The year of 2020 has not started well for most of us. I was not an exception. The death of a family member on April 25th and then a car wreck when someone carelessly ran a red light and t-boned my car on May 19th left me alive, but with broken rib and some back issues. This was just the right time to do something extraordinary to wipe off the first half of 2020. The idea of skydiving slipped my friend's lips around that time and I couldn't stop thinking about it. The fear of losing a dear life (right?!) kept me awake the whole night before my first jump. It was early Saturday morning on June 27th of 2020 when my friend picked me up to go for my first tandem skydive. As my friend had 98 skydives under his belt, I was curious as to why he would do tandem. His answer was simple and straight - he broke his ankle pretty bad on his 77th or something jump. He told me about it high level. My visualization skills however didn't fail me, but rather added and imprinted a newly painted image like a permanent marker on the clean white board. It was too late to back up though as we were heading to the drop zone. That clear and distinct image of a broken ankle got stuck in my head and developed into a little roadblock of "do not break your ankle." We had to wait for some time to get on the load, but finally the moment of the first dive had come. Of course I don't remember how we stepped out of the plane as I was simply terrified. However, once the sensory overload subsided, I saw the beauty of the earth and it just completely changed something within me. I was not sure if I would do another tandem jump as I got dizzy after 180 and 360 degree turns. However, the moment I sat myself in the car to go back home, I was not able to stop talking about skydiving for the whole hour on the way back. In fact, all of my friends from now on would hear only one subject- skydiving. No wonder why AFF came up on my horizon pretty fast. There was only one big issue that clouded my head with doubts - vivid image of broken ankle. However, I still decided to sign up for the course and my ground school was scheduled for July 18th, 2020. I was very excited and scared at the same time. It was early Saturday morning, when I headed towards manifest to get some forms signed. I remember meeting my ground school instructor who was in the boot due to an ankle injury. My head alarm went off in high pitch - don't do it - injured ankle! The class was long, but mainly because I asked too many questions. Looking back at it, I'm really grateful for the patience of my ground school instructor. Since the class lasted too long and the weather was not our best friend after the class, I headed home and studied the material. One big question was still ringing through my head- how would I be able to find a drop zone and land safely? I wanted a stand up landing as I thought it would prevent me from injury. The next day or July 19th of 2020 didn't fail to come quickly enough and I headed back to the DZ with my friend to get my first AFF jump in. We finally got on the load around 5:00pm. I was very nervous and could barely hold it back. And finally - the Door! I was so overwhelmed that I couldn't recall the first few seconds after our exit. However, once all the excitement started to settle in, I was able to do some practice pulls with assistance. Also, my only thought at that time was - please don't let me go, don't let me go!!! I was afraid I would fly away and too far would it be. Few moments later my body decided to do a backflip. Because why not, right? My instructor acted quickly to fix me back and gave a signal to another instructor to pull for me. I felt ashamed. I got three line twists as my back was not straight on the opening. Surprisingly enough, those twists didn't bother me at all as I was glad to be alive. However, what bothered me the most at that moment was the question- where is the drop zone? Everything looked unfamiliar to me from above. I had a slight panic attack to say the least. Alone in the sky, quiet, and you have no clue where you are going. Well thought though, Katya. Finally the radio kicked in. Well, I didn't realize it was only one way. Fun. My instructor was telling me what direction the drop zone is, but the directions sounded confusing. I was finally able to locate what I thought was our landing area and headed back. Luckily enough it was our landing area and not just the random field with bulls and alligators. I didn't have time to do the pattern and headed straight to final while heading crosswind. I heard loud, "hands all the way up, feet and knees together. Not yet! Not yet! Not yet!" Well.. The ground was coming in awfully fast and when I looked down and heard "Flare! Flare! Flare!" I hit the ground full speed on the crosswind and my left ankle gave in. I felt that my foot was not attached to the bones. Fun. Long story short, my ankle required surgery with plates and screws. I didn't realize how bad it would be after surgery and how long it would take to fully recover. I would wake up some nights and the vivid images of rushing ground would keep me awake in cold sweats. It was also supposed to be my promotion year at work, but I was unable to work as much due to the injury and had to forgo my promotion. Well… 2020 was not my friend.
Lots of doubts passed through my head during my recovery period and I doubted if I would ever go back to skydiving. Each time I would hear the song "Over the rainbow", my heart would ache about the sky. I watched tons of Friday freak-outs videos, landing videos, you name it, but I was not sure if I would ever go back. I was also part of the "Broken Skydivers" group on Facebook and I've seen too much there. There is just too much risk that I was not ready to take. However, the feeling of failure has haunted me all the time. I haven't failed that bad anywhere else in my life. I worked very hard to recover and decided to do some tunnel time about 4.5 months after surgery. I recall talking to my boss right before the tunnel and him mentioning not to break anything else. He said, "Imagine you break your wrist, you are unable to work, and you have to explain to your upper boss what caused it this time." I walked into the tunnel and all the fear combined with the pain in the ankle froze me during the session. I felt another complete failure. I couldn't do it. I begged my instructor with my eyes to get me out of the tunnel when I was on the net. I decided I'll just get back to running and rollerblading. My goal was to run 4 miles during the St. Pete Run Fest in July of 2021. The goal was reached on July 4th and I had to set another goal as I started to get bored. At that time, my friends invited me to go parasailing. Once we got all the way up in the sky, I knew right at that moment that I had to go back and skydive even if it meant tandem. As the excitement faded away, I was pushing off on skydiving. My friend didn't fail to remind me about skydiving and I finally decided to dedicate my jump to my dad since I couldn't go back to my home country and visit him on his birthday. The time had come. We were out of the plane and I felt so free again. The chute opened and we were flying under the canopy. I knew I was back as tears of joy started to pour down. However, we have not landed yet. I was terrified on our final approach and closed my eyes tightly. We touched down by sliding in. No broken bones. Yes! Tandem number two was purchased right away. Then tandem number three. Then my TI instructor found a full time job and I decided to go with the TI instructor that I did my first jump with in 2020 as I felt safe with him. I came in with my friend to do my fifth tandem since injury and as we got out of the car, I begged my friend to remind me about what I went through if I decide to do AFF. We boarded the plane and on the way up my friend said, "To Katya's last tandem!" I said, " Ha! Yeah" and thought to myself that he was insane. I assisted in flare on our landing and for the first time I felt that there is a way to land this thing safely. I was eager to go back for another tandem jump. However, my TI said, "no more tandems!" It felt like something just had died within me. I was feeling so heartbroken and depressed at the thought that I would not be able to go back up in a week or so. It felt like everything fell apart. Of course I could go with another TI, but I trusted this one and I didn't want to build this trust with yet another instructor. I begged my instructor to do one more tandem thinking that I can do it every time, but it was straight "no, go back on your own, you are ready." I don't know how I gave in, but I decided to just do it. My ground school was scheduled in a week or so. I felt like I knew everything by heart during ground school. I wanted to jump that day, but my TI along with another instructor I trusted were not available. All of my courage has slipped away and I was in a huge doubt if I should do it. Noah has reached out to me at the right time and cleared my doubts. The day had come and I was going back up. I was still terrified to land on my own and the radio gave me extra chills. Freefall was straightforward and easy, the canopy opened beautifully and I was heading back to face the biggest fear I had in the past year and a half since injury - landing without breaking bones on my own. I had big support on the ground and the thought of it made my journey back much easier. As I was approaching on final, I heard the dreadful radio "feet and knees together" and then "wait for it, wait for it…" and then "flare, flare, flare." I'm so glad I didn't hear "Not yet! Not yet! Not yet" as those words brought back bad memories. I thought it was thoughtful of my instructor not to use those words if it was done on purpose. I flared slightly higher with my instincts kicking in and landed softly sliding in. I was beyond happy. That day had come! I dreamed so much about it. My two wonderful instructors cheered for me and I finally felt that I was not a complete failure at the end. Even though I landed safely this time, I knew that it didn't mean I would land safely next time. Landings prevented me from making more jumps, but I also needed more jumps to get more landings. At this point I was not aiming for stand up landings, but rather safe landings. I recall landing slightly hard on my feet and falling forward on one of my jumps. My broken ankle felt it to the point that I was limping the next day and people noticed it. I felt ashamed again and the old feeling of failure started to cripple in. I thought I would never reach my goal to be consistently safe on my landings. I forced myself to watch educational landings and try to feel the flare while watching. I noticed that as I watched the first eight landings, my heart rate was skyrocketing through the roof once it was time to flare and I felt dizzy to my stomach. The ground rush was just too much for me to handle even on the video. How could I do something well, when I'm reacting rather than acting? That was my issue. I was not acting, but reacting based on my past injury. I forced myself to watch those landings ten times and feel it. I noticed that I finally started to feel calm. I was not reacting anymore. I got back to the sky a few days later and that calmness on the final has helped me to assess the situation for the first time. I kept landing safely, but I felt like I would never get a stand up landing. Finally, the day had come. I was not afraid of the rushing ground anymore, I was simply assessing and calculating the situation in the present moment. For the first time I managed to do a stand up landing. I don't know how I did it and I felt it was just pure luck. I had to PLF on my next skydive as winds caught me off guard on the ground. I specifically signed up for the canopy course to improve my landings and get a better feel of the canopy. Oddly enough I stood up all of my landings during the canopy course.
There were a few times during my skydiving journey when I was ready to give up. While the feeling of failure had pushed me to do better, seeing other people being hurt or dying left me in complete confusion and doubt if the risk was really worth it. I purposely forced myself to skydive after those accidents, but my mental state was a complete mess and so were my subsequent skydives. I'm not sure if I should have held back on skydiving during those times, but what past is prologue. In my opinion, knowledge, practice, and somewhat smart calculated choices can keep one safe. There is so much to learn in skydiving. It feels like there is no limit and that's what makes it more enjoyable and exciting. Why do I skydive? It gives me a sense of purpose and makes me happy just like in childhood.
Blue and safe skies to all skydivers!
Thank you so much for sharing your incredible journey Katya. I didn't even know half of what you've worked through! I can assure you it was just dumb luck that I said "wait for it" vs "not yet". Thank you so much for allowing Derek and I to accompany you on that first AFF jump since your injury. The joy of overcoming your fear was so contagious the second you landed. Looking forward to stamping your forehead with your A-License soon! -Noah