As Doris VanZandt came up on her 80th birthday on April 16, she knew she wanted to do something big.
She’s hiked Mt. San Gorgonio, Southern California’s highest peak, and ridden horseback with her late husband through the Sierras, where “you get used to being scared.”
For five years the Laguna Woods resident contemplated what her birthday feat would be, until, tacked up on the wall at a family gathering, she saw her granddaughter’s certificate of achievement for skydiving.
“I’m going to do that,” she whispered under her breath. Her niece caught VanZandt’s soft-spoken revelation, repeating it, as kids do. As word of “grandma jumping out of a plane” spread at the gathering, her hushed idea swelled into an official announcement.
Once VanZandt found a location — GoJump in Oceanside — she made a reservation, checked out the sites and mentally prepped via Youtube videos.
“I wasn’t even sure I could do it,” she said, given the age disparity between her and her idea of the stereotypical young-adult adrenaline seeker.
According to the United States Parachute Association, seniors age 60 and over hold second place — 23 percent of USPA members — to the majority demographic of 30- to 39-year-old parachutists, at about 25 percent. The year-end total for USPA members tallied 39,827.
Regardless, VanZandt, who stands five feet and weighs just over 100 pounds, strapped on a harness and climbed into a turbine aircraft. There were four fellow first-timers strapped tandem to their instructors — a total of eight people, not counting the two pilots — straddling the two benches, with one leg in and the other against the plane, she said.
Doris VanZandt, 80, tandem skydives with her instructor over the Pacific Ocean, jumping from a 13,000-foot altitude. (Courtesy of Doris VanZandt)
As the ascent increased, her leg pinned against the plane’s interior wall started cramping while she was rapidly losing oxygen.
“By the time we reached 13,000 feet I was hyperventilating,” she recalled, surprised she hadn’t fainted at that point. “Then, we did a somersault out of the plane.”
Whatever breath she had left, the G-force knocked it out of her for the first 100 feet of her freefall, she said.
”Oh my gosh,” she remembered thinking. “Why did I do this?”
When it was time to “turn loose” — extending both arms into full wingspan — her instructor had to assist as she felt glued to her harness.
But before the first minute of free falling was over, VanZandt found peace plummeting toward the Pacific Ocean. She took in the sights without looking straight down, as to avoid breaking her neck.
Then, the parachute deployed. Before she knew it — within seven to 10 minutes — she pulled her knees into her chest and they were grounded.
“The hardest part was not realizing the G-force was so immense. It’s like 100 times what you experience going down a rollercoaster,” VanZandt said. “When you’re younger, you don’t feel the full extent of that.”
With shaky legs, she stepped into the tram headed back to the base. The bus riders burst into song, singing “Happy Birthday.”
The post-jump celebration included family and friends such as Jan Badgley, 73, who usually spends time with VanZandt sailing on the ocean with fellow Yacht Club members.
Impressed by VanZandt positive outlook and physical condition — knowing her to walk 5 to 6 miles before most make it out of bed in the morning — Badgley described her friend as someone who wills what she wants.
“She’s always trying something new,” Badgley said. “Doris is someone who is looking for her next adventure, in the best possible way.”
VanZandt returned home with a flash drive of photos, a souvenir comic book and another box checked off the bucket list.
“Everybody should do it once,” she said — five words that have become her life motto since retiring as a regional manager in real estate and moving to Laguna Woods Village six years ago.
“From here on out, I’m not doing anything except having fun.”
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