Six o’clock in the morning and my heartbeat is out of control
Ten minutes until boarding feels like I’m about to explode
Time for the ride up, tension starting to swirl
I can’t believe I’m gonna free fall from top of the world.
— Skydiving by Jonay, featuring Jasmine Kara
Dubai: 5 a.m. Wide-awake Jarrett Martin prepares for yet another trip to the top of the world. He has sought out this destination more than 3,000 times, from various countries and via different routes. Today he will take passengers with him as he packs their chutes and prepares them for their inevitable free fall from 8,000 feet above the earth. Martin currently works for Skydive Dubai, where he is one of just two qualified master parachute riggers in the United Arab Emirates. He is also a PRO-rated skydiver, a private pilot, videographer and senior rigger. He has been licensed as a United States Parachute Association Accelerated Free Fall and Tandem Instructor. And he just happens to be a paraplegic.
Martin began skydiving at the age of 9. A typical boy, he looked up to his father, mother and grandfather, all skydivers. His father and grandfather were also Drop Zone operators. “There is no way for the son of a father who owns a Drop Zone not to get into skydiving,” says Jarrett. His father, Brett, concurs. “Jarrett was ready to jump way before that first jump. The only thing that was keeping him from jumping was he simply couldn’t fit in the harness.”
Brett remembers how instinctive that first tandem jump with Jarrett felt. “What’s interesting about that first jump was that it felt so natural. So calm. My brother Dave filmed that jump and another friend went with us, and they were more nervous for Jarrett then he or I was. It was an unbelievable feeling as we approached landing and all our friends were there cheering. I felt so calm and clear-headed. When you see the footage, I think you can see it on Jarrett’s face as well.”
Brett got in trouble for that jump and lost his tandem rating for three months, but Jarrett got hooked on a sport that would ultimately change his life. But if you ask them about it now, they will reply in unison. “It was worth it!”
At 14 Jarrett took his first step to becoming a certified skydiver with a static-line jump on May 28, 2005. “There hasn’t been 10 minutes that go by when I’m not thinking about skydiving,” he says. “How do I get better? When’s the next skydive? What am I gonna do in the next skydive? It has just consumed a lot of my life since that first dive.”
It also killed his good friend and mentor, Herb Eskelson. After graduating from high school, Martin followed Eskelson to Hawaii to work at a Drop Zone in Oahu. A few months later, in August 2009, they decided to end a long day of work with some fun. They gathered their gear, sanctioned a plane and took to the sky. Martin tears up as he remembers: “The airplane dropped us off a little bit off-target and Herb got behind the curve a bit and struck a tree.”
The parachute used by Herb could accelerate up to 90 mph. Martin recalls that a collision at that speed was bound to have deadly results. “Herb literally died in my arms,” he says. “It’s an experience that I’ll never forget. As crazy as it was, it didn’t affect my attitude towards the sport. Lots of people in my life have gotten injured or killed, but I’m very passionate about skydiving and base jumping. Nothing comes between me and the things I love. I was jumping the next day.”
Although his friend’s death never slowed Martin down, he readily admits, “It did make me be more cautious.” Unfortunately that sense of caution wasn’t enough. Just two weeks later, skydiving nearly took his life as well.
“Skydivers are a tight-knit group, a band of brothers. We know the risks of the sport and we feel the loss, but we can’t stop.” Friends in Hawaii had helped him move through the grief of Eskelson’s death, but he wasn’t just base jumping again; he started upping the ante with a never-before-tried trick. “I had successfully completed this base jump off a cliff on the North shore of Oahu. It was a rush but I wanted to do it again and add a twist, make it more extreme.”
He planned to pull off a stunt that was a hybrid of base jumping and paragliding. It involved leaping from a cliff, hitting high speeds, deploying one chute to gain altitude, then deploying a second shoot to glide through the trees to land. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. “My parachute collapsed and I fell a couple of hundred feet and broke my back and damaged a lot of my insides,” he says. “I should have been dead.”
Repairing a Broken Body. Moving On
With a shattered spine, torn aorta and battered kidneys and lungs, he lay near death, barely making it to the hospital alive. His father starts to cry when asked about the accident. “I had just gotten home from a day of jumping myself, and I fired up the computer,” says Brett. “It must have been 8 or 9 at night. I had just recently joined Facebook and our friend, Ramey, who lived in Hawaii, sent me a message that Jarrett had a hard landing and had broken his leg.”
Initially not seriously concerned, Brett sent Jarrett a tongue-in-cheek text. “I heard you broke your landing gear, son.” At this point he thought it was just a routine skydiving injury. But after several hours and many phone calls later, it turned terrible. “I talked to him on the phone for a brief minute as they were taking him into surgery. He said, ‘I love you, Dad,’ then mumbled something else that I couldn’t make out. I talked to the doctor and asked if he was going to make it. The doctor said, ‘We’ll do our best.’ That’s when I realized he might die.”
Shocked and unsure of his son’s fate, Brett prepared to board a plane from Seattle to Hawaii. He remembers the overwhelming apprehension. “At the airport in Seattle, I faced the prospect of getting on the airplane not knowing whether I was going to arrive in Hawaii to a dead son or not. Six hours on a plane with no way to know. About a half-hour before I boarded, I got a call from the hospital and the doctor said he was going to make it.”
Jarrett spent 30 days in ICU following surgery. “The big thing was an aortic repair and the damage to my lungs and kidneys,” he says. “The heart surgery was the worst, the most dangerous.” When recovering, secretly he held out hope that when his other injuries healed, his paralysis would also improve. It didn’t. His injury, T3 complete, has resulted in no sensation or movement from the chest down.
At the age of 18 Jarrett moved back home with his dad in Seattle. He spent six months in rehab learning to function as a para. Initially he had his doubts about what life would be like with a disability. “Of course I was depressed. I think anyone who experienced an accident like this would be depressed. Everything I took for granted — like taking a shower, getting into bed, and going to the bathroom — was harder now. It is a difficult adjustment to make.”
But he pushed through any lingering doubts that life must go on. Within a year he started driving again and went back to college. Becoming independent wasn’t a choice for Jarrett, it was inevitable. “Once I knew I was not going to walk again, I realized that, due to my young age, if I was going to be depressed it would be for a long time, so I’d better get over it. I’d better learn to live without regret or hesitation.”
Martin has come to acknowledge his injury, but his father still has difficulty accepting it. When asked about the paralysis, Brett guardedly admits, “I still haven’t realized it. I still haven’t accepted it. I still have issues with it that I have a hard time dealing with. I don’t think I will ever accept that he is paralyzed. I certainly won’t ever give up hope that he will walk again.”
Jarrett is also hopeful that a cure will be discovered, but realizes that it’s not readily available now. “I’m sure the day will come. As for in my lifetime, it will be close. Being in a chair is just going to be it.”
Less than six months after nearly dying, he was back on the top of the world, ready to start free falling again. His father wasn’t surprised at all. “It was never an issue or concern,” says Brett. “We all knew it would happen sooner rather than later.”
Getting Back into the Groove
In February 2010, Jarrett and his dad lived in a house about a mile away from the airport in Shelton, Wash. They had both jumped from that site several times before, and when Brett got the call from a friend, he knew something was up. “I was at home that day doing something and Jarrett was at the airport. I got a call from someone that Jarrett was ready to do a tandem. A half an hour later, we were in the air.” Jarrett kept on with re-training from that point and was jumping on his own a month or so later.
After that first jump post-injury, he knew his career as a skydiver was not over. But initially he shied from base jumping and moved to a safer genre, Style and Accuracy. In 2011 he became the first paraplegic to compete in the USPA National Skydiving Championships. Although not his greatest performance, he managed to hit the scoring pad, rack up some points and fulfill his dream of competing. “Embarrassing as it was to get last place, it was really cool to overcome all the things I had to, just to come,” he says. “It’s a huge deal to come to nationals. I still competed like any other skydiver. It’s just my disability kept me from being super competitive.”
He continued to improve and compete, participating in the 2012 and 2013 USPA Championships, honing his Style and Accuracy skills. “Style and Accuracy has been fun for the past four years. It’s safe on body moving because you land on the tuffet around a target. The goal is to get your foot on the bull’s-eye. You just can’t really score well if you can’t move your foot.”
Now that he knows his body better, he wants to try to compete in a more aggressive discipline that doesn’t involve a foot target but does include higher speeds. “It will be harder on my body, but it will be more like what I was doing before my accident.”
But he isn’t content to just get back to where he was before his injury; he is doing so much more. Earlier this year he spent four days in the Norwegian fjords and completed 11 base jumps from the 3,000-foot summits of some of the most terrifying cliffs in the world. He is the first disabled person to complete such a jump unassisted. He recounts his adventure: “For the entire fall I have that cliff behind me. It’s very intimidating. To have the skills and courage to do that. Norway was one of the more crazy and thrilling base jumps I have done. Even previous to my accident.”
And he continues to expand his abilities and his dream. “When I got hurt I thought I would never get to go to Dubai and check out all the cool things there. I never thought it would be possible to work here in my condition, but you put your mind to it and anything can happen. It took that accident almost to realize how much passion I have for the job I do now.”
Passionate is just one word to describe Jarrett Martin. When he first returned to skydiving, he described himself as a “stupid-little-inspirational-punk-kid.” Today, he says, “I have tamed down quite a bit at 23, but I’m still a kid for sure. Now I would describe myself as deep, contained, daring, adventurous and professional. Other people like to call me inspirational. But I don’t think it is that inspirational to keep doing what you love. I had a pretty kickass life. I still have a kickass life.
“I’m doing everything now that I wanted to do before the accident and more.”