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January 25, 2013

Falling Toward Grace

Six years ago, a parachuting accident left extreme-sports daredevil Karina Hollekim near dead. Doctors said she’d never walk again, that her life as she knew it was over. But in the grueling years that followed, Hollekim had an epiphany: What if losing everything was the best thing that had ever happened to her?

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She'd done this jump hundreds of times before. No big deal, really, not for someone like her. It was August 2006, and Karina Hollekim and a half-dozen friends had been invited to perform in the Paragliding World Cup in Villeneuve, Switzerland, on the placid shore of Lake Geneva. It was late morning when the group boarded a Cessna that, within 15 minutes, carried them aloft 10,000 feet. Everyone was happy, joking with one another. Hollekim, then 30, was looking forward to the jump, which was considerably less complicated than ones she'd been doing recently, including some that involved hurling herself off palpitation-inducing cliffs and soaring past jagged outcroppings. This time, all she had to do was leap from the plane in her white custom wingsuit with a camera attached to her helmet. A canister of smoke attached to her ankle would trace her movements as she soared across the sky so the audience below could follow her. It had rained that morning, but now rays of sun pierced the dark clouds. I'm living a dream life, Hollekim thought as the plane circled above the lush meadows and snowy Alpine peaks. I have everything I've ever wanted.

Once the pilot indicated they had reached the right location, one of the jumpers opened the door, filling the cabin with the loud rush of air. One by one, Hollekim's friends jumped. And then it was her turn. She approached the edge of the door, looked down, and leaped into the void, and just like that, she was gliding, the wind buoying her as she extended her arms and legs. Flying at 90 miles an hour, adrenaline coursing through her body, she flew so close to one of her friends that she could see the smile on her face. It felt like a perfect jump.

Because Hollekim was filming, she was the last to deploy her parachute. She reached into the pocket of the pack on her back and released the chute. Then she pulled the brake toggle, to control the speed and trajectory of her descent. But her chute had deployed at an angle, tangling the brake lines. The right half of the chute crumpled, and Hollekim began to spin like a helicopter blade, whipping around at 60 miles an hour. Flailing, she fought to regain control, trying to bank right, then left. Though the partially open chute slowed her fall, nothing could stop the spinning. She was too close to the ground to deploy the backup chute. The earth hurtled toward her. Over and over, the thought raced through her mind: I am going to die.

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