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As it turns out, adventure is everywhere – even within.
When you come and visit us, you might notice the sunny smile (and super-cool world-map shoulder tattoo) of one of our superstar team of skydiving instructors. You should stroll up and introduce yourself! That’s Luke Pinion. Not only is he a big-hearted charmer, but his backstory is fascinating. He’s one of our favorite skydiving success stories, and we can’t wait to tell you all about him.
Luke Pinion grew up in central Wisconsin in a single-mom household, the youngest of four kids. “I was a fairly typical kid, I suppose,” he says, “aside from the fact that I was completely in the closet about being gay while growing up in a rural, conservative town.”
Luke discovered his penchant for adventure in high school, albeit in a non-traditional manner. For the most part, he was a uniquely busy kid with little in the way of time and resources for travel. He’d been working since he was 12 – babysitting, then a bus-boy, bagger, cashier, customer service specialist, optician, anything that paid – to supplement living in a low-income household. It took what amounts to divine intervention to show him the world outside his little hometown.
“I went through a religious phase,” he explains, laughing, “because I suppose I was overcompensating for the fact I was gay. We could not afford family travel opportunities, but my involvement with the church helped support my endeavor for travel and adventure. That’s where I got the bug to expand my horizons. I spent a month in Venezuela, two months in Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and then two weeks in Egypt. They were very service-oriented trips, but they ignited my desire to travel as much as possible while also helping me learn to appreciate new perspectives, cultures, and diversity.”
Despite the far-flung journeys he was undertaking, skydiving was nowhere near Luke’s radar in high school. It was only upon his graduation – when Luke’s brother bought him a tandem skydive as a graduation gift – that it became a reality. He went up to the Twin Cities to do it and was hooked right away. “When I landed, I couldn’t believe or understand what had just happened,” he remembers. “I kept looking up at the sky for days yearning to be back up there. After the jump, they handed me a 35mm roll of film and the VHS for my video, and I just wandered around stunned. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I remember driving home with my friend and I told her, Okay, I want to do this. I don’t know what it is going to look like, but I want to do it.”
Two weeks later, Luke moved to college for his freshman year. With a little research, he found out that there was a skydiving center nearby, so he went and checked it out. Lucky for us, that little dropzone was ‘Atmosphair’ – the facility that would later become the Wisconsin Skydiving Center. Alex [Kolacio, Co-Owner of WSC] greeted Luke, and he told her his story. “I told her I’d just completed my first tandem,” Luke says, “and that I was interested in exploring this further. That I didn’t have a lot of money, but that I was working and that I was willing to find a way to make it happen. She got Bo, who asked if I wanted to start packing parachutes to put myself through Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) training. I dove right in.”
Luke did his first AFF jump in September 2002, along with a not-so-whopping class of two other students. He jumped as much as he could before the end of the semester, but didn’t quite finish his A license before winter hit. He paid to stay in the college dorms instead of heading home for Spring Break, determined to finish the program. Victorious, Luke finished his A license that freshman year, right as he turned 19. “I was even more hooked at that point,” he enthuses. “I was heavily invested and had been spending the majority of the money I was making at two jobs on skydiving. I ended up using part of my financial aid refund and taking a small loan to pay for all my equipment, but it was a slow start. I began manifesting and eventually worked my way up to coaching, video, then instructing AFF and tandem.”
All the while, Luke was proving the mettle of his impressive work ethic by cranking out a hectic academic schedule. He earned not one but two Master’s degrees – a Master’s of Science in Education for School Psychology and an Educational Specialist in School Psychology. He also returned to grad school for another year after that to receive his administration license. Luke first began his career as a youth counselor in a residential mental health treatment facility for youth. This was followed by his career as school psychologist, and, in turn, a district office administrator. For the past two years, Luke has been a Director of Special Education and Student Services. “Administration was not originally on my radar; however, it offered a broader reach and impact,” he explains. “It was another challenge for myself and allowed me to operate at more of a systems level.”
He spends his weekends with us as a skydiving instructor – and, when time allows, jumps for fun as well. When you ask him, Luke explains that there are plenty of parallels between skydiving and his richly rewarding professional world. “I never wanted to be a tandem instructor, but I had been an AFF instructor for a few years and wanted to keep growing as a person and as an athlete, so I decided to earn my tandem instructor certification,” Luke explains. “That’s kind of how Psych and my career was for me. I earned the necessary degrees and had big goals, which I made happen with work and practice. Then I saw room to expand even further, which moved me to obtain my administrative license. That feeling of expansiveness and possibility is something I will always love about skydiving: it is very much a sport you will always keep growing in and challenging yourself, no matter how many jumps or years in.”
“I think the psychologist in me wants to prepare my students for the mental journey they are about to embark on,” he continues. “They’re already experiencing enough fear inherent in what they are about to do – but preparing them for that moment of the door opening and putting their foot on the step is what I would like to do. Giving them the insight that this may be a point where you find yourself at a loss – you can’t believe you’re here – and you have to get past that moment psychologically and get out of the airplane. Students need the assurance that the fear will melt away as soon as they are in free fall. And it does.”
The Wisconsin Skydiving Center is unique in its commitment to prioritizing the emotional and psychological side of learning to skydive, a position with which Luke agrees heartily. “Bo [Babovic, Co-Owner of WSC] has a Psych background, too,” Luke says, “and he very much encourages that angle of engaging and preparing our students. I have been raised as a skydiving instructor to take the time with each student and help them through the emotional work. WSC is special because of our connection and attention to the human and the person that is in front of us. That’s what keeps me going as a skydiving instructor: Being able to connect with a complete stranger in a short time while also sharing something that I am so passionate about. Also, I have done some AFF jumps other places as an instructor and observed several other programs. Through this, I’ve come away with the knowledge that at WSC we really value safety and the competency or proficiency in what we are teaching, right alongside that human relationship and dynamic. I have not felt this to the same degree elsewhere.”
“I don’t – and Bo and Alex don’t – simply see dollar signs when students show up,” he continues. “We see human beings, experiences, and connections. We cherish human, interpersonal relationships and dynamics. You can feel it when you walk into our dropzone. It is like a family. And all of that is wrapped in safety.” It’s because of those values that Luke chooses to drive more than an hour to and from the dropzone every skydiving day. “There are closer, bigger dropzones to me, and they have offered me work,” Luke explains. “but I continue to go to WSC because other dropzones don’t seem to have the same sense of family and appreciation for people, diversity, and that human connection.”
As far as the future, Luke is looking forward to spending many, many more days as a skydiving instructor helping to introduce new jumpers to the wonders of the sky at the Wisconsin Skydiving Center – and, if you’re aiming to be one of them, he has some predictably sage advice for you. “This isn’t just another ride you are going on,” he says. “This is a journey. You are going to have parts you excel at and other parts that are more of a personal struggle. Even now, 16 years later, this is my experience. So stick with it! Smile, breathe, and give yourself credit.”