ALBANY - Growing up, Chris Gay wasn't a favorite among the neighborhood parents.
Mainly because he scared the bejeezus out of them.
"I was the kid that moms are terrified of," Gay said. "The one that climbs the house with an umbrella; tried to jump off with a Superman cape. Anything I could do to try to fly."
Gay, born in Moultrie and raised in Albany, is now 45 and he's still flying. And winning medals for it.
Gay and his skydiving team won four gold medals Oct. 22-25 at the 2009 United States Parachute Association National Skydiving Championships in Texas. The golds came in the 4-way canopy formation rotational, 4-way canopy formation sequential, 2-way canopy formation sequential and 2-way pro-am.
"His team's placement at the national championships signify they are the best of the best when it comes to those disciplines of skydiving," USPA Executive Director Ed Scott said. "Chris is known for advancing the art of canopy formation skydiving. He's worked hard to advance the discipline and to bring others into it."
The 4-way canopy formation consists of four skydivers and one video operator. Teams dive out of a plane at 8,000 feet and attempt to correctly perform as many formations in two minutes as possible. Gay's team "Clean Air" broke a world record with 14 formations last month while competing against nearly 500 other skydivers.
Rotational jumps rotate divers in a stacked formation from top to bottom as they descend. Sequential jump patterns are drawn out of a pool and consist of a series of dive flows that divers work through while soaring to earth.
With last month's performance, Gay will be part of the U.S. parachuting team that will compete in Russia next year at the world competition, which the U.S. has won gold at the last three competitions (2008, '06, '04). Skydiving missed being a new spectator sport at the 2008 Beijing Olympics by just one vote.
Gay, a graduate of Riverview Academy and Darton College in the 80s, first caught the skydiving itch while attending Georgia Tech.
"I saw the skydiving team jump into the university," Gay said. "I was like, 'gosh, I've got to try that.'"
Gay's friend Russ Roe, a current businessman in Albany, pushed him to give skydiving a shot after he had thought about jumping for years.
"That started me on something that I never thought would be such a big part of my life," Gay said.
After that first jump from a plane 23 years ago in Atlanta, skydiving now fully consumes Gay. He lives near Orlando and trains at Skydive Sebastion, a jump school training facility in South Florida. He also occasionally trains in Monroe outside of Atlanta and has been a full-time skydiving instructor the past five years. Gay will be coaching teams from the United Kingdom and Egypt the next few months.
For Gay, the feeling of exhilaration after leaving the safety of an airplane's floorboard for a freefall at more than a mile in the air is nearly unexplainable.
"If you ask 10 different people, you'll get 10 different answers," he said. "When you start (skydiving) there's that rush of adrenaline, the excitement of sensory overload. For me it's an incredible sense of freedom, leaving the airplane and just being totally free of anything holding you to earth."
Gay's advice to potential thrill seekers is simple: If you've got the urge, try it. He recommends first trying the tandem program, a beginning dive with an instructor harnessed to the jumper for the entire descent. It takes less than an hour of training on the ground to prepare for the jump.
"Skydiving is not for everybody, but it's something everybody could try one time and see what it's like," Gay said. "A lot of people think they're too old, but we've taken people in their 60s, 70s and even 80s on skydives."
Robert Arends, spokesman for the USPA, said there are at least five jump schools for beginners in the Atlanta area, as well those in Quincy, Fla., on the Georgia-Florida line; St. Mary's on the coast; and Opelika, Ala.
For more information on skydiving and to find a skydiving center in your area, visit www.uspa.org.