How Skydiving Changed My Life - Marcelaine Wininger Lewis

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by Marcelaine Wininger Lewis | D-24581 | Houghton, Michigan

In 1999, I met a nice man who was a skydiver. As our friendship shifted to romance, I began flying with him to Skydive Chicago in Ottawa, Illinois. Because I am a flight instructor, I quickly became friends with the jump pilots. The constant sound of Twin Otters roaring to life on takeoff, the intoxicating smell of jet exhaust, the blossoming of canopies overhead, Moby and other cool music pulsing in the background electrified me. I was fascinated by the things and people who were flying, but during that first summer, it never occurred to me to jump.

A few years earlier, I had survived a painful and contentious divorce. I lost my home of 25 years; I lost my social network; I lost my sense of humor; I lost my joy for life; I lost my confidence; I lost my mojo... and worst of all for me as a writer, I lost my inspiration to write. That curse continued for three more years, until I met Roger Nelson [then-owner of Skydive Chicago].

My boyfriend told Roger about my writing experience. Roger was interested in wide-scale promotion of Skydive Chicago and approached me about writing for him. I had not published an article in six years, but I didn’t tell Roger. Instead, with surprisingly little anxiety, I agreed to start pitching stories about his drop zone to aviation magazines. I also suggested that I start writing hometown stories about jumpers and articles about special events at Skydive Chicago. Then, during the summer of 2000, on my 50th birthday, I made a jump with Dave Cicirelli. I still have the video of Cicirelli calling out in freefall, “Haaaapppyyyy birrthhhdaaayyy, Maaarrrrsuuuuulaaaaane!” I was hooked on freefall.

I worked hard on my licenses—the most difficult being the C license because of the water-jump requirement. I was afraid of water, and I didn’t know how to swim. But I wanted that license, so I learned. On testing day, I was the last one to jump off the dock, swim out from under the tangled lines of the wet canopy and drag myself back to shore. Then I had to make the two night jumps for the D license. Time stopped as I fell for 70 seconds into the inky blackness of the cornfields around the drop zone. When I landed in front of the headlights of the cars lined up in the landing area, my spirits soared and so did my confidence. Marcelaine was back. Happy, enthusiastic, optimistic Marcelaine was back. If I could jump out of an airplane at night... I was unstoppable.

Nelson gave me unlimited access to all the planning and meetings during the 300-way formation skydiving world record attempts in 2000. I rode shotgun in each of the 12 airplanes flying the attempt, and I interviewed some of the best jump pilots in the world. My writer’s block was lifted. Re-inspired, I wrote tirelessly, and my articles and photographs about the attempt appeared in many aviation periodicals, including Parachutist. I thrived on the weekend drop zone energy and optimism. I wanted to improve my skydiving skills, so I attended a women’s skydiving camp in Raeford, North Carolina. In the gear store, I met female pilot and world champion skydiver Cheryl Stearns. Stearns let me interview her.

I hungered for a record. Raeford hosted an unofficial hybrid record attempt one Fourth of July weekend. I wasn’t really good enough to be on the attempt, but the friendly jumpers and organizers let me try. The Golden Knights videoed the jump—and with their editing and rocking background music, they made me look like a rock star as I slid into my slot.

My writer’s portfolio was growing again. I was looking for challenges as an educator, and a friend suggested that I try online teaching. In 2007, I applied to America’s top aeronautical engineering university, and they hired me. Teaching online gives me the flexibility to work from home and help my students, who are mostly military, many deployed, finish their educations from all over the globe.

Skydiving has changed my life, changed me and made my world very large. And that nice man that I mentioned? We got married in 2004.

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