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Michael Eiting has struggled with acrophobia, or the fear of heights, since childhood. As a kid, climbing trees was out of the question. When he learned to drive, crossing bridges was deeply unsettling. A move to Boulder was less than ideal for a few reasons – including all of the peaks and valleys that came with it. But in Summer 2018, Michael went skydiving. And he LOVED it.
But let’s back up a little …
Being afraid of heights is nothing new. It’s so common and longstanding, in fact, that the ancient Greeks gave it a name – acron means peak, summit or edge, and phobos means fear.
Turns out that humans (all mammals, actually) come pre-packaged with the fear as a survival tool. A rational level keeps you from falling out of windows and getting too close to the literal edge. The feeling of butterflies in your stomach, sudden sweating and involuntary swearing, these are built-in alarm bells that keep you safe. For thrill-seekers, intentionally triggering these tripwires manifests the best-ever high and they constantly seek out the next elevated adventure – roller coasters, snowboarding and, yes, skydiving.
The irrational version of the fear, though, can be paralyzing, keeping people (more often women than men) from doing what most would consider no-big-deal. This is the version our Michael has carried with him throughout his life. Just talking about his fear of heights causes Michael’s brain to go into fight-or-flight mode, instantly causing him to sweat and feel anxious. Extreme fear of heights can be learned through trauma or, some suggest, it may be hereditary; fortunately, this is not Michael’s story. It’s also known to increase with age; fortunately, this is also not Michael’s story. At age 37, he feels like his fear is subsiding little by little.
Having earned a degree in Psychology, Michael understands the potential benefits of immersion therapy and had been (half-) joking for years that he wanted to skydive to put his fear to rest. Four of his friends decided his procrastination had gone on long enough and booked a day of skydiving at Wisconsin Skydiving Center for the five of them. Though another skydiving dropzone was closer to their hometown, they decided on WSC after being duly impressed by the DZ’s reputation and hundreds (upon hundreds) of positive reviews.
The surprise booking was equal parts exciting and panic-inducing. Two of the guys in the group had jumped before and provided Michael with baseline knowledge of what he could expect. To ease into the situation and maximize their good-time, the group took advantage of the DZ’s amenities and grilled out ahead of their jump (even sharing brats with soon-to-be friends).
When Michael’s number was up, he was petrified. And it was obvious. Even strangers commented to him about nervous he looked. He boarded the Cessna 182 with Bo as his instructor and battled his demons all the way to altitude. The only comfort he had was his brother’s presence. Having passed away eight years prior, Michael brought some of his ashes with him to the dropzone and, with Bo’s permission, slipped the tiny urn into his shoe. Once at 10,000 feet, Michael and Bo climbed onto the step and prepared for freefall.
Michael shut his eyes and surrendered.
It was the most liberating feeling of his life. NOTHING compared to the feeling of freefall. Never before had he felt so alive, so empowered, so completely free. He could tell as he rushed through the sky at 120 miles per hour that this experience was changing his life.
After helping Bo steer to the ground, Michael’s first thought on touchdown was: I have to do that again. Like, right now.
All of Michael’s pals felt the same way and within 45 minutes of landing, he and his friends were back in the air. This time, he was going to make sure he took in every last detail. When it was time to exit, he harnessed the feeling he achieved during his first freefall and kept his eyes wide open. He willingly acknowledged and gave gratitude for the adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine coursing through his body, understanding that he. had. overcome.
He was astounded on his second jump by how quiet and peaceful it was under canopy. He took the time to study everything. The landscape below, the clouds above, the great big blue surrounding him. He declined the opportunity to steer this time; he wanted to focus on the experience. Michael understood the power of his choices and made a conscious effort to imprint how he was feeling. He knew he needed to carry this energy forward and to be able to recall it and reflect on it always.
The two-hour drive home took no time at all. Each of the friends took turns telling of their experience, sharing every detail with one another and celebrating their individual victories. They were in awe of the customer service they received throughout the course of the day and the professionalism, dedication and positive attitudes exhibited by every member of the WSC team.
What’s more, they were struck by the humility they encountered. It was only after Michael jumped that he learned (from someone else) that Bo and his wife, Alex, own Wisconsin Skydiving Center.
With more than 13,000 jumps, Bo is extremely experienced, highly credentialed, and internationally respected. He’s a tandem instructor, safety and training advisor for the US Parachute Association, pilot, master rigger, plane mechanic and certified aircraft inspector. He has taken more than 8,000 people on their first jump. Michael didn’t know it at the time, but by trusting this incredibly patient and kind man, he had put his life in some of the most capable hands in the country.
Michael and his friends are WSC fans for life.
Since his day at Wisconsin Skydiving Center, Michael has watched his tandem video over and over again. He’s shared it with anyone and everyone who expresses interest in his experience. His favorite moment in the video is when the camera flyer captures Michael from above as he’s standing on the step, preparing to jump. You can see the ground below. You can see the gravity of what he’s about to do. It’s huge for anyone – but especially someone who’s avoided being more than three feet off the ground his entire life.
Michael’s time in the sky is just beginning. He has already volunteered to go up with several people who, like him, say they want to do it “one day”. If he can do it, he knows anyone can. But he’s not going to rest on his laurels waiting for a fresh buddy. If no one steps up to step out, he’ll do it again by himself. In fact, he’s considering learning how to skydive solo through the Accelerated Freefall Program.
Everything is different for Michael now. Every time he looks up and sees a big blue sky, he thinks, “It’s a great day to jump.”
Michael’s story is compelling, but it’s actually not unique. A lot of people who struggle with a host of challenges and phobias turn to skydiving for renewal, relief, release and a whole hell of a lot of empowerment.
You can jump too. Like Michael and his friends did, spend time reading the reviews and see for yourself that there’s nowhere better than Wisconsin Skydiving Center to take the leap. And if you’re lucky, you’ll run into Michael and hear for yourself how his life will never be the same again.
Blue skies, indeed.