RAEFORD, N.C. (WGHP) — When you do something so many times, muscle memory starts to take over.
For Cheryl Stearns, 68, that’s competitive skydiving. But with more than 22,000 jumps under her belt, the sport feels far from mundane.
“I land on a two-centimeter target, which is the size of my watch head,” said Stearns, who now lives in Charlotte. “How boring can that be?”
Through her passion, Stearns earned the titles of World and National Champion, Guinness World Record-holder and US Army Veteran. It all started 50 years ago with a curiosity when Stearns was just a teenager growing up in Arizona.
“You can stick your hand out of the car and feel 60 miles per hour,” Stearns said. “But what did it feel like to go 120 (miles-per-hour)?”
The more Stearns jumped, the deeper she dove into all things aviation. She loved the idea of becoming a pilot, but it wasn’t until her dad gave her money for flying lessons that the idea took flight.
“We’re talking like eight years later, and my dad asked me, ‘Do you know why I paid for your flying lessons? Because I did not want you to skydive,'” Stearns said.
But it was too late because Stearns was hooked and wanted to do both. She had her sights set on becoming the best and knew the place to do that was Raeford, North Carolina.
“I came out with my dog and my suit, one suitcase, a pair of shoes and 50 bucks in my pocket,” Stearns said. “And I’ve never left.”
Stearns trained alongside the Army’s elite Golden Knights Parachute Team and became determined to do something no woman had done before: Join the Golden Knights
“It normally takes six weeks to do a trial period to get on the team,” Stearns said. “I tried out for two years to convince the Army, along with Washington D.C., that I would be a great ambassador. When I finally did join in February of ’77, I would have 1,500 skydives, I was a national champion and a world record holder.”
Her most memorable experience with the Army’s Golden Knights came in 1977 while performing in the ceremony to reopen the Statue of Liberty. She had the honor of carrying the American Flag while skydiving past Lady Liberty’s crown.
“The airspace had to be closed from Newark to JFK to LaGuardia for us to do this job,” Stearns said. “It was on the front page of the New York Times.”
Stearns has had a lifetime of adventure, service and achievement that is worth celebrating with more to come. But according to Stearns, the journey is the real joy.
“I look back, and I don’t regret anything,” Stearns said. “I have had many obstacles, but it’s been great because we learn not to plow through them but to go around them.”
Stearns was in the Golden Knights for more than six years and then went on to serve in the Army Reserve and National Guard. That allowed her to pursue her other passion as a commercial airline pilot. Stearns retired from military service as a master sergeant after 29 years.