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The Survivor

This is an understatement. Nine months after the surgery he took part in a half-Ironman competition at nearby Lake Anna. The grueling event is a contest in swimming, biking and running. Bryant finished first in his age bracket. "I was right pleased," he says, beaming.

For the last 12 years Bryant has been on a hiatus from skydiving. But he's been busy. A retired U.S. postal clerk and avid cyclist, the Fan resident has followed the career of Lance Armstrong closely. Even more so, because battling cancer is something the two athletes share.

Bryant's racing bike is an exact replica of the one Armstrong used to win his first Tour de France. But as the title of Armstrong's book suggests, Bryant has come to learn that his personal journey — the one that matters — is not about the bike, or whatever external forces drive him. Cancer can be arbitrary.

"You just don't realize how vulnerable you are. Because of my lifestyle and how I eat and exercise right, I thought I was not susceptible," he says. "But that ol' cancer can get anybody."

It's the way he feels about sky- diving, he says. Bryant's been doing that for 37 years. So far, he's logged 4,411 jumps out of airplanes, hot air balloons and bridges. He's also had four parachute malfunctions when the chute has failed to work properly. Nineteen of his friends have died over the years in skydiving-related accidents or crashes.

All of this has made him mindful of the smallest details. Long before the cancer, the close calls, the tragedies, made him feel mortal, they made him believe in luck.

Bryant seems to have been born with it. His first skydiving scare came after he had made 1,800 jumps. It was a routine jump and when he pulled the ripcord to his main parachute — all skydivers are equipped with a reserve parachute — it didn't open properly, causing it to buckle and whip in the wind.

"I should have pulled the reserve at 2,000 feet," Bryant says, but he waited, hoping it would unfurl and he wouldn't have to waste pulling his reserve. "I kept shaking and shaking the round canopy," he says, until he finally pulled the reserve parachute at about 1,000 feet. It was a dangerously low altitude. It could have seriously injured or even killed him had he waited seconds longer.

In 1971 Bryant was flying with a skydiving stunt team doing a show in North Carolina when he was sucked through the open back window of the plane. His parachute deployed on his way out. And somehow, miraculously, he landed. Nobody who witnessed the accident believed that he landed alive, he says.

"Skydiving is safe in some sense of the word, but there's no denying there are some inherent risks," he says. "You just keep thinking, 'It just isn't my time to go.'"

Bryant has been telling himself this since he started parachuting.

It was the early '60s. Bryant spent three years in the U.S. Army as a member of an airborne unit stationed mostly in Germany. "All the guys I bunked with were paratroopers," he says. "It sounded like fun to me and it planted the seed for when I got back."

His first jump was in 1966 from Hanover Air Park. Bryant was 24. "It wasn't much fun," he recalls. But after 20 practice jumps, Bryant made his first free-fall, barreling out of a Cessna 182 airplane at 120 mph. "I started loving it then," he says.

But times, and priorities, change.

There had been a few more close calls. He couldn't see pressing his luck. So for 12 years Bryant adopted other sports, other workout regimens. He won numerous bodybuilding competitions including the now defunct Mr. America title for physique in his age and weight class. He qualified for the Boston marathon at 55, the first time he had ever run a marathon. A few years later he ran it again and cut nearly a half-hour off his time.

It's no surprise that Bryant's basement — below the caution sign — is a quasi-shrine of trophies, plaques and medals that Bryant has won over the years. So much so that he says he has thrown many of them out.

But hanging from two walls are photos and medals Bryant will never part with. The photos are black-and-white ones mostly from the '70s and '80s of skydivers. Bryant points out the ones who have died. The medals he earned while he held the spot on the U.S. Parachute Team in 1973. It was right after he married his wife, Nita. "She's my steadying force," he says.

Today, it's 90 degrees out. Crystal-clear skies. The wind is blowing 6 mph from the south. It's a perfect day for skydiving. Everyone at West Point Skydiving has been saying so.

The clubhouse bustles with skydivers. Some look experienced and relaxed, others look like first-timers. Two tiny Cessna planes take turns buzzing along the runway ascending with a handful of jumpers and landing with none.

Intermittently, tiny bursts appear in the bright sky like silent firecrackers. Then in minutes, parachutes rain down.

Tommy Bryant is about to be one of them. "Really, my jumping days are over," he confesses. "It's such a beautiful day, I just thought I'd do something different."

Regulars at the drop zone tease Bryant faithfully. "When Tommy started jumping he was 6-foot-4," one says. "That's some scary looking rig, man," another says about the reserve chute he wears over his chest, not on his back.

Bryant seems to expect the hazing and simply smiles. It's about 3 p.m. when his name is called. His flight is up. He pauses for a moment to pat over his gear. Then he disappears into the belly side of the plane.

A red cup is turned upside down in the sandpit where skydivers aim to land. Bryant, who had held titles for his accurate landings, has placed it there. Long minutes go by until a speck on the sky seems to grow into something black and beige drifting to earth. It is Bryant's ancient parachute. It nears the ground, swoops and casts a shadow over the sandpit. Bryant sails right into it and stomps the red cup like it's an easy thing to do, like it's yesterday.

As he walks toward the clubhouse, the smile on his face is so big that one can only imagine the doubt that hung there minutes before. "You have to keep on enjoying it, being out here with the young people," he says, adding: "You'll surprise a few of them." S

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