Free fallin'

Steamboat's veteran skydivers generate new interest in sport

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photo

photo courtesy of Rita Donham

Joe Pete LoRusso, from left, Peggy O'Reilly, Tom Corl and Dave Wallace share a laugh Sept. 2 at the Steamboat Springs Airport after O'Reilly's 7,000th jump.

photo

photo courtesy of Rita Donham

Joe Pete LoRusso lands, grabbing the U.S. flag before it touches the ground, Sept. 2 at the Steamboat Springs Airport. The skydive session was part of kick off events for the Labor Day Weekend Wild West Air Fest. Dave Wallace lands in background.

When asked what she will remember most from a prolific skydiving career that spans 25 years, Peggy O'Reilly immediately pointed to last weekend's jump over Steamboat Springs. She didn't cite any of the jumps that ended in broken bones because of rough reserve parachute rides or double malfunctions.

From a helicopter high above Steamboat Springs Airport, O'Reilly kicked off the Wild West Air Fest on Sept. 2 with a free-fall milestone - her 7,000th jump.

"A lot of people came to watch, all my friends were there, and they announced it," O'Reilly said.

Both O'Reilly's jump experience and the sport of skydiving have come a long way since her other memorable jump - her first - from a static line set up in Freedom, Pa.

"It was something I always wanted to do," O'Reilly said. "It's a good scare."

O'Reilly soon realized the best way to learn about skydiving - and make free jumps - was to become a jumpmaster instructor and skydive organizer who coordinates the large-scale docking formations of multiple jumpers in flight.

Having honed her professional skills for six years as an instructor and organizer for a skydiving center in Zephyrhills, Fla., O'Reilly's schedule as a contracted registered nurse gave her the opportunity to log jumps across the country.

After all these experiences, O'Reilly, 48, has decided to settle down in Steamboat, beginning her full-time staffing at Yampa Valley Medical Center in November. She doesn't know if she'll try for 8,000 jumps, but she knows how much the sport has given her.

"Some of the best friends I've made have been skydiving," She said. "It's an issue of relying and trusting one another."

Of those friends, O'Reilly contacted Steamboat local Joe Pete LoRusso when she knew she would be in town for jump No. 7,000. LoRusso lined up a Cessna 182 - outfitted with a butterfly-hinged door and able to fit four jumpers - for the Labor Day Air Fest weekend.

LoRusso capped off the weekend of skydiving with a final landing Monday in Oak Creek's Decker Park as the plane continued its flight back to Glenwood Springs.

LoRusso landed with two of his longtime local skydiving cohorts, Tom Corl and Dave Wallace. As the veteran core of Steamboat's small skydiving community, the trio looked back on the 1980s hey-day of the sport's popularity.

"At one time there was probably 30 local jumpers," LoRusso said. "We ran the Valley Skydivers Club for 13 years; trained 100 to 150 jumpers a season for years."

Using a drop zone at Steamboat Springs Airport, Wallace and LoRusso, who both learned to jump in the military, purchased a plane and taught summer instructional jumps, using a static line to pull parachutes for beginners.

"We got rid of the plane and, like teaching skiing, the desire just isn't there when your passion becomes a job," LoRusso said.

From Moab to Belize, Corl and LoRusso still make it to skydiving boogies year-round, and Corl estimates he's made between 150 and 200 jumps a year for the past couple of years.

"You could travel across the world, go to Australia, do one jump and have an instant connection with the other jumpers," Wallace said about the infectious camaraderie in the larger skydiving community.

Back in Steamboat, without a bona fide jump plane, beginning and aspiring jumpers must make their way to the nearest jump facility, Longmont's Mile-Hi Skydiving Center. That's where they can get the necessary training jumps to earn an "A" license from the United States Parachute Association.

Despite the geographical hindrance, skydiving is now experiencing a local rebirth among a younger crowd. Steamboat native Tres Holloway, 25, estimated there are five to six jumpers in their 20s that are progressing in the sport.

LoRusso attributed the resurgence to technological advances.

"We used to have to really work at it," LoRusso said "Getting five to 10 jumps in a weekend was a big deal. These guys go down to Longmont and have million-dollar aircraft, instructors everywhere, and every other dude going out the door has a camera on his head."

Holloway said that after getting jumps under his belt in Longmont, he made 114 jumps last year working as an executive chef at a heli-ski outfit in Cordova, Alaska, where he was "jumping out of helicopters every day." Now, when he's not busy preparing espresso-encrusted beef tenderloin at Cafe Diva, Holloway takes every opportunity he can to jump in the Steamboat air space he sees as optimal skydiving training ground.

"The air is so thin that the fall rate is fast, and you're forced to develop good body position and concentrate on subtle motions," Holloway said.

Holloway jokes that LoRusso calls him a "dark-side" flier for favoring the free-flying maneuvers of orienting himself head or feet first rather than the tradition belly-down position, exposing the old-school, new-school rift between the two groups.

Rather than animosity between the old and the bold, LoRusso and Corl agreed they enjoy the energy the "new blood" brings to the group. Holloway strives to generate more interest in the sport's potential for Routt County's next 7,000-jump skydivers.

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