Steamboat grad finding new life in skydiving career |

Steamboat grad finding new life in skydiving career

Ben Ingersoll

— Seven years ago, just shy of his 30th birthday, there was no way you could convince Zachary R. Sabel that he would spend the remainder of his professional life leaping from airplanes hovering above 13,000 feet.

In truth, the 1995 Steamboat Springs High School graduate admits he was scared of anything above 100 feet and was especially terrified of the clunky, small aircrafts that skydivers typically jump from.

But something was a little off when Sabel was 29. He helped build custom homes in Steamboat, a well-paying job, but nothing he loved. He had just broken up with a girlfriend and was stuck in the lull of his hometown.

That changed while on vacation. On a whim, Sabel pursued a bucket list-type item tons of people jot down as a must-do adventure in their lives: He signed up to skydive.

"To even start skydiving in the first place was a very big deal to me," Sabel said. "You have to overcome those fears. I don’t like those little airplanes. That was such a big feat I had to overcome."

One jump and Sabel was instantly hooked. But he was more than hooked — he was intrigued to find out more about how the guy strapped to his back on that inaugural jump got there and, maybe, how Sabel could do the same.

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"I did it once and I knew it was something that I had to pursue," he said. "It was the most amazing thing ever."

More than a recreational hobby

Sabel’s first step was SkyVenture Colorado in Denver, a wind tunnel, airplane-free skydiving facility.

He spent five years at the Denver wind tunnel, training and coaching others who shared the same newfound passion as he did.

In order to obtain his “A” license, Sabel committed to 25 total skydives, which included seven jumps in an accelerated coaching program that propelled him into an 18-jump coaching program.

The license jump-started his new career even further, giving him the credentials to hit other drop zones coast to coast, pick the brains of other professional jumpers and hone his craft above 13,000 feet.

"After that, it’s just about doing skydives and gaining experience with different conditions and drop zones," Sabel said. "You build your jump numbers. Some never want to get into the industry, they just happen to be fun jumpers. It’s their recreation."

It was fun for Sabel, no doubt about it, but it wasn’t a recreational hobby. He used his resources at SkyVenture Colorado to travel to many drop zones to build a very precise skill set. A lot of people golf for fun, he explained, but a select few decide to be golf instructors.

Sabel was among that select few.

Wind tunnel training helped Sabel learn the kinetics of skydiving, like which body positions ramp up certain speeds. The normal flat-belly flying, which first-timers do, allows jumpers to fall at speeds of about 1,000 feet every five seconds, for example.

The wind tunnel job not only built his skill set, but also extended his contact list of experts in the relatively small sport — there are only about 30,000 registered skydivers in the United States today. It also helped pave the way for him to his current position of running FREEFALL UNIVERSITY at the Chicagoland Skydiving Center.

"The whole time I worked at the tunnel I spent four summers traveling across the country teaching people," Sabel said. "They already had their licenses and knew how to skydive, and I was teaching them how to sit fly or learn how to back fly. Because of my tunnel experience, I got very good at breaking down body position."

Shattering a record

The sit fly skydiving position is one that’s near and dear to Sabel’s professional heart.

Until two years ago, the International Parachuting Commission of the Federation (FAI) didn’t recognize sit flying as a world record-qualifying jump. It’s a different type of flying, one where jumpers have to hold a fixed sitting position, as if they are resting on an air chair. It’s especially difficult for multiple-jumper formations.

"They didn’t even recognize it as a way to build formations because nobody was doing it," Sabel said. "It’s incredibly difficult for, like, three of us to build a formation, let alone something worthy of a world record."

Sabel and his girlfriend, Grace Trolinger — whom he met while they trained at SkyVenture Colorado — and their friends took action. Together, they made frequent visits to Texas’ Skydive Spaceland, toying with the idea of how they could popularize the sit fly formation.

It’s a position that’s easy to learn at its core, Sabel said, but difficult to master to the point of a joint formation with dozens of people, as the group envisioned.

"It’s like riding a wheelie on a bike," he said. "I can’t do it, but I’ve seen people in Steamboat ride one all the way down Lincoln Avenue."

They reached out to some of the best skydivers in the world, champion-level jumpers from England, Australia, Russia and Dubai.

Roughly 60 jumpers turned out in the Arizona desert last week for five days at not just attempting to beat the world record of a six-person sit fly formation, but to shatter it beyond expectations.

"We wanted to set a big world record," Sabel said. "We wanted to prove it could be done. Most people didn’t give us the time of day that this could go much over 20 people."

By the second day, they had 42 people in the air for warmups. Even those who were skeptical from the onset started to believe.

"It really opened people’s eyes like, ‘Holy cow, we can do this,’" he said. "From there, it was juggling people around to get into right spots."

On the fourth day, they set a world record of 44 people in one formation. The skydiving experts then decided to go even bigger, pulling from a pool of up-and-coming jumpers to add to the bunch.

On Day 5, last Saturday, they beat their own world record twice with a 52-person formation, totaling three world records in less than 48 hours. They obliterated the old record set in Finland.

"Everyone was extremely excited about it," Sabel said. "We brought in this group of people from around the world with the best flyers all in one place to try to come to a common goal."

As for Sabel, a brand-new career blossomed from that vacation day seven years ago into a passion. Spreading that passion is part of the whole picture. The more people catch it like he did, the longer the small sport survives.

It’s not about padding the bank account and living in riches, he insists. Traveling the world, meeting his skydiving idols and perfecting his craft, those are his riches.

"You don’t make a lot of money skydiving," Sabel said. "You do it because you love it."

To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll.

A little bit about Zachary R. Sabel

Sabel and his girlfriend, Grace Trolinger, are managers at the FREEFALL UNIVERSITY at the Chicagoland Skydiving Center in Rochelle, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. Their upright position world record was completed in Eloy, Arizona, on Nov. 21 and 22.

Sabel’s professional website is, and can be seen skydiving on his YouTube channel.

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