The fact Gary Chopp survived a skydiving accident while he attended Grand Valley in the 1970s is remarkable. More remarkable is how Chopp pushed himself to recover, then went on to be a successful lawyer for four decades.
Chopp was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in June and received the organization’s Medal of Courage. Fitting, according to Chopp, his coach and teammates, because it was wrestling that played a large part in saving Chopp’s life.
Originally from Grand Ledge, Chopp was recruited to wrestle at Grand Valley by James Scott, former wrestling coach and associate professor emeritus of movement science. Chopp earned four varsity letters while at Grand Valley, compiled a 67-26 record and became an All-American by placing sixth at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament in 1975.
Scott said he remembered Chopp as a savvy wrestler who planned his attacks one or two moves ahead of his opponents, like he was playing a chess match. “Sometimes it would backfire, when other teams caught on to how Gary wrestled,” Scott said. “He was also very good at motivating the rest of the team and had great leadership skills.”
Following the 1975 wrestling season, Chopp wanted to go skydiving after a two-year absence from the sport. After a short freefall, his parachute failed to open. He tried the reserve parachute but it didn’t fully inflate and its lines crossed with the main chute lines.
“At that point I was falling to my death, a good 300 feet before hitting the ground,” Chopp said. He fractured his spine and broke his pelvis, and surgeons removed his spleen and a kidney; Chopp was hospitalized for seven months.
Support from his family and then girlfriend, Vanessa, helped Chopp through the tough days of physical therapy. Vanessa and Gary have since been married for more than 43 years. Chopp said he “drew upon wrestling toughness” to get him through the tough days of recovery, when he had to relearn how to walk, lift a glass of water and perform other daily functions.
Doctors attribute Chopp’s peak physical condition to his recovery. Chopp said his condition after the accident helped him with an attitude and mindset going forward — even after one of his legs was amputated following an ongoing battle with complex regional pain syndrome.
“I believe my physical condition, as a result of my accident, has given me an advantage in life because I have had to look deep down inside myself to overcome my handicap,” he said. “Those same things caused me to excel as a trial lawyer.
“There’s no way I would have that kind of courage and energy if I hadn’t been a wrestler and hadn’t had to survive these handicaps.”
Chopp returned to Grand Valley to finish his degree in 1977; he graduated from Cooley Law School in 1981.
John Harris III, a teammate of Chopp’s, is a board member for the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and nominated Chopp for the medal of courage.
“I began attending the induction events every year, and I realized that Gary’s story was as compelling, maybe more compelling than some others, and he deserved this honor,” Harris said.
Chopp was inducted the first year he was nominated, an uncommon feat, Harris said.