At age 71, DJan Stewart leaped from an airplane with eight other women older than 60 over scenic Lake Elsinore in Southern California. The result of their leap last April: They set a world record for the most women older than 60 to create a skydiving formation.
People who know the affable Stewart, who has since turned 72, were far from surprised.
Since her first sky-dive at age 47, she has logged more than 4,300 jumps, first in Colorado and then in Washington. That’s an average of about one sky-dive every two days over the past 25 years. Not to mention those many hours in free fall high above the Earth. As the Bellingham resident says, “Skydiving became my drug.”
That’s not hard to understand, considering that the stunning video she has of the women’s world record is utterly captivating, showing the women linking hands from above. Stewart’s sense of humor is captivating, too.
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Take, for example, her explanation of why she removed the period after initially beginning to go by “D.Jan” among her skydiving friends to avoid confusion with two other Jans (many other friends know her simply as “Jan”).
“Once I got past menopause, I took the period out because I didn’t need it any more,” she says with a smile she can’t suppress.
Stewart’s first dive was a tandem venture. She says she could not have imagined immediately becoming hooked.
“I was going to do only one dive,” she says. “I’ve always been a risk taker. I discovered there really is nothing in the world like free fall. It’s another dimension. You can’t imagine what it feels like until you do a sky-dive.
“From my first dive in September 1990 until Nov. 10 that year, when I became certified as a sky-diver on my own, I spent every waking moment thinking and dreaming about sky-diving,” she says. “But I want to make sure that people realize I was terrified through my first 100 jumps. I made 301 jumps in my first year.”
Stewart has taught more than 1,000 sky-diving students since becoming a certified instructor at age 52. Now Stewart, who long has held the top certification as a Class D sky-diver, is facing a tough decision: When to stop jumping out of planes.
“I think I’ll do one more season,” she says, referring to the April-through-October opportunities this year (skydiving is not year-round in Washington). “I love to hike, so I want to save my knees.”
Aside from feelings she had never dreamed she could enjoy, skydiving has given Stewart her husband of 20 years, Ben Daniels.
“We were both 50 when we met through skydiving,” says Stewart, who calls one of her blogs “DJan-ity” and has hundreds of posts at djanstewart.blogspot.com.
“We got married in free fall as we passed 5,500 feet over Loveland, Colorado,” says Stewart, who took advantage of a quirk in Colorado law. “We later exchanged vows on the ground.”
Stewart, who retired to Bellingham with her husband in 2008, spent 30 years working her way from administrative assistant to writer/editor in Boulder, Colo., while serving the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Stewart and Daniels took a long tour of much of the West Coast and realized Bellingham was where they wanted to be.
“We were awe-struck by Bellingham Bay and liked the proximity to Canada,” she says. “I adore Bellingham. For one thing, the bus system is fantastic!”
Life has often been tough along the way. Stewart was married and divorced three times by the time she was 30. She recently wrote a courageous, touching blog – part of her “Eye on the Edge” series – about losing her two sons. Her first son, Chris, an Army career soldier, died of a heart attack at age 40 in 2002 while serving in Macedonia. Her second son, Stephen, died as a 13-month-old toddler after contracting spinal meningitis.
Stewart moved frequently in her childhood and teen years as part of an Air Force family, attending five high schools alone.
“I was always the new girl,” she says, explaining a lot about her self-reliant, adventurous nature.