Few armchair adventurers might realize that parachuting is not only an activity for adrenaline-junkies or an emergency means of escape, but it’s also a competitive global sport.
Local businessman Mark Gregory is one of the handful of world-class athletes in this sport and is a member of the world-class U.S. Parachuting Team. In July, he and his teammates brought home the gold and set a new world record at the World Games in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
Gregory and his team have also racked up numerous victories all over the globe, as far away as Russia, France, Croatia and Holland. One of Gregory’s favorite foreign experiences happened at an awards presentation in Saudi Arabia. The team dressed in the traditional robes and headdresses with their United States Parachuting Association badges prominently displayed giving the attending sheiks quite the charge.
Back in Conyers, Gregory, an RCHS alumnus of the class of 1980, was recently recognized for his passion when the Mayor Randal Mills proclaimed September 9 as Parachuting Day.
"Parachutists like Mark Gregory continue to thrill and amaze us by bringing this exciting and daring sport to the forefront of our culture," read the proclamation.
Remarkably, Gregory didn’t jump out of his first plane until he was 35. As a 9-year-old boy, he had always dreamed of gliding through the air. One early, unsuccessful attempt to become airborne found him attaching himself to a bamboo hang-glider while skateboarding.
He finally realized his dreams more than two decades later on his first tandem sky dive in Monroe.
The rush was unforgettable. He and the other diver fell through the air for almost a full minute before the rip cord was pulled. Then it became quiet and calm. "My senses became keener than ever," Gregory recalled. "The view, the sensations and the fact my dream had come true was a powerful experience."
With this first taste, he knew he had to have more. After training three years to become a parachutist, experienced competitors noted his enthusiasm and took Gregory under their wing to train for a national skydiving competition.
"I found more enjoyment flying the parachute rather than just free-falling," he said. In 2000, Gregory qualified as a member of the US Parachute Team. The rest is now World Games gold medal history.
In Taiwan, Gregory was amazed at the spectacle of opening ceremonies with over 40,000 attendees and 3,000 athletes from more than 100 countries. "I was going there representing the USA, and I was proud of that," he said.
In the Canopy Formation Two-Way Sequential event, the clock starts 30 seconds after the first parachutist jumps from the plane. If they don’t achieve the first formation within 30 seconds, the working clock starts at 1 minute for the next formation. When judges review the film, they are looking for foot grips on designated lines and for feet and hands to be completely separated before a formation is considered complete, which earns the team one point per formation.
Gregory recalled that it was touch and go for over six days against the Russians in the finals. In the fourth round, the US set a new world record with 23 points beating the Russians’ former record of 20 points. With two more rounds to go, the pressure was on, but they were confident in their ability, Gregory said. They gained two more points in the fifth round and scored two more points than the Russians in the last round. "At 7,000 feet over the town… we won! It was the most gratifying experience of my life," said Gregory.
The USPA team’s accomplishments are even more extraordinary when taking into account most of their international competitors are comprised of foreign military, whose job is to train. Most of their adversaries’ competition expenses are also financed by their military. In contrast, Gregory and his fellow teammates have to provide personally for all aspects of training and competition. To fund the pursuit of his passion, Gregory runs Foam Packaging Inc., a local business he founded in 1982.
Though Gregory won the gold in the Two-way Sequential Canopy Formation category, he’s competed over the years in four and eight-man canopy formations in both the speed and rotation events. The other team members who helped secure the gold in Taiwan were Chris Gay from Albany, Ga., and Liz Godwin, the camerawoman from Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.
With the US Nationals coming up next month in Houston, the team has been meeting in Sebastian, Fla., several weekends per month to train. During downtime, Gregory said, "We typically go surfing at sunrise. If jumping stops during the day for any length of time, we will hit the beach."
For more information on scheduling a jump, contact Sky Dive Monroe at 770 207-1122 or www.skydivemonroe.com