When most college students have free time, they watch movies or play video games.
Kari Barlow goes skydiving. She doesn’t just occasionally jump out of airplanes, though. She jumps every chance she gets.
“Skydiving is 99 percent of my life,” she said. It’s not a casual thing for me.”
Barlow, a senior English major, started skydiving in 2005, right before her 20th birthday. Since then she has completed almost 600 jumps.
“During the summer, I jump between eight and 20 times a week,” Barlow said. “Last summer I did 200 jumps.”
It all started when one night a friend showed Barlow a video of him skydiving. The next morning, Barlow was at the Cross Keys Skydiving drop zone in Williamstown, N.J., about 20 minutes from Center City.
“It was something I always wanted to do, but I never realized how accessible it was,” she said.
After her first jump, Barlow was hooked.
She began training for her license, a process that cost her $2,500. Now, because she’s licensed and has her own gear, each jump only costs her $25.
“Skydiving is one of the most expensive sports in the world,” she said. “All of my finances are directed toward it.”
Her social life is also centered on it. She has become good friends with many people in the skydiving community. Her boyfriend, Rob Stanley, is a skydiving instructor on staff at Cross Keys.
Stanley has completed 16,000 jumps in his skydiving career, which began when he was still a teenager. Of all those jumps, 7,000 have been tandems, where he has had a beginning skydiver attached to him. He claims his only injury has been a broken toe.
“Cross Keys is the largest drop zone on the East Coast. It’s really hard to come by new things, especially for adults. [The drop zone is] like a playground for them,” he said, as he looked around at all the people filling out waivers before they go on their first skydiving adventures. “All this because we’re bored.”
Judging by the crowded parking lot of 100 cars, there seem to be a lot of adventurous people in the Philadelphia area. Cross Keys serves many experienced skydivers as well as first-time customers. Hundreds of people come through the drop zone each weekend.
“It’s a venue for people to express themselves,” Stanley said. “It’s the most fun you can have without guns or cops.”
Cross Keys has hosted some 250,000 people since it opened in 1984. It is a member of the United States Parachute Association, which means that all of the drop zone’s equipment and instructors comply with USPA standards.
USPA reports that its 31,000 skydiving members make about 2.2 million jumps a year. The average yearly fatality number since 1992 is 33. In all of her skydiving experience, Barlow has never been injured.
“If you get hurt, it’s almost always that you or someone near you did something wrong,” Barlow said. “It’s human error and can be avoided.”
The serious risk of injury was a big concern for her mom when Barlow started skydiving.
“As a mother, I would normally be anxious and nervous about my child doing something like that,” Margie Barlow said. “But she is a very level-headed person who thinks before she acts, so I feel confident she’ll be OK.”
Was she surprised when her daughter started jumping out of planes?
“I know she likes to do things that are out of the mainstream,” Margie said. “But I also know she’s a very cautious person. So it was a little of both, surprised and not so surprised.”
Barlow’s dad, Jim, was not quite as apprehensive. She even convinced him to jump with her once.
As her skills and passion for the sport have developed, Barlow has added new elements to her skydiving. She jumped off of bridges and out of hot air balloons and helicopters, and traveled to Belize to skydive.
When asked if she’ll ever consider becoming an instructor, Barlow confidently responded that she won’t. “To turn something you love into work ruins it for you.”
Lena Kravets can be reached at email@example.com.