Up in the air, but down-to-earth

The strange thing about talking with Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld is that in a 90-minute conversation, we hardly discussed the plane crash that almost killed him and that forms the dramatic centerpiece of his new book, “Above All Else” (Skyhorse Publishing). We talked about the demands of competitive skydiving, his kids — who aren’t old enough to skydive — and what he hopes to teach people about life through the lessons he’s learned jumping out of planes more than 25,000 times.

In 1992, a plane crash in Perris killed 16 of its 22 passengers, most of them skydivers; one of the deceased was Brodsky-Chenfeld’s teammate and close friend. The crash left Brodsky-Chenfeld in a six-week coma with a broken neck, a fractured skull, a collapsed lung and other serious internal injuries. He has no memory of the crash. 

But, he says his remarkable recovery — he and his team placed third in the national skydiving championship just months after the crash — doesn’t define his success.

“I think having lived through the crash and having recovered and gone on despite that, has maybe made my story more credible than it would have been had it not happened,” he said. But he adds that his passion for life, what gave him the will to survive his injuries, predates that tragic day.

“That came from what my grandfather taught me, what my father taught me, and what my mother taught me. Had I not had the experiences I had prior to the crash, I don’t know that I would have come back the way I did.”

The first three-quarters of “Above All Else,” which is currently in development for a film, tells the story of a nice Jewish boy who at age 18 made his first jump out of an airplane and then somehow made a career out of it. Brodsky-Chenfeld, now 49 and living in Temecula, recalls in detail the chutzpah, tenacity and physical will it took to define and then stay focused on the goal of winning a world championship in four-way formation skydiving. He describes the sacrifices he made (living in a trailer in the desert), the teams he formed and re-formed, and his singular focus on being the best.

Brodsky-Chenfeld got involved in four-way formation skydiving when the sport was in its infancy. In competitions, four people (skydiving is a co-ed sport) jump from a plane at 10,500 feet, and in the next 35 seconds of free fall perform a sequence of formations, at the rate of about one a second. While the team practices all 40 formations, they are not given the actual sequence they will have to undertake in competition until the day of the event. Each team member must remember the order.

“It’s an amazing mental challenge. People think, ‘You’re a skydiver. How smart can you be?’ ” Brodsky-Chenfeld jokes. “They don’t realize.”

Brodsky-Chenfeld led his teams to 16 national and seven world titles, and has coached four world champion teams in the last decade. He continues to be an elder statesman of the sport as general manager of Perris Valley Skydiving, one of the largest skydiving facilities in the world.

But that first part of his book, which starts in his childhood, seems to somewhat embarrass Brodsky-Chenfeld, who has by now cut back his jumps to about 300 a year. For him, the book’s main purpose is not to talk about himself, but to help others.

“It became clear to me, working with people and with teams, that skydiving is one example of how people could use the same methods I used here toward achieving success in their own lives, their own families and their own goals,” Brodsky-Chenfeld said.

In the last quarter of the book, Brodsky-Chenfeld explicates his method for setting a winning goal, determining what you are willing to do to reach that goal, and then offers techniques for accomplishing it. He discusses building a successful team, overcoming fears of the known and unknown, and then visualizing and training for success.

One of the most important elements, he says, is letting your training, knowledge and instinct take over at the moment of performance.

“Very often people think too much, and they end up with analysis paralysis,” he said. “Whatever it is you’re trying to perform with excellence, if you have trained and established muscle memory, let go, relax, trust that you’ll do your best.”

He says his friend, an orthopedic surgeon, has used these techniques in the operating room. Brodsky-Chenfeld recently spoke at the TEDx conference in Belgium, and he serves as an inspirational speaker around the world.

While his message, in the end, might be similar to other self-help success books, the fact that it comes from a man who jumps out of planes for a living, and survived a plane crash, gives the advice an extra dose of credibility and buzz.

This is someone who understands determination and visualizing success. When Brodsky-Chenfeld woke up from a six-week coma, all he wanted to know was when he could jump again. The doctor said never, but Brodsky-Chenfeld pushed until he cornered the doctor into admitting that his newly steel-reinforced neck would be strong enough 10 weeks after surgery. While Brodsky-Chenfeld was still in the halo — a brace that screwed into his skull and fit around his torso to immobilize his neck — he would contract his neck muscles, to keep them strong.

A skydiver has to master visualizing formations while still on the ground — you can’t fit in enough practice jumps to perfect moves — and Brodsky-Chenfeld continued to practice in his head, even when he couldn’t move. The crash was in April, and in October, Brodsky-Chenfeld and the reconstituted Perris Airmoves placed third in the nationals.

He attributes that kind of tenacity to his parents and especially to Grampa Joe, the American-born son of Russian immigrants who got an eighth-grade education but fought to ensure success for his family, even through the Depression.

“What made me believe I could achieve all those things I dreamed about came from watching my family, watching them achieve their own dreams,” Brodsky-Chenfeld said. “That is what I see as the Jewish character. … Somehow Jews throughout history had to figure out how to make things work no matter what the situation. That was the character that I was surrounded with in my family.”

Brodsky-Chenfeld, along with is wife, Kristi, are passing that message down to their kids, Chloe, 17, and Landen, 12.

“I think everyone has dreams they want to pursue, goals they are passionate about, that they would like to apply themselves to and to focus their energy on. And often they don’t give themselves a chance. They think too much about how it’s not practical, or it doesn’t make sense, or where is it going to take them. Without being able to answer those questions, too often they steer toward more logical things — what they think they should do — as opposed to what they’re really passionate about and drawn to,” he said. “I hope my kids understand that what is really important is having something that you really love and giving yourself a chance to go after that.”