It was only one small step, but with it, Loraine Ruckman of Sandy made a giant leap forward in meeting a challenge.

Soaring 9,000 feet above Cedar Valley Saturday morning, she lifted her legs out the open door of the Cessna 182, counted to three and jumped into the air. Ruckman's fears, and her limitations, had been left down below.Here, free-falling through the sky, Ruckman's only concern was breathing - which isn't easy when you're moving 120 miles per hour.

She was not alone in this skydiving adventure. There was a man strapped to her back - Jack Guthrie, jump master for Cedar Valley Free Fall.

"I can't land by myself," Ruckman had said earlier. "That's what he is there for - to land for me." Her legs would not be much help in breaking her fall back to Earth: 18-year-old Loraine Ruckman is a paraplegic.

Just over a year ago, Ruckman let a male friend drive her car. Racing along the back roads of Lehi near Bluffdale, with Ruckman as a passenger, the friend lost control of the big blue Pontiac Catalina, causing it to flip off the road. The vehicle flew 50 feet through the air before coming to a stop, upside down.

Inside, Ruckman was alive but had multiple injuries, the most serious of which were crushed lower vertebrae. She was paralyzed from the waist down.

While the accident may have changed Ruckman's life, it did not break her spirit. After under going four months of treatment at the Western Rehabilitation Institute in Sandy, Ruckman attacked life with as much _ perhaps even more _ vim and vigor as before.

"I got my act cleaned up in a hurry," Ruckman said. "I was a hellion before."

Ruckman is enrolled at the University of Utah, studying therapeutic recreation, and hopes someday to work with spinal-cord injury patients. She has learned to water ski, downhill ski and to cross-country ski again, which she hates because "I can't keep up with people who use legs."

Ruckman has learned to dance and do karate, and now, to dive through the air. Her schedule is full of new challenges. Next month Ruckman is going to learn to horseback ride, and the following month she is planning to go on a river rafting trip.

Saturday at the Cedar Valley airport Ruckman was eyeing the hot air balloons sprawled across the field.

"What do you think of ballooning?" she asked her mother Susan moments before her skydiving lesson. "Doesn't that look nifty?"

In between the adventures, challenges and schoolwork, Ruckman has devoted herself to helping others. She is a volunteer three days a week at the Western Rehabilitation Institute, and speaks about once a month to groups about what it is like to be handicapped.

"I feel good about myself. If I'm shy, everyone will say, `Oh my gosh, it's someone in a wheelchair,"' Ruckman said. "I act comfortable so they won't feel uncomfortable. People are becoming more aware of people in wheelchairs, and we have to help educate them that we are human, that we are men and women, even if we are sitting in chairs.

"If people have questions, they should ask. The hardest thing is mothers and kids . . . kids who say `What is that?' and point to the wheelchair, and then the moms say, `No, don't say that.' I go up to them and talk to them. I think it is important that they know young that we're no different than anyone else."

Saturday, moments after touching down on the soft grass at the Cedar Valley airport, Ruckman was thrilled: "I like that! It was nifty! It was wonderful! I loved it!" Ruckman had conquered her latest challenge and it meant a lot to her.

"It means I can do anything," she said. "Just because you're handicapped doesn't mean you can't do anything. I mean, I was doing the same thing he (Guthrie) was. Pretty cool."