Wrestling plays important role during recovery for GVSU graduate, hall of famer who survived skydiving accident

From left, James Scott hands Gary Chopp the Medal of Courage during the induction ceremony at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame; both men are standing
From left, James Scott hands Gary Chopp the Medal of Courage award during the induction ceremony at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Image credit - courtesy of Larry Slater

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."

group pictured, five men standing, three men kneeling by a TV screen of Gary Chopp during the National Wrestling Hall of Fame induction ceremony
Gary Chopp, top row center, was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in June. Former Grand Valley head wrestling coach James Scott is second from right; John Harris III is in the bottom row, center.
Image credit - courtesy photo

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, surgeons removed his spleen and a kidney; Chopp was hospitalized for seven months.

Support from his family and girlfriend, Vanessa, helped Chopp through the tough days of physical therapy. Gary and Vanessa Chopp did get married and celebrated their 43rd anniversary.

"I drew upon my wrestling toughness to get me through the tough days, to help me learn to walk again, to help me learn to lift a glass of water," Chopp said. "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. 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.

Watch Chopp's induction video.


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