He may not have a cure for adrenaline addiction, but Don Campbell has reached a plateau in his lifelong pursuit of extreme sports.
It’s called middle age.
Campbell, a Kamloops defence lawyer, recently returned from Dubai, where he was part of Maximum Ride, a Canadian eight-way formation skydiving team at the World Parachuting Championships Mondial 2012.
“We got to 15th,” he said. “That’s about where Canadian eight-way teams have been. We considered that was good for us. We did better in competition than we did in training.”
It wasn’t about winning, though. Preparing for months with his teammates — including wind-tunnel training down in the U.S. — fulfilling the goal of the eight-way jump over the Palm Jumeira and taking in the spectacle of a world championship in exotic surroundings; these were the experiences that counted most, along with the rush of 70 seconds of freefall from 13,500 feet at 200 km/h.
It didn’t hurt that the Crown Prince of Dubai — Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum or Fazza for short — pulled out all the stops.
“The Crown prince is an avid skydiver to the point where he has a wind tunnel in his house,” Campbell said. “He spent $60 million on the event, and that was on top of putting in a $70-million runway.”
Five-star hotel stays and taxi cabs shrink-wrapped with Mondial 2012 advertising were a cut above the usual world meets.
“It was hard to relate to the scope because usually skydiving occurs in ATCO trailers out in the desert somewhere. It’s a pretty austere circumstance.
“The competition was 10 days and the prince of Dubai paid for us to stay another week for free. He flew in Usher and Katie Parry to give back to back full concerts at the closing ceremony. He flew in Felix Baumgartner (the Austrian skydiver who set a world record for high altitude and descent speed last fall) just to come and talk to us. He put up a huge stadium just for the opening ceremony.”
Each team from 57 countries had its own tent with camels standing by in case anyone wanted to go for a ride. Dubai shopping malls offer visitors experiences not generally associated with the Persian Gulf, including skiing and snorkeling.
“One day you’re jumping out over the Palm Jumeirah and the next day you’re hanging with the sharks and the next day skiing indoors.”
But for Campbell, it wasn’t about the frills so much. It was about cresting the summit on a journey that began in 1976 when he started competitive freestyle skiing right out of high school. By 1986, he made the national development team during his final year of university. There was pro touring, the chance to represent Canada and a world record ski jump.
“It was unbelievably exciting.”
Then knee injuries — for which freestyle is notorious — caught up with him. He moved on to full-contact martial arts and dove into paraskiing — jumping off high mountains wearing skis and a light parachute. He was part of the national team at the Europa Cup during that phase.
He tried other adrenaline-laced sports, including base-jumping from El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Calif., which landed him in trouble with the law.
“I certainly wouldn’t advocate anybody doing that.”
In the ’90s, he shifted his focus to formation skydiving with the goal of qualifying for a world cup event. That chance came in 1995, when he was selected for the national team, but he got sick at the last minute and attended as an alternate.
He was picked again for the 2000 team, but during training season snapped an Achilles tendon while skiing, so he missed that one, too. Between ’95 and 2011, he ranked as a national skydiving champion five times, yet the world cup remained elusive until this fall.
“I feel incredibly lucky. After freestyle skiing, I think this was my one chance of getting to a world championship. I’d spent my body accordingly. I used up most of my nine lives in freestyle.”
Just getting to Dubai was an enormous undertaking based on skydiving ability plus an expensive and time-consuming commitment to training.
It’s the most physically and mentally involving sport I’ve ever been in. I think because it recruits every spare inch of your body in flight control surface, a sort of fluid dynamics.”
He sums it up as gravity-fuelled power.
“It’s like attaching 200 km/h jets to every part of your body. It’s a force that can be controlled exquisitely.”
At 54 — he was the eldest member of the team — he’s setting his sights on tamer adventures, perhaps with a more controlled flow of adrenaline. At the same time, he has found in skydiving a sport that nourishes his lifelong need without compromising his health.
“In a couple of weeks I’ll be eligible for seniors’ discounts. And I have grandkids. So I feel lucky that I was able to realize this dream.”
He credited his wife for lending him stalwart support through the years.
“But what I’d begun to see as a curse, it’s become a life’s dream come true. Maybe, in a curious way, there’s a reason why it took so long.”