Miami tennis coach turns 50 and now is training to become a wingsuit pilot
At 33, Mike Ramirez felt invincible.
It was 2001, and the Puerto Rican transplant living in North Miami Beach had recently completed a three-year, 100-country backpacking expedition, earning headlines for “drinking life straight from the hydrant” as a Miami Herald reporter described it at the time.
"I got addicted to it. It became a passion, and I just couldn't stop until I completed my goal, which was 100 countries," he told the Herald in 2001. In total, he spent 36 months traveling over an eight-year period.
Seventeen years later Ramirez, two weeks into his 50s but as hyperactive now as he ever was, felt the itch come again, this time for something more than a glorified vacation: a life above the ground. After years spent glued to his television watching videos of daredevils, some of whom died at the height of their popularity, jumping off mountain sides and carving through the air in wingsuits — specialized body suits that inflate and stiffen during free fall and allow "pilots" to zoom mere meters over the ground — Ramirez decided that would be his next challenge.
Call it a mid-air, mid-life crisis. Ramirez, who works as a caterer, tennis coach and small-time landlord, calls it a new chapter.
"I can't see myself going back to catering or even going back to tennis lessons," he said. "I've reached an age that, at least I reached 50."
So, he jumped out of a plane on his birthday, May 15. Then he did it seven more times within a week. He spent that time in Sebastian, Florida, jumping during the day and spending nights sleeping on leopard-print sheets inside a tricked-out van parked at Skydive Sebastian, a drop zone where he is currently working to complete his AFF — Accelerated Freefall — training.
His plan, he says, is to jump 200 times this summer, a United States Parachute Association requirement before he can be taught the intricacies of wingsuit flying, a more advanced and far deadlier variation of skydiving whose surge in popularity over the past two decades dovetailed with the rise of the internet and viral fame. It's a sport that can be, and often is, filmed and plastered on YouTube for all to marvel at.
If all goes well — "There's injury, death and weather; there's three factors," he says in his signature machine-gun speech — he'll be on his way to emulating the adrenaline junkies he spends hours studying and creating a documentary tentatively titled "How to become a wingsuit pilot in 90 days."
From there, he says, he'll leave his life behind and become a wingsuit or skydiving coach and enter into competitions.
"Us humans, we shouldn't be flying," he said in a recent interview. "But it's a dream."
But unlike a dream, there's no waking up if you badly botch a landing, or if your parachute malfunctions and you pull your reserve canopy too close to the ground. Adding wingsuits ups the stakes.
In 2017, the United States Parachute Association recorded 24 fatal skydiving accidents, including the deaths of five wingsuit pilots, of the roughly 3.2 million skydives that took place in the U.S. last year.
That boils down to one death per every 153,557 jumps, but the number of wingsuit jumps is not tracked by the USPA. This figure also doesn't account for wingsuit BASE jumps, in which participants don't leap from airplanes. (BASE is an acronym for objects participants can leap from, including Buildings, Antennas, Spans and the Earth itself, like mountains.)
The USPA, similar organizations and wingsuit pilots themselves acknowledge that their version of flying is more dangerous than traditional skydiving for a host of reasons, not least of which is the practice of "proximity flying" or soaring above cliff sides or trees.
The extreme sport is arguably more popular abroad, where every summer thrill seekers flock to the European Alps to jump off its peaks. The closest thing we have to a full accounting of wingsuit fatalities is the BASE Fatality List (BFL), an unofficial and incomplete wiki that records BASE fatalities — which includes wingsuiting — dating back to 1981.
In 2016, unofficially the most deadly year in BASE jumping, 37 people died. At least 27 of those involved a wingsuit or a tracking suit, an entry-level training wingsuit. Among the dead were star pilots Alexander Polli and Uli Emanuele, whose videos on YouTube have racked up millions of views.
Ramirez is aware of the dangers — he appears sincere in his aversion to death — but he is strongly opposed to playing it safe.
The walls inside his lakeside apartment are lined with framed photos of his adventures abroad — meeting Mother Teresa in India, riding a camel in nothing but a thong, cuddling baby elephant seals in Antarctica — and he came to define himself by these stories.
Never one to shrink in a crowd, Ramirez once tried his hand at acting, reality TV and modeling. But his name never stuck.
"Eighty million people know me," a then-35-year-old Ramirez told the Herald in 2003, estimating the number of viewers who've caught glimpses of him on TV or video over the years. "I should be famous. But the problem is, they don't remember me."
His credits include extra work on movies like "The Specialist" and "Drop Zone," the latter being his first taste of the skydive culture. And in 2003 he unsuccessfully auditioned for a reboot of ABC Family's "Dance Fever" — by performing a strip tease for the judges.
Before he left his home for Sebastian, packing things into a white GMC van covered in postcard stickers, Ramirez left behind a newly completed will — $70 through LegalZoom — that divides his belongings between his father and sister.
Ramirez said he wants to prove that life doesn’t stop at 50, although he admits he’s nervous that rushing through his skydiving training may end his own life early. He has skydived before, twice. But those were tandem jumps with an instructor strapped to his back and controlling the descent and parachute deployment. His last jump was 13 years ago in New Zealand.
So far, he's completed a four-hour ground school to learn about techniques and regulations, and he's already completed ten graded skydives, though he failed three of them after he froze and forgot to follow his instructor's hand cues. If he passes his next two jumps — Levels 7 and 8 — he'll earn his AFF certification and then move on to working toward his A license (25 jumps), B license (50 jumps) and C license (200 jumps).
"The first jump I was terrified," he said, adding that he feels more comfortable now. "If you're gonna suck at anything, don't make it skydiving."
He's dumped close to $2,000 into his journey so far. Getting up to 25 jumps will cost him another grand. In total, he estimates the mission would cost him $12,000. He drove back up to Sebastian on Thursday morning and plans to reach 25 jumps by the beginning of next week.
Nancy Koreen, the director of sport promotion at the USPA, said Ramirez's goal would be "a lot for most skydivers, even those with years of experience" but "certainly not impossible."
She did warn that students can sometimes become overwhelmed by moving too quickly through the licensing process, during which they put into use new skills during each jump.
"However, as long as the instructors make sure he's properly trained for each jump and he's progressing safely, he can move at a pace that's comfortable for him," Koreen concluded.
David Ramirez, his older brother, said he found out about Mike's new adventure on Facebook. A former Marine, David has jumped out of a plane before, but he was aided by a static line and thus did not experience full free fall. He said his wayward brother has always strayed from conventional life choices — he's never worked a steady 9-to-5 — and lives frugally so as not to be bound by anything.
"I said to myself, what the hell is he doing?" David recalled. "When he sets his mind to doing something he's going to get it done."
David, a security consultant living in Miami, said he isn't entirely sure what compelled his brother to start skydiving but said Mike's dreams can be triggered by anything. He said he admired his brother's fearlessness and disregard for others' opinions of him.
"I don't even know if it's a mid-life crisis because he's been doing this for more than 17 years," he said. "He seems to be, in the purest sense of the word, an adventurer."