On May 24, 1997, physical fitness trainer Jeremy Newman was injured while skydiving, not because his parachute would not open but because of his ego.
The jump--which originated at 13,000 feet over Lake Elsinore--should have been like the 30 or so others Newman had experienced in the few months since he had taken up the sport.
But when a more experienced diver was able to fall faster than Newman--an intense competitor and multi-sport athlete--it got the best of him.
"I never could deal with losing," he said.
Wanting to fall as fast and effortlessly as his colleague, Newman used a dangerous stunt in which a skydiver pulls the parachute strings down in such a way that the parachute resistance decreases, allowing it to slide faster through the air. The technique worked and Newman picked up speed.
"But it wasn't enough," he said.
Still trying to catch the other diver, Newman continued to tug on the parachute until it collapsed. He was then completely out of control. He could have pulled a safety parachute to prevent his devastating crash.
But he did not, fearing he would be blackballed by other skydivers if he did so. Instead, essentially in a free fall, he continued to try to fix his collapsed parachute. Just as he was about to give up and activate the reserve parachute, he looked down and saw the ground hurtling toward him.
"Ego collapsed my parachute," he said, "and ego prevented me from pulling my reserve shoot."
Newman crash-landed--he estimates at 100 mph--in a rocky, dirt ravine. A nearby homeowner ran to his rescue.
During the next 12 hours or so, Newman would be airlifted to two hospitals and his heart would stop beating twice, once for 32 minutes. He would undergo emergency surgery to repair the most serious of his injuries, a ruptured aorta, the main artery of the body that carries blood from the heart. Both of his lungs collapsed and he had severe head trauma and a compound fracture of the left femur--the bone extending from the hip to the knee.
"The only thing that was going through my mind was . . . I'm in big trouble," Newman said, recalling the first moments after the accident.
The fall itself did not make Newman lose the use of his legs. But his lifesaving surgery required that the flow of blood be cut off to his lower extremities.
"It was either be a paraplegic or die," he said.
In the months after the accident, the 33-year-old Reseda resident quickly reclaimed his career as a physical fitness trainer, learning to talk his clients through exercises instead of demonstrating them.
And about two years ago, believing his life had been spared for a reason, he became a motivational speaker at schools, churches and community events throughout the region. He said he wants to share his story with as many people as he can.
"I used to be very arrogant, selfish and cynical--a real know-it-all," he said. "I never needed help with anything and then all of a sudden I needed help with everything."
Newman is also a volunteer speaker for Goal Models, a youth outreach project of Van Nuys-based Bridge Focus, a nonprofit organization that has worked with troubled youth and their families since 1970. Newman is a frequent speaker for the organization at North Hills' James Monroe High School.
"Jeremy is an expert at overcoming obstacles," said Irene Brennick, director of development with Bridge Focus.
"When the kids hear his story, it is hard for them to justify not getting to school on time or that they can't pass a class, or they couldn't get their homework done. Jeremy died and literally got up and did something with his life."
His stories of growing up as an overweight kid with buck teeth who was expelled from public school in New Jersey for fighting resonates with angry teenagers who similarly feel up against a wall, he said.
He recently spoke to teenagers at Van Nuys Mid-Valley Community Education Center, a correctional facility for girls and boys.
"It brought back all the memories," Newman said. "I talked with them about the troubles I too had growing up and the things I did to overcome adversity. . . . I touched far more of those kids than I thought I could."
Earlier this month, in a wheelchair, he completed his third Los Angeles Marathon, just one of the many sports in which he remains competitive.
"It's not a medal I'm after, but rather I compete to hopefully inspire other people to see life in a different way," he said.