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Fall Sports

Novice skydivers 'chute first, try formations later.

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Patrons of the Cleveland Sport Parachuting Center pay for an experience that engenders both extreme physical tension and emotional elation. But stepping out of the cozy confines of an aircraft and plummeting at 125 mph to the countryside 14,000 feet below, before opening a chute for a four-minute glide back to earth, is bound to whip up a dichotomy of emotion.

"It's the contrast between the two," says Tim Weidenkopf, explaining the appeal of skydiving after taking his second plunge. "At first, when you get up there, you open the door, and it's violent, loud, and overpowering. Then you get out and you can't believe how quiet it is. It's just serenity."

Located in Portage County's pastoral town of Garrettsville, the place more closely resembles a farmhouse than a parachute center, outfitted with a makeshift office and training facility inside and a homemade grass-and-dirt airstrip out back. Since 1981, owners Bob and Karen Gates have expanded the center to include three airplanes and a variety of instructional courses, including a virtual-reality simulator, making weekend diving soirees perfect for both greenhorns and ripened paratroopers.

"We're always training and learning different things here," says Bob Gates, a 34-year skydiving veteran whose family has run the facility since 1957. This weekend, the center is hosting a "formations weekend," where experienced and licensed jumpers will learn to create mid-air formations like circles and snowflakes; the jumps also offer rubberneckers plenty to see from picnic blankets on terra firma. Formations aren't for novice divers, and more than a weekend's worth of experience is needed to participate, but beginners can still take a non-formation plunge.

"I thought it was awesome, but it was kind of hard to breathe," muses first-time jumper Gwen Hullman. "It was really cool, but really loud. It's just like looking out the window of an airplane -- except there's no window."

Not to mention, there's no plane either.

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