Free Falling

(Below) Doris Darnell of Scott City, Mo., signs an autograph for Nick Taylor, 13 (not pictured) of Rantoul. “I just celebrated my 500th jump yesterday,” Darnell said. Peter Hoffman

By Jon Hansen

RANTOUL, Ill. – Eight years ago, Tim Ludwig was supposed to die. A liver transplant saved his life.

As a birthday gift from his daughter Kim, this weekend Ludwig, 46, will be making his first ever jump as a skydiver.

“I’m anxious,” Ludwig said. “I go over again and again in my mind how it’s going to look, stepping off the plane into nothing.”

Ludwig, a Rantoul resident, is just one of hundreds of thrill seekers participating in the 17th Annual World Free Fall Convention. The event began last Friday and continues through the weekend. On Wednesday, Ludwig’s family gathered at the Rantoul airport to watch him make the jump.

“I’m anxious to see him back on the ground,” Ludwig’s wife Connie said.

His mother, Sue Ludwig, also offered some advice.

“Just tell the guy you are jumping with to hold on tight,” she joked.

Ludwig was diagnosed eight years ago with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, a disease that left his liver useless. The disease killed famed Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton. After five months on a transplant list, Ludwig got a call at home letting him know that a donor had been found.

After a successful surgery in Wisconsin, he got a second chance at life.

Ludwig now volunteers for the Gift of Hope, an organization dedicated to promoting organ donation.

He was scheduled for a Wednesday tandem jump, parachuting with an experienced jumper strapped to his body. But due to late afternoon storms, the jump was canceled. Ludwig said he will jump by the end of the convention.

“Every year I come out to the event and want to jump, and this year I finally get to do it,” he said.

This is the fifth year the convention is being held in Rantoul. The event started in Quincy, but became too big for the facilities there. Event spokeswoman Beth Mahlo said this year’s convention has been very successful so far.

“This week has just been great,” Mahlo said. “The weather has cooperated, except for some rain (Wednesday) morning, but it was perfect because everybody really needed a nap.”

Most of the participants are experienced jumpers, but there are many opportunities for amateurs interested in the sport.

Tickets to sky dive in tandem range from $23-$59, Mahlo said.

New to the convention this year is a DC-9 jet from the Perris Valley Skydiving School in southern California. The jet offers an opportunity for experienced divers to jump at a high speed.

Those at the convention were reminded about the dangers of skydiving on Wednesday morning, when one jumper was killed after a misjudged landing. The man’s name and circumstances of his death have not yet been released.

“Skydivers are the first to be aware of life’s fragility,” Mahlo said. “And they love to live life to its fullest.”

Five people have died in accidents since the event moved to Rantoul, including two men during the convention last year.

This year’s event is being held two weeks earlier than in previous years. Mahlo said there were many reasons for the change.

“We were competing with the Illini football training camp for hotel rooms,” she said. “Our volunteers also had kids that were starting school, and it was getting harder to make the trip in August.”

Another reason for the change is the recent decline in the convention’s popularity. Last year’s turnout of 1,060 was the second lowest in the event’s history, and well short of the 5,732 attendees in 2000 in Quincy.

Mahlo said that the low turnout is reflective of national trends.

“It’s an expensive sport that requires a lot of traveling, so the price of fuel has hurt,” she said. “But extreme sports are down as a whole.”

Even so, said Mahlo, the convention is holding its own.

“We are going to have a little powwow with our jumpers to find out what they want to see,” she said. “The convention is a total grass-roots effort, from volunteer to jumper, and we want to make sure we make this event better for everyone.”

According to Mahlo, jumpers from all over the world are attending the event this year. While the final totals will not be known until after the convention, Mahlo said she has personally spoken to people from Canada, Denmark, South Africa, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France and Australia.

“We have one person that came from Paris just to volunteer so he could make a jump,” Mahlo said.

But Ludwig’s journey to the event required no passport, and he certainly never passed over an ocean. A simple car ride across Rantoul was all it took.

That, and a new liver.

“I just encourage everyone to become an organ donor,” Ludwig said.

And why choose skydiving as something to celebrate a second chance?

“Life’s too short,” he said.