In The Zone

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A University of Kentucky study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, confirms that the brains of thrill seekers, such as skydivers, are stimulated in the same manner as those of drug users. This prompted NIDA to launch a television campaign hoping to turn young thrill seekers on to extreme sports like skydiving or bungee jumping instead of cocaine or acid. Perhaps they didn't realize that there is a price for any addiction, and that hooking people on skydiving can have a drastic effect on their futures, and their bank accounts.

Getting really good can cost half a million dollars or more, says Betsy Barnhouse, who has logged more than 2,500 jumps in four years and earned a spot on the U.S. Freestyle Skydiving Team. Barnhouse seems polite enough on the ground, but make no mistake: The girl's got a serious habit. Get her in the air, and the spark in her eyes could ignite a gasoline fire.

On a recent afternoon, Barnhouse struts onto the landing pad and hoists a turkey-size tumbleweed into the air, tossing it back into the desert whence it came. She then tilts her head way back to track one of her students, a middle-aged man named Bryce who descends to nail a perfect landing directly in the center of the large sand pit. His precision has her smiling proudly, as he steps delicately to one side, his orange-and-yellow chute falling to the ground next to him like an obedient puppy.

Moments later, a member of the Russian National Skydiving Team, resplendent in a red-and-black jumpsuit, touches down a few yards to his left. The stone-faced Russian is coming in too fast for grace and hits the ground running hard -- pumping his legs like a cartoon character-- nearly stumbling to compensate for his excessive speed.

Barnhouse erupts in a smirk that belies her competitive spirit. The Russians may be world champions in freefall, but they're not known for their graceful landings, she can't help but explain.

A former Nike employee and synchronized swimmer, Barnhouse takes jumping out of planes very seriously, and it's unlikely she would classify skydiving as an addiction. For her it's a sport worthy of respect. Yet as she speaks, her devotion to the rush is evident.

"I was in my 30s, and there were still things I wanted to do," says Barnhouse, trying to explain how she ended up jumping out of airplanes. "After my first tandem in Miami, I went right back up on the next load. Then I went home and packed up all my stuff." (Novice skydivers jump attached to a tandem instructor.)

Many of the people roaming the drop zone in brightly colored jumpsuits are actually doctors, lawyers and engineers in the real world, people who can afford to support a regular skydiving habit -- which easily costs more than $10,000 annually for the recreational jumper. "This is an expensive sport," Barnhouse explains. "So many of these people had lucrative careers."

As an employee of Skydive Arizona, Barnhouse trains at the drop zone for free. She is also one of the few lucky skydivers who has found a way to make the sport pay for itself. She works as events coordinator for the drop zone, and also coaches students like Bryce.

There are other ways to fund your habit, such as working as a camera flyer (videographer) or a tandem instructor where you get paid to jump.

Winning competitions isn't a way to pay the bills. Skydiving's not a spectator sport. The action happens more than a mile up in the air and is seen only by judges on the ground for the most part. Thus, the big advertising money that has latched onto other sports hasn't found its way to skydiving yet, Barnhouse says.

Barnhouse keeps one blue eye on the landing area as she dutifully goes over terms like relative work, freeflight, freestyle and sky-surfing, each a different style of making your way out of the plane and onto the ground.

The more traditional of the skydiving disciplines is relative work, or formation skydiving in which teams of usually four or eight form a series of kaleidoscope-like maneuvers in the air before deploying their parachutes.

Skydive Arizona is home to a former world champion team in the relative category, Arizona Airspeed, now ranked second in the world. The reigning Russian champions and the Army's legendary Golden Knights also train at Eloy.

But for the last decade or so, skydiving has gone through a revolution. Experiments during freefall in the early '90s led to the creation of freeflying. Instead of soaring belly to the ground, Barnhouse explains, freeflyers are on their backs and heads, flipping and spinning through a routine of poses, executed at much higher speeds than those of relative divers. The dives are videotaped and then judged on the ground for accuracy and skill. Freestyle is a more artistic version of freeflight, employing ballet-like moves down to the pointed toes. Sometimes freeflyers sky-surf, flipping and spinning with a board strapped to their feet.

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Susy Buchanan