Skydiver persists despite broken body, broken heart

Nicole Smith is an Atlanta resident who has set out to skydive in all 50 states. So far she has...
(Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT)
Story by Jon Waterhouse
(The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Sun, Jun 17, 2012
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ATLANTA — A broken neck, a broken back and a laundry list of other injuries led doctors to believe that 27-year-old Nicole Smith of Atlanta would never walk again.

Those same physicians need simply to look to the sky and see a woman who’s literally risen above the bleak prognosis. Smith, who has recovered from a battered body and bruised spirit, is well on her way to achieving the lofty personal goal of skydiving in all 50 states.

She’s descended over the Delicate Arch in Moab, Utah, looked down upon the stunning sands of Sebastian Beach in Florida, and gotten a rare view of Mount Rainier in Washington. Having jumped in more than 40 states and counting, Smith’s goal should be met in about a month with the logistical challenges of Alaska serving as her final conquest.

Smith’s passion for skydiving runs deep, dating to her 22nd birthday. That’s when she and her husband celebrated by indoctrinating themselves into the hobby.

“It was the most exciting thing I’d ever done in my life,” she said during a recent Atlanta stop in the midst of her mission. “You use up eight hours of adrenaline in one jump. It was just overwhelming and incomprehensible.”

The couple would relive the experience annually until tragedy struck in January 2010. The death of her husband, a man she had been with the majority of her adult life, found Smith in an emotional upheaval. It took her the better part of a year to adjust.

Smith sought solace in skydiving, approaching the sport alone for the first time in January 2011 at Skydive the Farm in Rockmart, Ga. It’s where she met instructor Jeremy Marston, and they soon began dating. Smith found herself not only falling in love with skydiving, but with Marston, too.

In June of last year, Smith and Marston were returning home from a date when their vehicle was struck by another as the driver ran a red light. Marston was killed in the accident.

Smith was in critical condition with the back and neck injuries, as well as two broken ribs, four pelvic fractures, a broken tailbone, a punctured lung and two brain injuries. If she was fortunate enough to beat the heavy odds and walk again, doctors said it would be with assistance and a limp. After spending 11 days in the hospital, Smith began months of physical therapy.

“I felt completely defeated,” she said. “I almost didn’t make it through this particular incident. I had been working, saving and investing, because I was going to retire at 40. My realization was that life is so fleeting.”

This new lease on life included Smith walking away from her job as district manager for a large specialty retail company.

And yes, she was walking — without a cane or a limp. She ventured back to skydiving last November.

Smith and Marston would have one last jump together. On Jan. 7, Marston’s birthday, Smith and a group of their comrades dropped his ashes from the sky.

“It was overwhelming,” she said.

Two months later, Smith decided to embark on her 50-state trek. Although she had no goal outside of wanting to “see everything in the United States,” Smith thought adding skydiving to the mix would take things to the next level. She wanted to appreciate the beauty of America by enjoying the view from 14,000 feet.

Her parents were apprehensive at first, but Smith said they’re basically used to her lifelong tendency to “push the envelope.” Once they understood what goes into accelerated free-fall training and the different licenses skydivers hold, Smith said they began to feel more comfortable with the idea.

They can keep up with their daughter’s adventure as she blogs each experience (( ).

The trip has been continuous, with Smith traveling the country in her compact car along with the basic necessities, including a couple of suitcases, a tent and a sleeping bag. A gnome statue often rides shotgun. As a nod to those Travelocity TV commercials, Smith takes pictures of the gnome at the various drop zones and stops along the way. The life experience has been invaluable, she said, citing the amazing scenery and the characters she meets.

The biggest byproduct is arguably the unexpected spiritual journey Smith finds herself on. She’s found a sense of peace. It’s brought her closer to God, she said, giving her the opportunity to give thanks for a second chance at life, and relish the experiences she has each day.

After she wraps up her quest, Smith said she plans to earn enough skydiving jumps to become an instructor. The new year will include a trip to Australia, where she’ll explore her love for videography and perhaps teach others how to skydive.

Her advice to those contemplating skydiving or any other positive life experience: Just do it.

“Take advantage of the life that you have right now. It’s so easy to put things off until tomorrow, and sometimes tomorrow doesn’t come.”

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