Shattered When His Parachutes Failed, Roger Reynolds Refused to Accept Life as a Cripple

updated 04/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/07/1980 01:00AM

Man met earth at 85 mph. 'That wasn't so bad,' Reynolds thought

It was a rainy afternoon in 1974, and Roger Reynolds was plummeting to earth at 85 miles an hour. Above him streamed his two parachutes, tangled and useless; below, rushing to meet him, lay the green lawns of Charlottesville, Va. "So this is what it feels like to die," thought Reynolds. Then his body pounded into the earth. Incredibly, he survived the 2,800-foot fall, though he smashed every major bone on his left side, spent six months motionless in a whole body cast and was told he could expect to lead the life of a cripple. Angrily, Reynolds refused. This year, at 26, he will make his 100th parachute jump since the accident, climb in the Himalayas and compete in his third consecutive Boston Marathon. "The determination required for a person with injuries like Roger's to come back and do what he has is beyond description," says orthopedic surgeon Frank McCue. "It's the rawest display of courage I've ever seen."

Reynolds has never been one to shrink from a challenge. Growing up in Indianapolis, he nurtured a penchant for scaling tall buildings. "I always wanted to do anything that scared me, so I could get over the fear," he explains. Later, still hungry for danger, he volunteered for the Green Berets. "I was like an animal," he says. "They turn you into one. I was 19 and ready to kill people. A guy in a bar called me a Girl Scout once because of my uniform, and I crushed a beer mug on his head." Frustrated when the ceasefire in Vietnam cost him his chance to go to war, he became, at 19, the youngest member of the Army's elite Golden Knights parachute team. For a year he toured the country, jumping at air shows, chasing women and boozing ferociously. "We jumped drunk all the time," he says. "The only thing the Army cared about was that we did the show and didn't take drugs."

On April 24, 1974 Sergeant Reynolds was nursing a hangover. His assignment that day was the Cutaway, a frightening stunt in which he would deliberately collapse his first parachute and pop open a second at the last moment. A thorough equipment check' was mandatory, but Reynolds was tired and his head was throbbing; he didn't bother to make one. No sooner was he out of the airplane than he learned he was to pay for his recklessness. His first chute opened, then became entangled and began flapping uselessly. "No big deal," Reynolds told himself. "Don't panic. Just release it and pop the other one." But when he yanked the two release cords, one of them jammed. "Oh shit!" screamed Reynolds. He opened the second chute, but it fouled on the first. Reynolds' stomach heaved. He thought of his parents. Let's get it over with, he thought. Then came the impact.

"It was like walking into a room and getting hit by a pillow," he recalls. "There was a tremendous whoosh and everything went black. I thought, 'That wasn't so bad. I'll rest a minute and get up and leave.' " Then he saw the bones poking through his black-and-gold jump suit. Luckily, though, he had landed on his side and no vital organs were punctured. He spent the next 16 months in the hospital and watched his weight drop to a pathetic 120 pounds. "I saw myself in the mirror once and started crying," he remembers. "I used to run six miles a day and bench press 150 pounds. Now here I was at 21, broken, skinny and probably crippled." Doctors counseled patience, but Reynolds wasn't having any. Determined to force his own healing, he exercised in the hospital secretly, then started sneaking out to a gym, where he worked out with his leg still in a cast.

Finally, in August 1975, he was discharged from both the Army and the hospital. Within two weeks he returned to Indiana and made the 960th parachute jump of his career. "I just had to conquer that fear," he says. "It felt odd, but everything came back to me right away. I'd forgotten how nice and secure it was up there all alone." A few months later he began premed studies at Indiana University. In April 1978, despite the fact that his left leg is permanently a half inch shorter than his right, he went to Boston, slipped unnoticed into the field for the marathon and ran the 26-plus miles in three hours and 24 minutes. "Every step was a cussword," he recalls. "I knew if I started to walk my legs would stiffen up, so I just kept going." Next year he plans to enter medical school and to continue to push his once-shattered body to the edge of its endurance and further. "I just never want to be one of those guys who ends up 50 years old," he explains, "and regrets all the things he never tried to do."

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