my experience as a skydiving student, and the context for how I would pursue new challenges in life.
EVERYTHING WAS DIFFERENT NOW.
I now had an enlightened perspective on what it means to take control of my life. While most daily decisions don’t entail whether or not I feel like falling three miles at terminal velocity, I felt a sense of comfort that I can manage any situation. This was a noticeable change. If I jump out of an airplane and safe my own life, how could there be anything I can't do?
This perspective inspired me to have the bravery to make a drastic change in an area where I had long-term discontent: work. Just a month after my first skydiving season ended, with only a newly-earned USPA A-license under my belt, I left my tedious office job and began pursuing a life surrounded by extreme sport enthusiasts. I started working in the indoor skydiving industry - an environment full of constant enthusiasm and inspiration. Many of these people do happen to be fellow skydivers – but all value adventure and the pursuit of happiness as a way of life, not a hobby.
With a bit of time gone by, I have gained perspective. As a brand new participant in this extreme sport, you immediately have to come to terms with a new reality. Early on, you can adhere to the comfort of being a beginner, and the protection that comes along with it. In skydiving, you begin as a tandem student – while brave, you're more or less enjoying the 120mph “ride,” withough the need to contemplate emergency malfunction scenarios. I had an instructor there for that.
But, solo? Your full awareness and competence aren’t optional. You have to be prepared and rehearsed every single time you choose to take a step in your progression. It is a requirement that you take full responsibility for yourself. Your own life is quite literally on the line. You have to truly want to be there, you have to embrace the process, and you have to trust in the amazing power of your brain's abilities to call upon what it has been taught when you need it most.
I don't say any of this to scare anyone who might be considering becoming a skydiver. It's simply part of the skills you develop in this type of training. For me, the transition of these concepts from ideas to realities was a big deal.
BECOMING "A REAL SKYDIVER"
It’s probably expected that skydivers are generally enthusiastic individuals – which is something I’d vehemently agree with! – but, I’d also attest to them having a larger “aura” that extends beyond just that one particular trait. You can't feel it happening to you, but one day, you look in the mirror and suddenly see yourself differently.
This aura was something I noticed immediately upon my first day as a timid student in my ground school. I witnessed that each skydiver and CSC staff member, regardless of age or background or gender, exuded confidence and sociability. I had never encountered a community quite like it, and I felt like I belonged. These were my people.
I remember several occasions before my solo training began, sitting at the Flight Deck being amazed at the welcoming and unintimidating nature of all those I saw mingling around the dropzone – a mix of instructors, coaches, fun jumpers, and staff. All of these individuals I found to be so immensely impressive and inspirational – with their bravery and self-assurance – and they were treating each person of every level with the same warmth and support. I was enthralled by it.
Between jumps when I had time to kill, my new “airborne-confidence” ended up translating into that social confidence I had witnessed. I always had some curiosity about skydiving and the lifestyle that often accompanies it (worldwide traveling, additional extreme sport involvement, etc.) on my mind that I wanted to investigate, and I was now becoming comfortable pursuing those answers.
Ultimately, I found myself becoming what I like to call, a less “muted” version of my social-self. I know this was also partially due to the fact that there was comfort in knowing that we were all in this thing together. We've invested our time, money, and soul into a sport where we chose to risk our own lives for enjoyment; thus, there was an immediate common ground with almost everyone meandering around CSC’s hangar.
Becoming more self-assured and thus spending more and more time with these people I found so admirable also instilled a sort of quiet comfort in my abilities as a new skydiver. On each flight up, I began to recognize more and more faces – other students and experienced jumpers, alike. Looking back on those first dozen jumps or so, I can recognize a distinct difference with how I behaved on my first several compared to the ones that followed. Early on, I would sit in total silence (other than discussing my upcoming jump with my instructor or coach). I let my nervousness take hold, and relaxation was the furthest thing from my mind. I remember seeing the other jumpers chatting jovially and teasing each other, and I couldn't understand how they could be so unfazed by the upcoming freefall through vast, open atmosphere.
SO I BREATHED IT ALL IN.
Once I began to establish friendships with some of these people, I would again notice this relaxed composure on the plane that they had, but this time I was overcome with the powerful thought of, “I know these people, and if they can do this, so can I.” That single thought provoked a very instrumental confidence in my skydiving progression. I could literally and figuratively breathe it in, and relax. These people were now my peers. Their supportive nature guided me on the right path to become a more proficient skydiver.
I could fly. If you stop and think about that for a minute, it's pretty amazing. I held in my hand a skydiving license, saying I was competent and capable to jump out of a perfectly good airplane whenever I wanted to.
This overall confidence in yourself becomes extremely advantageous when you choose to venture to other dropzones. Since obtaining my A-license, I have been lucky enough to jump around the Chicagoland area, land on the beach at SkydiveMex in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and see breathtaking views of mountains and desert at Skydive Arizona in Eloy, AZ. I walked into new environments, and kept myself safe. Seeing the world from beneath a parachute is a great feeling.
My first trip to skydive somewhere else on my own:
Sure, I felt a sense of intimidation when I did my first jumps at these new locations. That same intimidation is what had me keeping to myself at the start of my skydiving life and only worked to hold me back. Fortunately, having grown as much as I did at CSC, I knew what was waiting for me on the other side of that fear.
A NEW CONTEXT FOR FEAR.
The most important thing I learned on this journey was that you have to embrace the unknown, and channel fear to be productive. Rather than feel afraid - choose to feel more aware. Rather than pressure to perform, choose to see an opportunity to grow. It is within these moments that you uncover the potential to learn in areas beyond your expectations.
A year may seem like a lot, but it's just the beginning. I have only just begun my journey with skydiving, and it has morphed my life into something endlessly exhilarating and adorned with optimism.
I'm a proud member of the Freefall University Class of 2015. Want to join me in the sky? Let's fly.