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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sky Surfer Deals With Grief

Richard Sandomir New York Times

As he watched his friend and skysurfing partner, Rob Harris, drop to his death from 3,000 feet above British Columbia, Joe Jennings wondered if what he saw was real, if their extraordinary sports “marriage” would end this way, shooting a Mountain Dew commercial.

They had jumped at 13,000 feet that day last December. Harris, 28, wore a tuxedo for the spot’s James Bond film spoof and packed three parachutes - a canopy, a main chute and a reserve. “He left the plane grinning big,” Jennings said.

Jennings was the cameraman. For 10,000 feet down, Harris executed myriad moves at 120 miles an hour. Jennings followed in sync and filmed Harris. Anyone who saw their work on ESPN’s Extreme Games last year saw a balletic, difficult and, to most mortals, ludicrous and perilous activity. But they had done it 1,500 times without even a “sprained pinky,” Jennings said. This was normal to them, an activity they had mastered over three-and-a-half-year partnership.

But as they made their final maneuver, called a cutaway, Harris’ canopy and main chute entangled. By the time Harris popped the reserve, it was too late.

Harris fell helplessly. Jennings floated safely to earth beside him.

“It was really harsh,” Jennings said by telephone Sunday, after five practice dives with his new partner for the second X Games, ESPN’s extreme sports Lollapalooza, which began Monday. “You see a lot of your future take off with this person. He meant a lot to me. It was just like not real.”

Dozens of sky surfers spread Harris’ ashes around the world. “I can’t think of anyone who’s had more memorials around the world,” Jennings said.

This is not a cautionary tale, at least not to Jennings. He is not proselytizing extra caution to the sky surfers, street lugers, skateboarders or bungee jumpers at the X Games (born the Extreme Games). He talks about the anomaly of Harris’ death.

“My work is jumping,” Jennings said. “It’s like if you lose someone in a car accident, yet we’re all familiar with driving a car. We take enough precautions. Rob got caught up in something that’s rare. I’d do that stunt in a minute, and my pulse wouldn’t rise. It’s easy. He was overqualified for it.”

He continues to view sky surfing much as a NASCAR driver views a race, where the potential for death always exists. It is a required, maybe even foolish, bravado. If you thought too much about it, you wouldn’t do it.

“A sky-diving accident is very dramatic and gets a lot of attention,” he said. “You’re falling, and you can’t stop. But those of us who understand it know we’re not risking our bodies. I’ve done it for 10 years.”

After grieving, Jennings returned to the sky with his cameras early this year for Visa, Dr Pepper and MTV Sports. He dived off a 4,500-foot cliff at the Baffin Islands for Gold Star TV. And he is working on his own film, which features sky surfers leaping from topless cars dumped from airplanes.

Jennings is back at the X Games, with a new partner, Patrick de Gayardon, a sky-surfing pioneer. Jennings is looking to cap his final year of competition - a denouement he had planned with Harris. “We wanted to completely outdistance the competition,” he said. “Now I’m just looking to compete and have fun.”

And Harris’ final jump is preserved in the Mountain Dew spot, which has run for several months. Brad Shaw, a spokesman for Pepsico, which makes Mountain Dew, said: “It came down to close consultation with Rob’s parents. They were proud of his achievements and wanted them to live on in the commercial.”


CBS will broadcast Cigar’s drive for a record-tying 16th consecutive victory July 13 during the created-from-whole-cloth, 1-1/8-mile Citation Challenge at Arlington International… . Martina Navratilova is not likely to return for a second year on CBS’s U.S. Open tennis coverage, said her agent… . The overhead camera used at NBC’s diving trials last weekend sparkled with drama; the camera work on Michael Johnson setting a 200-meter record and on two 110-meter hurdlers falling was excellent. But NBC disappointed Saturday with its choppy, mostly taped decathlon coverage - only the 1,500 ran live; some events were taped from Friday - and NBC offered no interviews with Steve Fritz and Chris Huffins, who finished second and third to Dan O’Brien.

ABC’s dependence on the German feed of Saturday’s Michael Moorer-Axel Schulz fight meant an unimaginative production. Commercials meant no replays. And the tardy start meant the announcement of Moorer’s victory came close to the top of the hour, so we heard nothing from either boxer. “We can’t justify to our affiliates going past 6 (EDT) for interviews,” said Mark Mandel, an ABC Sports spokesman… . Last Friday marked one year since NBC and ABC stalked away from The Baseball Network. So remember: There will be no regionalized playoff games this year.

In his pregame profile of the Chicago White Sox’s Tony Phillips, Fox’s Dave Winfield discussed the player’s toughness, but never mentioned his brief preseason retirement.