Casey Deegan admits to being nervous the first time he jumped out of a plane at 13,500 feet.
Ten heart-thumping, exhilarating minutes later, he was on the ground giving high-fives and eager for his next jump.
"I like to go sky diving," said Casey, a 33-year-old Naperville man with Down syndrome. "It's fun."
Sky diving is not what Mike Deegan envisioned for Casey back when a doctor told him that he might want to consider institutionalizing his newborn son. But Deegan isn't exactly surprised, either.
"We've always raised Casey with what he can do instead of what he can't do," Deegan said.
Casey, the oldest in a family with four younger sisters, has always wanted to do what he saw others doing around him, Deegan said. The sky diving started when Deegan's daughters gave him a Father's Day gift certificate for Sky-dive Chicago three years ago. He got hooked on the experience and Casey accompanied him on the drives to Ottawa to hang out and watch the jumps.
Soon Casey was pestering his dad to do it, too. While not out of character for Casey, the request gave Deegan pause.
"I was taken aback because Casey is afraid of heights," said Deegan, recalling the time Casey panicked when they climbed up to nosebleed seats at a White Sox game.
But Deegan isn't one to say no to his son's ambitions. He had read about a Texas woman with Down syndrome who sky dives and tracked down her parents, who endorsed the idea. He listened to the objections of Casey's mom, his ex-wife, but decided they would go ahead after receiving support from Sky-dive staff.
Owner Rook Nelson said Sky-dive Chicago has jumpers who are blind, deaf and paraplegic. Its policy is to accommodate them as much as it can.
"The thrill of a jump takes away any kind of disability you have," Nelson said. "It's cool to us to share that amazing experience."
Jump to remember
Casey's first jump was in May 2007. He's done 16 since then.
"When they opened that door, I didn't know how he'd behave," Deegan said. "He's been fine."
Scott Ayer, Deegan's neighbor and a sky-dive tandem master, has accompanied Casey on most of his jumps. Even on his first, Casey had his fears well enough in control to follow the photographer in muscle man poses, Ayer said.
"He's actually a really good sky diver. He's above the normal level of sky diver I've taken," said Ayer, who added that 95 percent of his customers are newbies.
Sky divers spend about a minute in free fall descending at a rate of 125 miles per hour, then five to 10 minutes floating through the air at 20 mph after the parachute is open, Ayer said.
On his first jump, Casey was too taken with what Ayer describes as "sensory overload" to pull the parachute so Ayer did it. Another time, Casey pulled too soon. But now he has no problem watching the altimeter on his wrist to open the parachute at 5,500 feet, Ayer said.
Casey also knows to arch his back when he leaves the plane and pull up his legs before landing.
Prompted by his dad, Casey adds what else he has to do. "Smile a lot," he says.
Deegan, who now has 400 jumps under his belt, still takes Casey with him even when his son isn't jumping. Casey helps other sky divers put on their gear and answers questions.
"He's a big hit in the drop zone," said Deegan, noting that he is sometimes referred to as Casey's Dad. "He has his own friends out there."
WDSRA and friends
Casey makes friends wherever he goes, Deegan said. He's been a bagger at Jewel for 12 years and is known about town. When the two go to White Sox games (Deegan himself is a Cubs fan), people say hello to Casey.
The athletic interests run in the family. A retired Marine married to a retired Marine, Deegan is a marathon runner. Casey runs with him when they do 5Ks.
Deegan credits the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association with honing Casey's athletic skills and confidence since the family moved to Naperville in 1994. Casey swims, runs track, plays basketball and softball, and does weightlifting through WDSRA's recreational and Special Olympics programs, as well as attending dances and special events.
"He has more of a social calendar than we do," Deegan said.
Deegan, who sits on the WDSRA Foundation board, proposed a sky-diving fundraiser after learning about a similar event in Texas. He expected the idea to be shot down because of liability concerns, but it wasn't.
The first sky-diving event last year had 38 jumpers and netted $22,000. This year's fundraiser in May drew about 30 jumpers and netted more than $10,000 with donations still coming in, said Sherry Manschot, WDSRA's marketing and public relations manager.
Casey jumped both years and exceeded the $800 minimum that sky divers pledge to raise. About $300 of that covers expenses and $500 goes to WDSRA. With the help of his dad, Casey raised $3,000 the first year and $2,000 this year.
"He was the top fundraiser on both of them," Deegan said. "It's not hard asking for money for Casey."
Manschot said the fundraiser is a perfect reflection of what WDSRA is about.
"We're just thrilled that an event like this showcases what a person with a disability can do," she said.
Kipp Soncek, a part-time WDSRA staff member who has coached Casey in basketball, softball, and track and field, said he was not surprised to hear that Casey also had taken up sky diving.
"He's very adventurous. He's very independent. He's very proactive," Soncek said. "Casey is a reflection of some pretty hard work on the part of the parents."
Deegan says he's only wanted Casey to have a normal life. When Casey was transitioning from grade school to middle school and special education officials wanted to pick him up in a bus, Deegan declined. He pointed out that no bus was provided for his other kids and Casey already made it over to the middle school by himself just fine.
"We want him to have a normal life. Part of a normal life is there's risks," he said.
Casey himself doesn't have words to explain exactly why he wants to sky dive, he just knows he does.
"I like doing it because I make new friends," he said.
Deegan sees a larger meaning in Casey's sky-diving experience - overcoming fears, building confidence and living life as fully as he can.
"People with disabilities," he said, "can do a lot more than what people think."