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The Annual Birthday Adventures That Remind Me Anything Is Possible

They've been terrifying — and totally empowering.

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illustration of girl doing different adventures
Agata Nowicka
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“I’ve always wanted to go skydiving.”

That sentence has escaped my lips dozens of times since I was a teenager. But when it popped out as I brainstormed fun ways to celebrate my upcoming 39th birthday, I knew this time it was happening. And when my feet hit the ground after my birthday jump was over, I knew this adventure was kicking off something more than just a bucket list. Those words were the beginning of an annual event to remind me that anything is possible.

At the time, my life was in flux. I was a divorced single mom, trying to find my place in the universe. After a decade and a half passed with the wrong guy, the woman I once longed to become started clawing to the surface with my first step out that marital door.

As difficult as the divorce was, it was also my reset button. Suddenly I found myself with a world of opportunities waiting for me to find them. The sky’s the limit.

That phrase took on new meaning as I sat on the edge of an airplane at 14,000 feet, preparing to plunge to the ground. Strapped to my experienced tandem partner, I closed my eyes, tilted my head back as instructed and allowed myself to be flipped through the air once before free-falling. The feeling of flying through the sky was terrifying, surreal and totally empowering.

As nervous as I was to skydive, the video of my jump tells a different story. At the moment my body plunged out of that airplane — that moment when I remember feeling the most fear — I look the most at peace. I was doing something I always claimed I wanted to try, but deep down never really thought I’d have the guts to do. I overcame fear in exchange for an unforgettable experience. I knew if I could go skydiving, then anything was possible.

Author Heather Sweeney Skydiving, in a helicopter and paragliding
Courtesy Heather Sweeney

Fast forward a year later. My milestone 40th birthday was approaching, and, inspired by the previous year’s adventure, I searched for ways to get back in the sky. It didn’t take long to stumble upon my answer and book my flight in a hot-air balloon.

After days of wishes for incorrect weather reports, I found myself watching the sun rise in a field before climbing into a basket that was lifted by a gigantic balloon and a loud flame. As we hovered in the hot-air balloon at 1,000 feet for our morning flight overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, my mantra replayed in my head: Sky’s the limit.

Another year passed, and as I got closer to my 41st birthday, the idea for my next sky adventure came in the form of an email from Groupon with deals they thought I might be interested in. Forty-one would be the year of hang gliding.

Author Heather Sweeney Skydiving, in a helicopter and paragliding
Courtesy Heather Sweeney

It’s hard not to feel invincible when gliding along at 3,500 feet in the air on a contraption that has no motor. An airplane pulled the hang glider up, and seconds later, my instructor in the harness below me told me to let go of the handles and enjoy the ride. I gazed at the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean on one side of me and the Chesapeake Bay on the other. I attempted to steer the glider myself. I shrieked as we flipped upside down during the “roller coaster” portion of the flight. And, of course, my mantra was right there alongside me: Sky’s the limit.

My 42nd birthday included both a sky adventure and the added bonus of water, which I have always found to have therapeutic properties. Parasailing in the Outer Banks of North Carolina lifted me 1,200 feet in the air before dipping me in the water. The flight was so peaceful and smooth that I couldn’t even hear the motor of the boat, whose momentum was keeping me in the air. I wondered if the boat crew below heard me yell, “Sky’s the limit!”

My latest sky adventure for my 43rd birthday gave me the opportunity to see a different perspective of my hometown … from a helicopter. For an hour, the helicopter pilot flew between 800 and 1,000 feet while I snapped photos of Virginia Beach and its surrounding cities, which I was used to seeing on a regular basis from the ground. As I admired one of my favorite beaches from above, I realized I don’t have to go far from home and my everyday life to remember that the sky’s the limit.

Author Heather Sweeney Skydiving, in a helicopter and paragliding
Courtesy Heather Sweeney

Since I started my annual sky-themed adventures, I vowed not to let the sentiment fizzle out in between birthdays. I even added an extra-credit sky adventure to my list when I zip-lined through a rainforest in Costa Rica. These adventures remind me that I want to be the kind of person who not only seizes opportunities as they present themselves, but also creates opportunities, regardless of the fear associated with taking those steps.

The more I do, the more I want to do. I’ve discovered the possibilities in my life are endless. The sky truly is the limit.

Photos courtesy Heather Sweeney