Before Keri Bell steps out of an airplane, a million thoughts race through her head.
Will my parachute open? Did I do all my equipment checks correctly? Do I have any taxes due? Did I do the laundry?
But as soon as she’s in the air, hurtling toward the Earth at breakneck speeds with only a thin piece of cloth separating her from disaster, she feels free.
“Everything kind of goes away,” she said. “The minute you begin to freefall, you’re not thinking about anything else, you’re only thinking about the task at hand. You’re flying around, you’re checking everything out, but there are no other worries.”
A pioneer of skydiving with more than 13,500 jumps under her belt, Bell, who currently lives and works in Shelton, has been leaping out of airplanes for more than 30 years and the sport has taken her around the world.
One of her most recent jumps was much closer to home, though, as she and other members of the Highlight Pro Skydiving Team, a professional demonstration group devoted to promoting women, jumped into Cheney Stadium for the OL Reign’s match Saturday to help the team honor its five Olympians.
For Bell, whose skydiving career has led her back to demo jumping years after she believed she was done with that aspect of the sport, it was a moment of reflection.
She’s no longer the daring 20-something with nothing to lose. Now, the people who know her best, like Lesa Matthews, say she’s a skydiving trailblazer, a former world record holder, a small business owner, an instructor and a mother of three with other responsibilities outside of simply finding the coolest jumps.
“The fact that she juggles all those things and is still a freaking badass is pretty amazing,” said Matthews, who’s jumped with Bell for more than 13 years.
Skydiving runs in Bell’s blood. Her grandfather, Lenny Aikins, was a pilot in World War II and discovered his love of skydiving after his return from Europe. He passed his passion for the sport to his children, who opened Kapowsin Air Sports. Originally a club, Bell’s parents incorporated it as a business in 1979, and she grew up around the drop zone, completing her first tandem jump at 12 years old. By the time she was 16, Bell was hooked.
She quickly became one of the most recognizable women in the skydiving scene. Melanie Curtis, co-founder of the Highlight Pro Team, said she’d looked up to Bell long before meeting for the first time in 2007.
“Keri is an absolute legend in the sport of skydiving,” Curtis said. “She is literally one of the most experienced skydivers in the community. She’s phenomenal.”
Curtis described Bell as one of the best multidisciplinary skydivers — proficient in formation, accelerated freefall, freeflying, swooping and all other types of jumps — in the country. Bell was part of a group of women who, at one point, held the world record for specific formation jumps.
Despite her success, Bell took a break from traveling for the sport about 14 years ago to help run Kapowsin Air Sports, now located in Shelton, with her husband, Jeff, and her brother Andy Farrington.
Bell became an instructor examiner, a teacher at all levels, in all disciplines, who is also tasked with training new instructors, and guesses she does about 400 to 500 jumps per year. Curtis believes Bell may be the only woman to hold the title in the entire country.
She also became a mother, and said her children, while young, are already beginning to show an interest in airplanes and possibly skydiving down the line.
However, in 2020, Bell returned to the world of demo jumping through the Highlight Pro Skydiving Team. Created with the support of the Women’s Skydiving Network, the squad was formed in 2020 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
The plan was to do one big demonstration in Nashville to help commemorate the creation of the Tennessee Women Suffragette Monument in front of a large audience.
But when one team member was forced to drop out to shoot scenes for Marvel’s “Black Widow,” Curtis knew there was only one person she could count on to learn a complicated jump on such short notice.
“It’s not only getting someone at the last moment,” Curtis said. “It’s getting someone at the last moment for a professional level demonstration jump that is very important in front of non-skydivers for a group of people who are working toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, like a huge collection of real players in the realm of social impact.”
Since that first jump with the team, Bell has traveled the country. Besides the Nashville jump, she said her favorite event was a demonstration the team did in Seneca Falls, New York, home of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, widely considered the first women’s rights conference in the world.
Bell said her time with Highlight has been extra rewarding as it’s allowed her to help encourage women of all ages to try skydiving. While she said she personally grew up in an encouraging environment, she knows others may be hesitant to really give it a chance. According to the United States Parachute Association, only 13% of all professional skydivers are women.
It’s the same attitude that encourages Bell to keep jumping, including at Cheney Stadium last weekend, carrying the large banner that read, “Be Bold, Be Brave.”
No matter where or why Bell continues leaping out airplanes, though, Curtis said her teammate’s tranquil, relaxed attitude in the air is what makes the Washington native one of the greatest to ever do it.
“We have this saying in our team, #CalmlikeKeri because she really goes to and embodies the simple presence that skydiving can evoke in us,” Curtis said. “Skydiving can come across as this really fast, cool, exciting, sexy thing, and it is all those things, but it’s also this thing you need to respect very highly and focus on very purely, and Keri does that very well and leads from that example all the time.”