SARATOGA SPRINGS – It’s certainly not for the faint of heart.
Picture yourself 13,500 feet in the air with the door of a small airplane wide open. You’re decked out with big goggles, something that resembles a jumpsuit and a backpack containing the only thing that can save your life on the journey you’re about to embark on: A parachute.
Forget butterflies in your stomach – it’s more like there’s a swarm of cicadas deep in your gut. As you wipe away a bead of sweet glistening on your brow, you’re told, “it’s time.”
You look down and see the earth from what might as well be outer space. Three … two … one … and you’re off.
As you drop and the atmospheric pressure lessens with each passing foot, you’re relieved that your first skydive is going so well.
As you deploy your parachute, you start to think: “Hey, I can do this again. That was fun!”
You just jumped out of a plane and landed successfully on the ground. Are you insane or what?
For Saratoga Springs resident Matt Leonard, it’s all in a day’s work. Leonard, 24, has been skydiving since 2010, when he was a student at the University at Massachusetts-Amherst and has turned a passion into a championship-winning pedigree.
Two weeks ago, Leonard went down to Raeford, N.C., to compete in the US Parachute Association National Parachuting Championships and returned home two gold medals, a silver and a bronze. Not a bad haul for Leonard, who practices and prepares for these events when he’s not working as a chemical engineer at Global Foundries.
“Mentally, you’re competing with others, so it’s a mind thing,” Leonard said. “You can’t second guess when you’re about to jump. Your biggest competitor is yourself, and if you think too much, you’ll end up penalizing yourself.”
He took home gold in the advanced category and also zone accuracy. He won silver in speed and bronze in distance.
The USPA is a non-profit founded in 1946 and is dedicated to the promotion of safe skydiving nationwide. It has established strict safety standards and training policies at more than 240 USPA-affiliated schools and centers throughout the country. The 37,000-plus member group makes more than 3.2 million jumps each year.
Leonard grew up just outside of Boston and moved to Saratoga Springs in May of 2014 to start his new job. But it was March 19, 2010, that would change his life in an adventurous way.
His father had been a skydiver from 1994 through 2005, and his brother got involved in 2005. So, with a familial background in the sport, Leonard decided to give it a go in Florida, where he was visiting on Spring Break.
“I didn’t plan it until I got down there,” he said. “But it was really cool. I had my rig, and my first jump was by myself, not a tandem jump. Shortly after, I got certified to skydive and now I have a USPA license.”
Since that jump, skydiving has become an obsession of sorts for Leonard, who talked about what it feels like to prepare for a nearly three-mile free fall.
“For me, it’s really just a little nerves or anxiety,” he said. “You get excited about entering a world you’re not familiar with. Sitting in a plane with the door open, 13,500-feet up in the air, your body just kind of takes over. The only thing you really need to know is to remember what the instructors taught you, and do that. There are tasks you need to complete and you’ll be fine.”
Leonard explained that after taking eight jumps, you become certified as a jumper. Beyond that, there are all sorts of different criteria to make it to other levels. Leonard is certified as an instructor, and spends a lot of his time taking others on jumps.
He’s even earned a high enough rating to be considered a coach. Earning that level in such a short period of time is a testament to Leonard’s passion for the sport.
Leonard joined his college’s Sport Parachuting Club, eventually becoming president in 2011.
He has competed in the USPA championships a few times, but this was his most successful trip to date. This year, there were a total of 59 competitors, and Leonard beat out 23 in the advanced category.
A second jumper leaves at the same time, equipped with a camera. He or she will snap photographs on the way down, making for some entertaining shots.
“Saying I love skydiving would be an understatement,” Leonard added.
Leonard said he’s a simple man, spending his free time skiing at Stratton or Mount Snow when he’s not jumping out of planes. But during the warm weather months, he said he doesn’t do much outside of work and skydiving.
“People often ask what it’s like to skydive, and I tell them they have to go try it for themselves,” he said. “It’s not really something that an explanation would do justice.”