May 21, 2014

Freefalling for Gold

Our student skydiving team

From 13,500 feet up, Campus Pond is reduced to a dot, but for the UMass Skydiving Club, it’s the perfect landmark. They’re the team that brings home medal after medal and this year they have reached new heights of victory.

The club was established in 1959 and is based out of Orange, Massachusetts. Recently it has grown both both bigger and more successful: membership has soared to roughly 65. The club enters three collegiate competitions a year and in the past four years has never come home empty-handed.

In January the club entered the world’s largest collegiate competition, the U.S. Parachute Association National Collegiate Parachuting Championships, where they won gold and set records.

“I love it,” says Matt Leonard, a senior chemical engineering student and club president. Leonard is a licensed skydiver and was part of the 2014 winning team.

Leonard has taken an estimated 700 jumps with students. Of the 700, he says, only three have ever opted to not take that—quite literal—leap of faith. “People are afraid of what they don’t know,” he says. “The biggest thing is being able to mentally handle what you have to do.”

According to Leonard, skydiving is much safer than many would think. In fact, he says, it’s safer than driving a car. “There are a lot of safety precautions that go into it that people aren’t aware of,” he says, “People don’t realize the precautions put in place for you to have a good time. Injuries are almost non-existent, especially in the U.S.”

Each skydiving pack comes equipped with two parachutes.  The second parachute is always regulated and repacked by someone from the Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency responsible for all air traffic. This second parachute acts as a safety and has a computerized auto-activation device. If a skydiver falls below a certain altitude without pulling the parachute, the device will automatically release the safety parachute.

Jennifer Shumway, also a UMass senior and competitive licensed skydiver, has long had the urge to free fall and credits UMass Skydiving for giving her the opportunity.

“I’ve always been a thrill seeker,” says Shumway. “I think the club in general is just awesome for students to get involved with. It’s a great community with a common interest outside the norm.”

“For the UMass community, they’ll never get the opportunity they have here,” says Leonard.