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Baumgartner has the right stuff to overcome fear of heights

They say admitting you have a problem is the first step. OK, I admit it. I am an acrophobiac.

My fear of heights has become progressively worse the past few years. So when I started watching video of Felix Baumgartner’s historic freefall from a height of more than 128,000 feet, I wondered why I have qualms about driving across the Buffalo Skyway.

Baumgartner plummeted almost 24 miles. That’s about the same distance from the First Niagara Center in downtown Buffalo to the Darien Lake amusement park.

I watched the daredevil open the circular hatch while wearing his pressurized suit with only the colorful horizon stretching out below him.

It is worth noting that my stomach turned from simply typing the previous sentence. Next he pulled himself forward to the rim of the hatch and dove out with his arms extended over his head. Sickening.

A website that covers a variety of phobias hits the nail on the head.

“If you experience acrophobia, you may feel a sense of panic at height. You may instinctively begin to search for something to cling to. You may find that you are unable to trust your own sense of balance. Common reactions include descending immediately, crawling on all fours and kneeling or otherwise lowering the body.”

If I had been inside that cramped capsule -- another phobia – alongside Baumgartner, I would have been the poster boy for clinging and crawling. I would have been as frozen as an ice sculpture.

Baumgartner was brutally honest in his assessment of Sunday’s performance, but his candor did little for those of us who treat cleaning the gutters as a true accomplishment.

“When you’re on top of the world, you become so humbled you do not think about setting records,” he said. “All you want to do is come back alive. You don’t want to die in front of your family and girlfriend.”

Thanks, buddy.

As my confidence with heights has dropped, it is worth noting some instances that have made the reaction worse. Several years ago, we left early in the morning for a youth hockey tournament in Canada. The route took us to Burlington and beyond, which meant driving across the dreaded Burlington Skyway.

I surrendered the wheel to my wife for this part of the journey. Fog compromised our predawn vision. I told her to stay in the right lane because I knew there was a curb on the shoulder. Our tires might scuff up against it, but we wouldn’t unknowingly drift into a different lane. Tell that to the truckers who were right on our bumper.

There wasn’t time to change drivers as we approached the ancient Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia.

I was probably the slowest driver on the span as we passed beneath blackened suspension cables and felt the shimmy associated with a steel deck bridge.

Baumgartner was traveling at a top speed of almost 834 mph. That’s about 800 mph faster than my speed.

I was surprised to learn that Baumgartner began experiencing panic attacks during training. He overcame his fears with the help of a sports psychologist.

“I’d put on a helmet and tell him, from one to 10, how panicked I felt. And in the end, no matter what the number was, he told me my pulse rate never changed. So it was all in my head,” Baumgartner told USA Today.

All I can say is that when I was in the glass-top elevator ascending to the observation deck at Rockefeller Center, I swore my heart was in my throat.

I would have reached up to take my pulse, but my arms were pinned to my sides.

When I walked out of the elevator into the enclosed lobby, I realized I was looking at the side - not the top – of the Empire State Building. Look down? Not on your life.

So congratulations, Felix. Let me know the next time you’re in Buffalo so you can drive me over the Skyway.

(David F. Sherman a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of approximately 75,000 homes. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com)

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