Friday, September 9, 2011

Slidell skydiving is wish come true for 85-year-old birthday girl

From 2nd:
From Slidell skydiving is wish come true for 85-year-old birthday girl
Skydiving for your 85th birthday may seem a bit out of the ordinary to some. But for the friends and family of Willa Cristina of Harahan, it’s just “classic Willa.”

The very active octogenarian shared her adventure on Aug. 28 with all five of her children, her grandchildren, and several of their spouses. Each completed their jumps with the help of the Sky Dive N’Awlins staff at the Slidell Municipal Airport.

Cristina said she was inspired to attempt the feat by George Bush Sr., who did the same in celebration of his 85th birthday. “I decided I wanted to give it a try,” she said.

Although her birthday was actually Monday, she hoped to host the skydiving adventure a day early so everyone would be off of work and able to attend.

When not leaping from airplanes in extreme celebration of milestone birthdays, Cristina walks two miles twice a week and works out at the Elmwood Fitness Center twice a week. She also was a member of a 3-on-3 basketball team from Louisiana that participated in the National Senior Olympic Games this summer in Houston.

Determined to make her birthday celebration a memorable event, she took almost two years of planning to ensure everyone would be in Slidell for “jump day.” Relatives from the New Orleans metro area were joined by residents of Florida, California and North Carolina.

A crowd of about 20 supporters were waiting at the airport when Willa, smiling and wearing a neon yellow T-shirt printed with “Willa 85 Let’s Sky Dive” arrived with her extended family in tow. She also had T-shirts printed for family members and friends who jumped that day.

Exercise buddies from the fitness center, fellow parishioners from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, and old friends were on hand to share the experience. Even the heat of the morning did not diminish the excitement.

“Willa’s just a great lady. It has been fun being here with her and sharing her excitement,” said Eric Lochburnner, a member of St. Paul’s and one of the first jumpers of the day.

After the necessary paperwork had been completed, Cristina and company were given instructions on how to leave the plane, what to expect in the air, and then practiced body positions on the floor of the hanger/office.

Granddaughter Robin Sakakini got the honor of diving with Cristina.

“She didn’t know I was coming today, so it was part of her birthday surprise,” said Sakakini, of Calabasas, Calif. “I have skydived before, so I told my cousins I should go with her.”

While the plane was gaining altitude with the birthday girl on board, Sky Dive N’Awlins owner Brenda Grafton visited with the rest of the party and helped them prepare for their jump. Grafton pointed out that although Cristina’s jump is impressive, she is not the organization’s oldest jumper. “We had a former World War II pilot here last year to jump for his 90th birthday,” Grafton said. “He even wore the flight suit he used to fly in for the jump.”

Soon, all eyes looked skyward, and the excitement grew with the sound of the plane engine throttling back, signaling the jump was starting. With the plane nearly invisible in the bright, cloudless sky, it was a few moments before two brightly colored parachutes opened and the people on the ground could follow the earthbound jumpers. A little more than a minute later, the red, white and blue parachute carrying Christina, strapped to instructor Rick Payne, touched down alongside the airport’s taxiway.

“It was great!” she said as she hugged her granddaughter and daughters, Janna Clark, Julie Johns and Nancy Kreig, the official designated family landing zone photographers and videographers.

“I didn’t especially like the jerk you feel when we left the airplane. But the best part was once the parachute opened and we were just sailing,” said Cristina, extending her arms out wide.

Her jump done and wearing a smile that lit up her face, Willa jogged back to her adoring public, who were applauding her feat and celebrating with her.

So what’s next for Willa Cristina? Answer: She has promised her grandson, Eric Johns, that she will go snowboarding with him during February in Vail, Colo. The people gathered Aug. 27 at Slidell Municipal Airport have no doubt. She will be there.

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