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Sky is the limit
Oxford sky diver not content living life on the ground

As a child, Mark Gregory dreamed of flying - but not cooped up in a stuffy airplane. His thoughts turned to balloons and hang gliders. He even tried to craft his own glider with plastic and bamboo, which didn't work out so well.

"I was bruised quite often," he joked.

Gregory finally fulfilled his desire to fly with his first sky dive at age 35 at Sky Dive Monroe in Monroe. After that descent, Gregory found nirvana.

"I never wanted a motor. I never wanted the noise. I wanted the sensation of floating, so when I jumped out of an airplane for the first time, the parachute opened, the scenery was just so beautiful, the clouds, the energy, the adrenaline you felt contributed to the excitement end of it," Gregory said.

Now at age 47, Gregory boasts a successful career as a canopy formation sky diver, most recently winning a gold medal at the 2009 World Games in Taiwan. The World Games feature competitions in sports not held at the Olympics.

Gregory's sky diving team took the gold in the two-way canopy formation sequential in air sports. In two-way canopy formation sequential competition, two parachutists, along with a third team member who is filming the jump, leap from an aircraft, release their parachutes and perform as many maneuvers into certain positions as possible within one minute. The positions all involve one parachutist using the feet to touch the lines of the other's parachute. Judges award points for the number of positions achieved and correct execution of the positions.

The U.S. team, which consisted of Gregory, partner Christopher Gay of Albany, and videographer Elizabeth Godwin of New York, battled neck and neck with the Russian team for six jumps and, in the end, won out over them for five of those jumps, even breaking a world's record in scoring.

"The Russians were a rival of ours," said Gregory.

Gregory said he prefers canopy formation sky diving as opposed to freefall sky diving because it allows him more time in the air and more control over his jump. Freefalling lasts about 4 minutes versus the 10 Gregory enjoys by pulling his parachute sooner.

"The views are just incredible. Rainbows are complete circles. To see my silhouette in a rainbow in a cloud formation, it's just awesome," Gregory said.

While participation in any sky diving event is risky, even experienced sky divers avoid canopy activities for fear of entanglement. But, that doesn't deter Gregory, who said sky divers always have a reserve parachute at the ready and can use a special tool to cut away someone else's parachute, should it get tangled up in the legs.

"Most other sky divers are afraid to get close to another parachute. But the parachute is the thing that will save your life, so you'd better understand it," Gregory said.

An Oxford resident who moved to the area in 1972, Gregory graduated from Rockdale County High School in 1980 and attended the University of Georgia. He then decided to work for his father's business, Foam Packaging in Conyers. He now owns the company and parachutes as much as can, training for competitions at least one weekend a month at drop zones in Monroe and Sebastian, Fla.

Other sky diving accolades amassed by Gregory include a silver medal in the eight-way speed competition at the 2001 World Games in Spain; a silver in eight-way speed at the 2003 World Parachuting Competition in France; a gold medal in four-way sequential and silver medal in eight-way speed at the 2005 World Parachuting Competition in Croatia; and a bronze for two-way sequential and gold for four-way sequential at the 2006 World Parachuting Competition in Russia.

All told, he's performed about 5,600 jumps. He's in training for the 2010 World Games, to be held in Russia.

"Outside of work, probably about 70 percent of my activities are involved in sky diving of some type," said Gregory.

A sport that requires an investment of several thousand dollars in equipment, sky diving attracts a witty, down-to-earth crowd, said Gregory, many of them engineers or pilots. He recommends that anyone interested take a tandem sky dive with an experienced instructor who physically guides the parachutist the entire way down.

"There's really no responsibility on your part; it's just an amusement ride," Gregory said. "I would suggest it. It's just such a powerful experience. To me, just about all of the people I've taken to a drop zone loved the activity."

To learn more about sky diving, visit the United States Parachute Association Web site at www.uspa.org.

Karen J. Rohr can be reached at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.