By Brandi Underwood
Extreme sports, deep-fried Oreos, cellphone selfies and family bonding may not always blend harmoniously, but at Saturday’s Bridge Day festival, these components merged seamlessly to pass the event’s 34th successful year.
Bridge Day has come a long way since its inauguration in 1980. In its first year, two parachutists jumped from a plane onto the bridge, and a mere five BASE jumpers leaped from the bridge into the gorge, according to the official Bridge Day website. Back then, certificates were distributed to the people who showed up to watch the action and walk the 3,030-foot length of the bridge. To a crowd of 5,500, that was feasible. Now catering to a crowd of more than 70,000, certificates are no longer awarded. However, people have found new ways to commemorate the day.
DeLynn and Doug Davis, of Charleston, visited Bridge Day for the first time in 22 years Saturday.
“It’s amazing how much it’s changed,” said Doug. “It’s become a lot more commercialized.”
Standing 876 feet above the ground, the couple snapped a photo of themselves on the bridge to send to their children. As recent empty nesters, DeLynn said they want to prove to their kids that they could still have fun without them.
“Look, mom and dad still have a life,” DeLynn joked.
With more than 100 vendors, Bridge Day now offers something for everyone. From household goods to a turn on a trampoline, people can take away souvenirs of both the tangible and intangible varieties.
Eight-year-old Elisha Tabit, of Fayetteville, caught some major air and performed a few backflips of his own on the Fun Factory’s bungee trampoline.
“You feel like you don’t weigh anything,” Elisha said. “It’s like you’re in space.”
Elisha, a budding thrill seeker, said he plans to go skydiving when he’s older.
“It would be awesome, I’m guessing,” he added.
At the center of the bridge, the crowd close to the BASE jumping platform teemed with excitement.
While the catapult and diving board were popular methods of exit, Mike Green, of Ohio, was the only BASE jumper of the day who chose to crowd-surf, using the hands of fellow BASE jumpers to lead him off the bridge’s edge.
John Walsh, of Pennsylvania, had a teddy bear protected by a plastic bag attached to his suit. He said that after his jump, the BASE jumping bear will be given to a child battling cancer as part of Canopies for Kids, a Chicago-based skydiving charity.
BASE jumpers representing 41 states and eight countries took the plunge to the river bottom, with women comprising around 10 percent of the group. Two paraplegic BASE jumpers also participated, proving that BASE jumping can be achieved by anyone who sets his or her mind to it.
Also defying obstacles, 84-year-old Donald Cripps, of Pensacola, Fla., broke the record for being the oldest person to ever BASE jump.
By around 1:30 p.m., all the jumpers had enjoyed their first jump, allowing the round of repeaters to begin. At the day’s end, 934 jumps were completed and only four jumpers were transported to the hospital with minor injuries, said Bridge Day Chairwoman Cindy Dragan.
BASE jumping wasn’t the only extreme sport sighted at Bridge Day this year.
Members of the crowd who were lucky to be in the right place at the right time were able to watch BMX and XPogo, or extreme pogo, champions demonstrate their skills.
Oohs and aahs followed the crazy tricks of BMX professional and X Games gold medalist Terry Adams, who at one point pulled close to a dozen full turns while balancing on the pegs of his front wheel.
Possibly inspired by all of the agility and fearlessness around him, 8-year-old Michael Martelli, of Maryland, took a shot at the U.S. Marines’ pull-up bar, riling the crowd up as his tiny muscles completed more pull-ups than he could count on one hand, much to his grandmother’s delight.
“One more! One more!” the onlookers shouted.
A true family-friendly event, Bridge Day has a way of bringing loved ones together. Sally Hylton, of Prosperity, reunited with her two sisters, who live in other states, and two of their childhood friends from California.
Hylton was born in West Virginia, was raised in California, and has since found her way back home.
“I think West Virginia is the best kept secret,” Hylton said.
Similarly, Becky Small, formerly of Fayetteville but who has recently relocated to Florida, has been attending Bridge Day for the last 26 years, and said she doesn’t plan to stop attending the event even though she doesn’t live as close as she used to.
“This year, Bridge Day brought me home,” she said.