Leaps of faith

Although viewed as
a dangerous activity,
skydiving has been a part of one man’s life since he was a kid.
Sunday, September 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:30 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Sitting in his Columbia living room as a 12-year-old, B.J. Wolters made a life decision. He had just witnessed his first skydive on a television show, and immediately the pre-teen knew he had found his calling.

“It just looked so awesome and fun,” Wolters says. “I knew I had to try it.”

Unfortunately, the required age to skydive in Missouri is 18, so Wolters had to labor through six years of anticipation before he was finally able to jump, three days after his 18th birthday. It would be the beginning of a long and wonderful relationship.

Now, at 22 and with more than 500 jumps under his belt, the Columbia native speaks in the excited, hyperactive manner you’d expect from someone who gets his kicks from jumping out of airplanes. Ask him about what keeps him coming back, and be prepared for a lengthy, animated response.

“There’s such a huge adrenaline burst,” Wolters says, eyes wide and arms flailing. “There’s really nothing that even comes close to it. If I’m not skydiving, there’s nothing else I can do that will give me that feeling. And for that reason, it’s like an addiction. You want to do it and there’s nothing else that can fill that spot, so you go back to it.”

Wolters indeed has gone back to it. He spends his weekends making the two-hour trek to Quantum Leap Skydiving Center in Sullivan, Mo., the site of his first jump, and where he now works part-time as a videographer and photographer.

“(The skydiving community) is just a real awesome community,” says Wolters, an MU senior majoring in computer engineering and computer science. “You meet a lot of interesting people. Even at work, it’s not like a business, it’s more like a group of guys just hanging out.”

Like most skydivers, Wolters scoffs at the notion that the sport is exclusively for deranged wildmen, an idea that has been fostered in countless movies and Mountain Dew commercials.

“People think it’s just a sport for crazy people, because they see the movies like Point Break and stuff like that,” he says. “But that’s not really the way skydiving is anymore. The sport is constantly evolving.”

Evolving so much, in fact, that France has named “aerogames” the country’s national sport. In addition, countless national and international competitions are held every year, bringing the best divers in the world together to compete. And in Missouri, various skydiving clubs exist to allow groups of divers to come together and jump recreationally.

At the same time, Wolters says the sport is still small enough that interaction with the world’s best divers is common. During a competition two years ago, a friend of Wolters’ tried a risky landing and one of the world’s top skydivers approached him to ask about the trick.

“One of the things I like about the sport is that it’s not too commercialized,” Wolters says. “I’ve talked to a lot of the top divers in the world, and that’s huge. Even guys that are sponsored by Red Bull and some of the big parachute companies, they’re all really nice guys.”

One factor that oftentimes deters the average person from the sport is safety. Skydiving has long been considered one of the world’s more dangerous extreme activities, a stigma that Wolters says is not necessarily warranted.

“People get injured doing it, just like in any sport, but deaths are not that common at all,” Wolters says. “We tell our students that the most dangerous part of their day is driving in off the highway. And that’s statistically proven. I mean, even as a skydiver, I’m more likely to die in a car accident than I am skydiving.”

Still, there is an inherent risk anytime someone straps on a parachute. Wolters has seen many broken bones in his four years in the sport, and two months ago, Kevin Brenan, a friend and Quantum Leap employee, died in a skydiving accident. The death, which Wolters says was caused by a faulty parachute, hit a little close to home.

“You think about it a lot,” he says. “A lot of people asked me about it after it happened. It was very unfortunate. You don’t prepare yourself for something like that. There’s risk in skydiving, and that’s what every person should know.”

Wolters, however, says he won’t let Brenan’s death deter him from the sport that has become such a large part of his life. He notes that divers go to extreme measures to ensure safety, and that today, skydiving safety technology makes it nearly impossible for recreational divers to get hurt.

“I absolutely love the sport,” Wolters says, as if the mere thought of diving induces goose bumps. “As long as there’s a place for me to do it, I’ll be skydiving.”

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