Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Luckiest Skydiver in the World… and the Unsung Hero

The rest of the story…

My friend, Ali, emailed me from New Zealand, a week ago, and said she and her husband, Jon King, friend Michael Holmes and his girlfriend, Phillipa, would be in the US. They were going to New York because the boys would be on The Today Show and then coming to LA for The Tonight Show. They had turned down Oprah and Ellen because there wasn’t enough time.

At first, I was amazed by the news, given that they are not movie stars, best-selling authors or political figures. They are laid back folks who live in Taupo, New Zealand who happen to be skydivers. Well, ok, a bit more than that. Mike and Jon happen to be champion skydivers and ranked among the top in the world. It was amusing (and charming) to me that the crew had no idea how big these shows are – and that like, oh… nearly everyone in America watches at least one of them!

So, NBC flew them over biz class, first-rate hotels, limos – the whole star treatment. What I found astonishing though, listening to Matt Lauer and Jay Leno interview Mike about his death-defying accident, is that only 1/2 of the story seemed of interest to the media.

At 24 years old, Mike came face-to-face with death. He and Jon work at Taupo Tandem, a skydiving center in New Zealand (that’s down by Australia, folks. While here, most Americans they met had no idea where it is...). Anyway, when Jon and Mike are not competing in canopy flying competitions or doing “fun jumps,” they work filming tourists doing tandem jumps (strapped to a professional).

On a routine jump, in December, Mike pulled the ripcord to open his chute, and had a problem. With 7000 jumps under his belt, he knew what to do in case of emergency: free himself of the main canopy and release the reserve chute packed beneath it. But, there was a glitch. The main chute got caught in the hood of his jacket and didn’t release. This meant that opening the reserve would be even more dangerous because it would tangle with the first one, and Mike would fall even faster.

Already moving at almost 100 miles an hour, and spiraling out of control, Mike made his peace with the idea he only had seconds to live. He waved good-bye to the camera and hit the ground with a horrifying “thud.” Then silence. Miraculously, he was alive, with a collapsed lung and broken ankle.

This is this is where the US media ends this story. And, though I may be a lowly freelance journalist and cocktail blogger, I say, “Tut-tut, shame on you, Today Show and Tonight Show. You did not do your research. There is more.”

I do have the advantage of knowing these people. In 1999, I went to Taupo for the Millennium Boogie, a skydiving meet in New Zealand (the first place the year 2000 ticked over). There I met Jon and Ali. Jon and his jump partner, Ashley Crick, had just won the World Meet in Australia. In other words, they were the skydiving World Champions. Drop Zone royalty.

After that trip, I went back to Empuriabrava, Spain, where I was living and working at Europe’s biggest skydiving center. I was a massage therapist at the Drop Zone, and worked on the aching backs of skydiving teams in training, in my big blue trailer called “Cloud 9 Massage.”
I was only ever a “baby” skydiver (fewer than 100 jumps) but when hanging around a drop zone all day, it is impossible not to absorb an understanding of the incredible skill, experience and guts it takes to become a world champion.

In 2000, Jon and Ashley traveled to Eloy, Arizona, and won gold in the Skydiving World Cup. They even created a new move called the Swan Dive, which became their signature. World Champs, again.

The following year, Jon and Ali (and Ashley and his wife) moved to Empuriabrava so the fellas could train for the 2001 World Cup, in Granada. In the midst of hard training (more than 10 jumps a day) Ashely had a serious accident. He lived but his foot was split open and, after emergency surgery in Spain, he was airlifted back to his native England. Their dream of securing the World Championship for the third year in a row was dashed.

However, Jon and Ash were so well liked and respected by the skydiving community, that during the competition Empuriabrava’s team, Babylon (also freeflying champions) wore sweatshirts bearing Jon and Ashley’s names.

Around that time, a dashing young English skydiver named Mike Holmes showed up in Empuria. Already empassioned with the sport after jumping in Florida, California, Hawaii, Australia and Italy, he quickly became part of the Drop Zone community in Spain and, like many of us, stuck around for a few years.

There is a lot of fascination about Mike continuing to jump, post-accident, and his first one back will be televised, in April. While in LA this week, I asked Mike what he likes best about skydiving. Thoughtfully, he explained, "It's the feeling of freedom, being able to throw yourself toward the ground and be in control. You don't have any boundaries up there. No speed limits. No stop signs." Indeed.

In 2003, the World Cup rolled around again. Healed from his accident, Ashley reunited with Jon, and the two took Silver at the competition, held in Gap, France. They got second place in the world championship. Jon also went on to compete in swoop matches (canopy flying) and won many solos.

Meanwhile, all the people I have mentioned moved back down under. Jon’s former partner, Ashley has quit skydiving and is now a musician in Australia. Jon and Ali got married and had two kids. And, Michael Holmes swept girlfriend, Phillipa, off her feet and to New Zealand.

The day that Mike had his now famous accident, Jon was also in the plane. Both of them were filming tandems. When it was time to open the chutes and glide down to land, Jon noticed, across the sky, that his friend, Mike, had a problem. Jon guided his chute in Mike’s direction, watching his buddy spiraling out of control, and land away from the safety of the Drop Zone, and smash into a thicket of prickly bushes.

Jon, 32, has over 15,000 jumps, and is training to be a paramedic, followed Mike to the crash site, risking his own life and safety. Many people would have landed themselves safely, first, then called for help, but Jon put himself in peril to be the first one on the scene and help his friend, an integral contributor to his rescue.

As I watched the Today Show, last week, I wondered why that part was left out. Doesn’t Matt Lauer realize that this extra important piece of information makes an already fascinating story even more interesting?

Worst of all, the Tonight Show cut Jon out of the interview all together. Mike was awarded a coveted (and profitable) sponsorship by Go Fast! energy drink, which he deserves, undoubtedly. Still, I was dumbfounded that Jay Leno would interview “The Luckiest Skydiver in the World” and not have any thing to ask Jon King, who risked his own safety to help a friend, and who was sitting in the audience.

I asked Jon if he felt slighted at being left out of the Tonight Show interview. He just shrugged and said, "Aw, nah. It's about Mikey. I just did what anyone would do."

A world champion's modest heroism, my friends, is the rest of the story.


DC Celine said...

Wow. All these things to know - and about you, too...

ismybosslooking said...

Just goes to show you that Americans LOVE instant gratifcation.. and the backstories mean nothing. Shame!!

Skydive Once said...

I wouldn't say all... but some do.

The tonight show is about headlines and keeping attention. You want back stories check out Oprah! :)

Like I've always said though, Skydive Once!

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