Jumping toward recovery: Redwood City woman works through grief while setting skydiving records

Alana Fulvio freestyle skydiving with a friend.

For many, jumping out of a plane and freefalling from thousands of feet in the air at 180 mph evokes anxiety and gut-wrenching fear; but for Alana Fulvio, it’s what gets her through life.

The 38-year-old Belmont native and Redwood City resident has been coping with the loss of her job and the tragic death of her husband through skydiving.

“It’s just freeing, it allows me to release everything. And I kind of giggle every time I do it just because it’s really kind of funny and crazy that we jump out of a plane. But you get away from everything that society weighs on you and the sadness of the loss, [skydiving] allows me just to be in a happy place. ” Fulvio said.

She started jumping in 2002 after she lost her job during the recession. Since then, she’s logged in more than 2,900 jumps, Fulvio said.

“I needed a shock to my system, to do something that I’d never done,” Fulvio.

Nowadays, even with a day job at a recruiting firm in the technology sector, she tries to get in the air nearly every weekend.

“It’s probably the most freeing feeling I’ve ever had in my life, because it is a true sport, it’s not just jumping out of a plane and falling. It’s difficult to learn and it takes a lot of dedication and time to learn the discipline,” Fulvio said.

Fulvio’s favorite style of skydiving is called freeflying, where anything goes.

“To me, freeflying is the most uninhibited type of flying and gave me the most freedom to move my body in the air. ... Generally, it’s just a feeling of the ability to do something that a lot of people don’t do and to get out of the norm that we generally call life,” Fulvio said.

She typically jumps from 13,000 feet in the air and, although it was intimidating at first, she now feels empowered, Fulvio said.

“Now it’s just a bunch of happiness. In the beginning it’s a bit scary learning how the wind feels on your body and how when you move an arm what that does. Now that I have the basic controls it’s learning how to improve on that and learning how to compete,” Fulvio said.

In just the last month, she’s participated in three record-breaking formation events. Formation skydiving is when a large group of people join arms in the air; when it comes to competing, it’s the more the merrier. Competing in formations is very technical, they practice several dirt dives on the ground, where they outline the exact layout and specific spots where they grip each other. When they compete, they’re required to give the judges a diagram in advance and everything needs to be identical and slot specific once they’re in flight, Fulvio said.

She helped break the Texas state record by creating a formation with 34 others, broke the California state record by forming with 64 others and, the one she’s most proud of, broke the Women’s Vertical World record in Arizona with 63 skydivers last week, Fulvio said.

“Jumping out of a plane and being in the open air and being in front of my friends constantly just around me smiling; it’s just a one minute rush of constant smiles, constant positivity. It’s more than most people get in a year, and we get it in a minute,” Fulvio said.

There’s about one female jumper to every three men; skydivers from all over the world traveled to help set the new record, Fulvio said. The women raised the bar and jumped from 18,000 feet, high enough that they had to use oxygen tanks while they were still on the plane, Fulvio said.

A typical freefall lasts about one minute and then takes several more minutes to descend to the ground after pulling their parachute, Fulvio said.

“It’s like 10 hours packed into one minute of just exhilaration and happiness and smiles and just elation,” Fulvio said.

Although she’s a skydiver for life, there was a period when she had to take a break. In 2009, she married her best friend and fellow skydiver Robert Bigley, Fulvio said. Robby, as he was known, put himself through a Ph.D. program by working as a skydiving instructor and videographer, Fulvio said. He had more than 5,500 jumps and would compete in Canopy Relative Work, in which divers open their parachutes quickly after jumping.

Fifteen days after the two married, Robby and a fellow jumper’s parachutes became entangled 6,000 in the air. Tragically, they were unable to free themselves. He was 32, Fulvio said.

When he died, the whole community came to support her. They would even take shifts, making sure to check on her every day, Fulvio said. Her life revolved around skydiving and, after he died, she didn’t feel anything for a long time, Fulvio said. She knew the only way for her to begin to love life again was to get back into the air. Six months later, she jumped toward recovery, Fulvio said.

“It was probably the most magical skydive I’ve ever had in my life,” Fulvio said. “When I landed, I got down and started to cry, and my friends came around me and everyone just said ‘we’re so happy you’re back’”

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