Chris Warnock, Skydive Utah
Deseret News sports writer Amy Donaldson sky-dives in tandom with Alec Wright last Saturday in the blue skies over Tooele

TOOELE — It wasn't until I was about 10,000 feet in the air that I started to get nervous.

I looked out the window to my left and tried to focus on the beauty of the Great Salt Lake instead of the fact that in a few minutes, I would be falling through the air at 110 miles per hour.

Jumping out of an airplane is NOT something that even remotely interested me until a few weeks ago. No, I am perfectly happy with the challenges that just getting around here on solid ground present for me.

Others, however, like my friend Michelle Carter, have always wanted to know the fear and exhilaration of sky diving. A single mother of two boys, she never let herself investigate what she'd need to do to make her dream a reality.

Life's obligations have a way of robbing you of the yearning and hope a dream can offer. Days are busy, hectic and sometimes feel more like a free fall than any jump from an aircraft, only there is no device to keep you from crashing to earth.

But last Tuesday she turned 50, and I wanted to give her the ultimate gift — sky diving. There are a few options here in Utah, but I settled on Skydive Utah in Tooele and invited my sister, who turns 19 in a week, to join us for a birthday party unlike any other.

After an instructional video, we waited impatiently for our turn. We finally met our "tandem masters," and mine was a jovial guy from South Africa, Alec Wright. If you're going to strap yourself to another human being and jump out of an airplane, a sense of humor seems almost as necessary as all that safety equipment.

We sat straddling benches on the plane with our tandem masters behind us. I felt a little like a baby strapped tightly onto its father's chest — and just about that helpless.

Just as I was getting a little nauseated from flying backward, one of the photographers pulled up the clear plastic door and air rushed in. Everyone kept saying it was cooler at 14,000 feet, but I never felt a chill. I was focused on my few menial tasks — breathing, keeping my head back, and putting my toes over the edge of the metal step that left the plane.

I was the first from our group to jump. I'm a believer in just ripping the Band-Aid off. Besides, I'd already decided that standing in that doorway was the last place I wanted to contemplate any doubts. I was carefully trying to line up my toes with the edge when Alec just pushed me into the doorway.

A back flip into the gorgeous West Desert sky was next, and then what felt like a wind tunnel as we fell. We clowned for the camera, while I perfected breathing through my teeth, and then Alec deployed the parachute. Suddenly I could smile without wind rushing into my cheeks, and once I began to soak in where I was, I couldn't stop grinning.

There I was, thousands of feet in the air, swinging my legs like a little kid. And like a child, all I could think to say was how fun it was, how cool it was. We spiraled a few times and then landed on our feet. As I hung in the air from that parachute, I was filled with gratitude, joy, peace and awe like I've rarely felt in my life.

When I finished, words failed me. All I could say was amazing.

So why do people do it?

Jack Guthrie, who owns Skydive Utah and, in 2003, became the 60th person to jump 9,000 times, said most people have one of two reasons for making the trip to Tooele.

"There are those who've always been curious about what it would feel like to jump out of a plane," said Guthrie, who completed his first jump in October of 1968. "And then there are those who say, 'I'm afraid of heights and I want you to cure me."'

Research has shown that about 10 percent of the population is curious about sky diving, but Guthrie said only 1 percent actually gave it a try before what he calls "the tandem revolution."

Allowing people like me to attach themselves to experienced, skilled sky divers has led to a lot more experimentation.

Guthrie believes the number of people trying the sport is growing and added that 3 percent of those who start as non-committed tandems end up "getting bit by the bug."

Oh, and by the way, it won't cure you of vertigo — but the good news is, being afraid of heights won't keep you from loving sky diving, either.

Guthrie said one of the most rewarding moments is when a person finds him, shakes his hand and tells him that they weren't sure they were going to finish school or some other task, but now that they've conquered sky diving, they're reconsidering that decision.

"They say there isn't anything they can't do now," he said.

And as for my friend Michelle, I don't think it will be another 50 years before she does what she dreamed about as a little girl.

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