Repatriated Texan and diehard adventurist Andrew Leith is a very wise and very interesting man.
Born in Denton, Texas, he moved to Albuquerque when he was ten and lived there for 30 years. He joined the New Mexico National Guard when he was 18, where he served for 22 years doing fuel systems maintenance on F16s and serving as a Rescue C-130 Loadmaster. A lifelong actor, Andrew holds a degree in Theater. He’s also a 20-year-plus martial artist, and instructor to boot. (Kenpo, if you’re curious.) Comparatively, he’s a new skydiver—he’s “only” been jumping for eight years—but in that time, he has logged a tidy couple thousand jumps and started working toward his parachute rigger’s certification.
“I knew from my very first jump—from my first tandem—that I wanted to learn skydive,” he insists, “and that I wanted to be a tandem instructor. As soon as I landed, I knew that was something I had to learn how to do. I don’t have a better explanation for it than that.”
“The reason I knew I wanted to be a tandem instructor,” he continues, “Is because Alan, my original tandem instructor, was so good. Looking at how he taught and he did things as a tandem instructor was truly impressive. Since I was already a martial arts instructor—so I had the teaching bug, if you will—it made even more sense. Coaching people through the pressures of their first skydive has always appealed to me.”
These days, Andrew teaches both tandem and solo skydiving students. He earned his rating in 2016 at the (wonderful) Wisconsin Skydiving Center. The summer of 2016, he went home inspired and made some major life changes. He got a divorce, retired from the military and then moved back up to Wisconsin to work as a skydiving instructor.
“It was exciting,” he says. “I absolutely don’t regret the decisions I made to become a full-time skydiver.”
So far, his dream is panning out swimmingly. A beloved feature of Skydive San Marcos since he joined the team, Andrew’s skydiving days are chock-full of the teaching he loves, bringing his uniquely multi-pronged experience to bear with every single student.
“It is my job to meet my students wherever they are at and teach them from there,” he says. “I learned in theater that it’s crucial that you know your audience.”
“You also have to know how much information to give a person,” he goes on. “Once they hit the saturation point with information, then you are not doing anybody any good by piling on more. It’s like that in martial arts, too. And it’s true in skydiving, whether you’re working with a tandem or AFF student.”
Andrew goes on to add that all of the seemingly-unrelated disciplines that he practices—theater; kenpo; skydiving—not only reveal a significant number of crossovers upon inspection but actually share a key element that really unites the lot: They require a great deal of emotional management.
“I have to be in control of myself in order to help someone be in control of themselves,” he says.
“People often ask if I get nervous before going on stage,” he explains, “And I say no, I’m focused on doing what I have to do to the best of my ability. Just as often, I’ll have a tandem student who asks if I get nervous on a skydive, and I tell him or her the same thing. My job is to be calm and to be collected and to give an air of relaxation to the student. It is a high-stress moment for them. That door opens up and when it does, we’re going to climb out of this airplane. I look at that person and say, ‘I’ve got dinner plans later, so I am going to do everything in my power to make this a great adventure and land safely. We are going to be fine.’”
Bicycling in traffic may be more dangerous than jumping out of an airplane, but that fact tends to be lost on new skydiving students. Pretty much across the board, they sit somewhere on the spectrum between really, really nervous and terrified. Andrew, of course, is ready for that.
“It’s really important to remind people,” he muses, “that fear lives in the future. To move away from it, you have to focus on the present, right here, right now. Don’t think about ‘later.’ If you live in the present, fear can’t find you.”
“People also need to be reminded that life is to be lived outside your comfort zone,” he concludes. “I think that’s what is most amazing to witness when people come out and do a first skydive. Nothing exciting happens sitting at home on the couch, after all. I’ve never had anyone land and say ‘I wish I hadn’t done that.’ They might say once is enough; that’s all I need to do. But no one ever regrets it. And I love to be a part of that revelation.”