Thursday, June 10, 2004

Student revels in flying friendly skies

By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Trying skydiving earned Michelle Escalambre an A+ on a school paper. It also gave her a new hobby.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/ERNEST COLEMAN

It started as homework for Michelle "Hollywood" Escalambre.

Then skydiving became more than a grade. It gave her a hobby, a passion, a new family.

The psychology class assignment was to try a new activity and write a report about it. Escalambre, 20, a senior in early-childhood education at Miami University, could have learned to drive a stick shift, sampled a Thai restaurant or climbed on the back of a horse.

Instead, she opted for the exhilaration of terminal velocity, the magnificence of being suspended above earth, the calm of canopy flight.

Escalambre made her big leap Oct. 24, 2001, soon after her 18th birthday, at Skydive Wayne County in Richmond, Ind.

It was an accelerated freefall jump, meaning that she exited the airplane with an instructor on each side of her, holding on to her harness to provide in-air instruction.

"Honestly, I don't remember any of it except that I messed up the exit and flipped over," she laughed.

Even so, she received an A+ grade on her paper.

"It was definitely an exciting paper," she said. "Other people did dorky stuff like cooking."

Escalambre continued skydiving with the static line method, in which the parachute deploys immediately after the student exits the plane.

"I definitely wanted to do it again," she said. "It was fun and it was interesting. But honestly, what really kept me with it is that the people there were so nice."

Along with the elation of skydiving, Escalambre said she often felt scared. After all, she was jumping out of airplanes at altitudes ranging from 3,500 to 13,500 feet as she progressed as a student.

"It was almost like anxiety attacks," she said. "But again, it was the people that kept me there. I wanted to hang out with them all the time."

Escalambre is now considered an experienced skydiver, with 200 jumps under her belt. She is treasurer of the Miami Drop-Outs, the school skydiving club whose members pay dues to get a discount on jumps and gear rental.

The anxiety she once felt skydiving has been replaced by the curative effects of sailing through blue skies.

"It's almost therapeutic," she said. "Sometimes it's so good to get out there. When you're in the plane and you see the clouds and the greenery, it's so relaxing."

Escalambre is quick to encourage others to make a leap into the wild blue yonder. It's not just exciting and aesthetically beautiful, she said. It's also a way to push boundaries, to find untapped courage.

"What it comes down to is that it offers something for everyone," she said. "Even if one is scared, they will take away the feeling of accomplishment, independence, freedom and tranquility."

Most of all, Escalambre said novice jumpers will discover a tight group of friends.

"It's hard to talk about skydiving with other people unless they've experienced it," she said. "There's nothing like going out with people who have the same passion about it. We're like family."

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