Terry Bennet Vares remembers the day she nearly died in 1982 as clear and cold–nothing out of the ordinary for January.
The plane was 8,000 feet above the North Carolina countryside. Inside were Vares and other members of the Golden Knights, the Army’s elite skydiving team. As the plane slowed and turned, Vares checked her equipment a final time and dove out of the rear door of the plane.
To Vares and other competitors, skydiving is not a stunt, but a sport, and like other serious athletes, they work hard at their craft. Vares had taken over 2,000 jumps, and a national and world championship were in the back of her mind.
Once out of the plane, Vares began practicing the precise turns and rolls which, in competition, are evaluated by judges on the ground looking through high-powered scopes. The style part of skydiving was Vares’ strongest suit. The other part–accuracy–consists of trying to land on a target no bigger than a matchbox.
When her altimeter indicated 2,000 feet, Vares pulled the “D” ring to open her chute. She immediately felt the main parachute working out of its canvas container. However, when she looked over her shoulder, she saw her parachute form into a long roll instead of the balloon shape she would need to drift safely to the ground.
Vares knew the drill; this had happened to her four times on earlier jumps. She pulled on the main parachute’s release handle and then looked over her shoulder.
The parachute did not cut away. If she deployed her reserve, which was mounted piggy-back to her main parachute, the two would surely become entangled. She looked for the release handle to give it another tug, but it had slipped out of reach. The ground was rushing up to meet her at 120 feet per second.
“My God,” she remembers saying, “I don’t want to die. Not this way.” Vares desperately pulled the reserve parachute “D” ring. Predictably, it wrapped around the main parachute and Vares continued to fall at a fatal rate.
When her teammates got to her, they expected to see a gruesome sight of crushed bones. Instead, they saw her chest expanding and contracting. Then her lips moved. She was trying to tell them not to cut her parachute because it was brand new!
Vares survived by two strokes of luck. While deploying, her reserve parachute fluttered for a moment, like a paper bag filling with air and collapsing, slowing her fall to 70 mph. Then she landed in a plowed field after a heavy rainstorm, only 100 feet from a concrete runway.
Though Vares bounced, she amazingly suffered only a dislocated elbow, a broken ankle, and a broken bone in her forearm. None of the injuries were serious enough to keep her from jumping again. But would she?
“No question,” says Vares, who left the Army a year ago and lives with her husband, an Army sergeant, and her two children in West Germany. “My goal was always to win the world championships. I knew I could never live with myself if I let the accident distract me from that goal.”
Vares was out of the hospital in two weeks. As soon as the casts came off, she started swimming and bike riding. Just 92 days after her near-fatal fall, she was back in a plane in full gear.
“Just as I was getting ready to jump, flashbacks of the ground rushing up to meet me started,” she recalls. “But I knew I would have to go through with it. And once I got out of the plane, the old feeling of peace and freedom took over.”
Vares was never able to escape the flashbacks. Still, she kept her mind focused on her goals. In 1983, just a year after the accident, she tied for the national championship. Three years later, in Ankara, Turkey, Vares stood on the brink of her ultimate dream.
Competing against 100 other women from 20 countries for the world championship, she outclassed the field with her aerial acrobatics, but needed a good final accuracy jump to ensure victory. It was a bulls-eye. Her heel landed squarely on the target. “There was an immediate feeling of relief,” Vares recalls. “I had sacrificed so much–getting over the accident and spending time away from my son–and I had finally accomplished what I had set out to do.”
Vares is retired, at least temporarily, from competition. But flashbacks of her fall have been replaced by the memories of her glory in Ankara. “There has been no letdown,” she says. “I still catch myself saying, ‘My God, I’m a world champion.”