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Taking the first leap

By Sarah Francke

LESAGE, W.Va. -- I've never trusted a person more than when I was strapped to my skydiving instructor's chest, as he launched our bodies out of a tiny plane at an altitude of 10,000 feet.

He gave me a "3-2-1" count by rocking our bodies forward, legs dangling over the edge of the plane, and in that moment I had to dismiss all of my creeping fears and recite in my mind everything I had just been taught to do before, during and after the fall.

Still, I couldn't stop thinking, "How in the world did I end up here? How the heck did I get myself into this situation?"

Despite having a knack for adventure, skydiving was never on my bucket list. It was an adrenaline rush I was OK about never experiencing, figuring there are endless other ways to have much safer and paralleled excitement.

For one reason or another, though, this was the summer I caved. I started thinking about experiencing what everyone else has always raved about. Next thing I knew, I was on the phone with West Virginia Skydivers, scheduling an appointment for a tandem jump.

To be honest, I called to just get information about their skydiving business and to feel it out before I made a commitment. As I listened to the skydiver instructor explain all the different types of jumps they offer (while also answering all of my skeptical questions about safety), I decided on the spot that I was going to follow through with this.

I realized on the phone that for them this was more than just a fleeting adrenaline rush. This is their profession and they are willing to prove to anyone who dared, that if you're going to trust anyone with your life, they wanted to be the ones to step up to the plate.

I was very grateful for that professionalism as my instructor rocked my body forward on that third count, and I felt our bodies fall out of the plane. Suddenly I was freefalling from 10,000 feet and despite reciting everything I had been taught before I jumped, for the first few seconds of the freefall my mind went blank and I couldn't process any instructions.

I was falling so hard and so fast that all I could do was try to breathe, in and out, fighting the force of the wind on my face. Finally, reality kicked in, and I felt my instructor's hand nudging my shoulder, telling me to shift from the jumping position into the falling position -- an upside-down backbend, with your stomach parallel to earth.

Shortly after that, my instructor pulled our parachute and it was a slightly jolty transition from the freefall to the gliding. In one second I went from experiencing the most exciting rush of an adventure, to immediately finding myself in a moment of undisturbed placidity.

It was the best view of West Virginia I've ever seen, and an entire perspective I didn't expect to encounter when I booked the appointment. I was even appreciative of the bird's-eye view I had of the Ohio River as I glided above it, which originally terrified me -- the thought of skydiving above a river.

Instead, my only fear was that this experience was actually too fleeting, that it would be over sooner than I was ready for it to be. It was so much to take in all at once, the feeling of being suspended by a harness in the sky, steering the parachute to position us above the landing zone, the stillness of the altitude, and the view -- in every direction -- that was ever evolving and changing with our descent. I'm sure I had a ridiculous grin on my face the entire way down but I couldn't help that. My mind was enthusiastically overwhelmed.

We glided in for a smooth landing in the same grassy field from where we had taken off in the single-propeller plane. My instructor told me that our landing was so smooth that we could have probably landed standing, if I weren't so tall, which would have created too much unevenness to land in tandem.

As soon as we landed, I wished that I was right back on the edge of the plane, being rocked forward and getting ready to experience the entire fall again. We were greeted on the field by several other instructors, who were there to help with the parachute, take photographs and, of course, hear all about my own bucket-list experience.

In the weeks leading up to the jump, people tried to explain to me the whirlwind of sensations I'd experience, from the climb to 10,000 feet in the plane (that has only three enclosed walls), to the steering and guiding that goes into landing the jump -- and everything in between.

I had moments of doubt, though, in the days before the jump. I even called the company two days before, to warn them that the forecast showed rain and to let them know that it was OK if they had to cancel or "reschedule" my appointment. Once again, I was met with the utmost comforting and professional guidance on the other end of the line that reminded me to be excited and confident for this upcoming adventure.

When I arrived for my appointment, I was greeted with the same zeal and confidence from the entire team of skydivers. Any ounce of fear and doubt that entered my mind that morning was quickly replaced by a smile and a laugh because above all, these guys just know how to have fun while running a successful business. I hadn't even started to suit up before they invited me to stick around for their famous Saturday night cookout and bonfire.

I didn't get to stick around for the cookout, but I did get to hang out for a bit to hear from co-owner Bob Dolin, whom I suspect deserves a lot of credit for making everyone feel at home and part of the family when they step onto his property. He pulled up a chair with me while I picked his brain about the history of the business and his personal skydiving career, which consists of more than 1,200 jumps.

I also learned that Dolin and co-owner Carl Bailey are running more than a skydiving business. They've taken full advantage of their riverside land in Lesage, and have established a camping ground complete with river access, nature trails, a volleyball court, recreation hall, clean and spacious restrooms, swimming and boating areas and, as I mentioned above, their campground cookouts make a notable Saturday night.

The men take their business very seriously, but with a healthy balance of enjoyment. I'd recommend them to anyone who may be considering skydiving as their next bucket list goal.

Sarah Francke is a business-development professional living life to the fullest in Charleston. Follow her lifestyle ideas on Twitter at @WVstyleteam and read more of her twentysomething adventures on her blog, www.sarahfrancke.com.


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