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Fun Fact: My Parents Were Skydivers

Chad Ruhwedel's dad John and mom Robin, who met at a drop zone, discuss their shared passion for the sport

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Whenever Penguins defenseman Chad Ruhwedel has to share a fun fact about himself, he's got one lined up: his parents were avid skydivers.

His dad, John, has more than 3,000 jumps while his mom, Robin, has more than 1,500. She actually took about 20 of them when she was pregnant with Chad.

"It's a good icebreaker," Chad said. "It's pretty cool. They just had a little bit of a daredevil side to them. That's how they met. They got introduced at the drop zone. The rest was history."

Robin grew up north of Chicago while John was raised in Saudi Arabia, where his father worked in the oil industry. They would visit the U.S. every couple of years before returning to California permanently when John was a teenager.

John, who enlisted in the Marine Corps at 18 and served with the infantry in Vietnam at 19, first got into skydiving following a night of - as he put it with a laugh - "too much beer, too much pizza, and too much of an ego after Vietnam." His college roommate challenged him to try it, and it was an offer he couldn't refuse.

Meanwhile, Robin badly wanted to try skydiving when she was in school, but didn't want to go alone, and couldn't get anyone to actually commit to doing it with her. Until she was working at a medical center in Fresno after graduation, and mentioned her longstanding desire to go skydiving to her roommate.

"She said, I always wanted to do that too!" Robin said. "I was like, really? And so sure enough, we both made arrangements and went out to the drop zone and made our first jump."

So with a little help from their respective roommates, John and Robin both became enamored with skydiving - and there was no looking back for either of them.

Their paths crossed for the first time at something called a "boogie," a gathering focused more on fun instead of competition where more experienced skydivers are available as coaches to work with less experienced skydivers. 

John, who eventually retired as a Sergeant Major after 24 years of service, was being transferred from a duty station in southern California to one in the Bay Area. Midway through his trip, he stopped at a drop zone to see some friends. That's when he first met Robin.

"She was very much a novice and I was very much an egocentric, macho man," John chuckled. "Boy, was he ever!" Robin laughed. "We tell the story that when Robin and I met, I was sitting there talking with my friend and she shook hands and said hello," John said. "Then she said I turned my back on her so I could talk to my friend."

Fortunately, John would get a chance to make it up to Robin when their paths crossed again a few months later at a boogie in a drop zone in Perris Valley in southern California. 

"Robin and her friends came down to partake, and I became one of the instructors to volunteer my time," John said. "We knew each other, but we never jumped together. She worked with another friend of mine. And I think that paid dividends in the end (laughs)."

From there, it was such an amazing journey for the couple - who got married in 1983 - to embark on together, as they started jumping with each other a lot more.

"It was something that we both were really passionate about individually, and it was just really something fun to share," said Robin, who refers to John as 'Rudy,' which is the same nickname Chad has in the Penguins locker room.

They would work their regular full-time jobs during the week, and then go skydiving all weekend. Sometimes, they would jump 6-10 times in one day.

"People would spend more to go out for a nice dinner than we would spend in a weekend skydiving," Robin said. "It wasn't a hard choice. Food is food. But when it comes to having fun, man, it's priceless! (Laughs)"

Robin started jumping with a camera as a skydiving videographer, while John began jumping with a competition team. Eventually, he grew interested in becoming a tandem master, which is the instructor who guides beginners through their first jumps. Requirements include a minimum of three years' experience, at least 500 skydives and a master parachute license issued by a FAA-recognized organization. Robin said it was the perfect fit for his personality.

"Rudy has such an awareness - well, both Rudys have such an awareness of what's around them all the time - and he would just really exude confidence for people who are going to come out and make their first jump," Robin said.

And while she said people are nervous while they're waiting to go - "which is to be expected, since it's not like a walk in the park thinking that you're going to jump out of an airplane, right?" she pointed out with a laugh - Robin found such joy in filming their emotions once they made the leap.

"I used to love to capture the smiles that would just beam from their faces within seconds of leaving the airplane," she said.

And Robin actually got the opportunity to do that with her mother, Mary Bovee (who came to watch Chad play last year during the West Coast road swing).

"I come from a flying family," said Robin, who got her pilot's license the summer after high school. "My father was an airline pilot. My brother was an airline pilot. My mom and I both fly. And so she just was really against it. Then of course, she met Rudy and fell in love with him. So she was like, well, I can't fight this forever."

Robin eventually won her over, and one day, Mary came to the drop zone with a group from the local chapter of The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of licensed women pilots. 

"She made her first jump in her mid-50s," Robin said. "And after we landed - because I filmed her - she said, well, I don't know if I'll ever do that again, but I understand why you love it so much (laughs)."

Robin's piloting experience served her and John well when they lived in Hawaii for three years. They've gone skydiving in many different places around the world, but say nothing compares to the picturesque nature of the islands.

"To just see the coastline and the ridgeline and whatnot, it was truly a beautiful place to jump," Robin said. 

One of her favorite jumps came when she was working for the American Heart Association, and they wanted to reward a school who had won a fundraising program. They arranged to fly someone dressed as Santa to the school in a helicopter, and Robin and another pilot friend dressed as elves. She made hats and aprons for them, and they stuffed the pockets with candy canes. It was much different jumping from a hovering helicopter versus a flying airplane, but it was still incredibly exhilarating. 

"That was such a cool experience for me," Robin laughed. "I had never done anything like that. Rudy said, I think I heard you screaming from several hundred feet! We landed in the school yard and we were throwing out candy canes to all the kids as we were coming down."

After John and Robin moved back to California and settled in San Diego with their family - Chad and his older sister Evan - they weren't able to skydive as much as they used to. 

"We did it for a good long time, but of course, high-speed sports are not something that you think of as an occasional hobby," said Robin, who also got her gliders' "It's important for safety reasons to stay current. As time grew, and we had the kids, we typically didn't jump together just because one of us was on the ground with them. And then we just got so active with their activities and found so much joy in helping them along their path that we just kind of tapered that off."

And while Chad said he doesn't necessarily feel like he inherited his parents' daredevil streak, he appreciates that they raised him to be open to different experiences and comfortable saying yes to anything.

"There was never any hesitation to take us to try something new," he said. "We never pushed the limits in a dangerous way, like we were always smart and safe."

John and Robin believe that kids don't belong in the house, which was evidenced by the activities they did. The kids went skiing, snowboarding, surfing, hiking and rode dirt bikes and mountain bikes.

But living in San Diego, they certainly never envisioned that Chad's career path would ultimately be in hockey. But they lived a mile away from the local ice rink, and it was a nice respite from the warm weather, especially in the summer. 

"One Christmas, Robin - who is a twinkle toes on skis, ice skates, etcetera - goes, we're going to the ice rink," John said. "Now, I was raised in the desert, so we're talking a foreign language there. And she took us over, and she held the three of us up (laughs)."

Robin's goal was for the kids to be competent and capable on ice skates, and then they could decide on their own if they wanted to stick with it. They ended up absolutely loving it. 

When the family started going to public skates, 4-year-old Chad would see hockey players in their helmets and jerseys, and told Robin that's what he wanted to do. He turned out to have a natural ability right away, and Robin's skydiving camera equipment would have come in handy.

"If I could have just captured Chad's faces," she said with a laugh.

From there, Robin said they were fortunate to have coaches who kept the families grounded and tell the parents to just let their kid play and just let them have fun. 

"And so it's really actually kind of interesting after Chad did sign as a pro, there were all these people that started coming out and finding me through LinkedIn. They said, how did you do it? What did you do?" Robin said. "And I said, I don't think I'm the person you want to talk to you. Because I'm just going to tell you to let your kid play. They will go their own way. It was Chad's choice."

To see him thriving like he is now, both professionally and personally - a 2017 Stanley Cup Champion who plays an important role for the Penguins as a dependable depth defenseman, as well as a husband and new father - makes Robin emotional even talking about it.

"I probably can't get through talking about it without crying, so I won't," Robin said. "But honestly, just really, really grateful. And more than anything, it makes me really happy with when they refer to Chad's character. The other night when they said he hadn't played in 12 games and then he steps on the ice and it's like he hadn't missed a beat because he works hard, as a parent, that's what it's all about."

Another proud parent moment came when Chad and his sister went skydiving for the first time in Perris Valley, the drop zone that holds a special significance for them, as it's where John and Robin first hit it off.

Evan waited until Chad was old enough so that they could go together. They went into their dad's office and informed him they were ready to go. So John made a phone call to a friend of his, a longtime skydiving expert, and made the arrangements.

When the day arrived, John caught up with some old friends from his skydiving days as Evan, Chad and his friend Brett donned their gear, signed the waivers and got situated.

"They said, Rudy, are you and Robin jumping up in the airplane?" John said. "Robin and I both simultaneously said no, we will be on the ground when they land."

"We didn't want to miss that," Robin said.

Chad said the ride up was definitely the most nerve-wracking part. When it was his turn to go, he said it was surreal because you can't see the person who just went.

"Then you just kind of have this mentality of all right, here we go," he said. "The second you're out of the plane, there's no fear. The way I describe it is it's not like a roller coaster where you're flying by stuff, so you don't know how fast you're going. You literally feel like you're floating. And that lasts for about 45, 50 seconds. And then you pull your parachute at about 3,000 feet. Takes about minute or two, probably two minutes, to get all the way down with the parachute."

And once they all landed on solid ground, John and Robin were delighted to see that they loved it.

"Skydiving is all about confidence," Robin said. "Having confidence in the gear, in the people that you're skydiving with - it's really important. We knew all of that. Of course, there's just some little thoughts that go through your mind as a parent. You always want to make sure that everything is just perfect, because you didn't pack that rig. But at the same time, we both just love the sport so much. And it was just a really fun thing to share with our kids."

"There would never have been pressure to go, but they were really happy when we did jump," Chad said. "They were super excited and knew how exhilarating it is, and it was something to kind of connect over."

And hopefully one day, it will be something for John and Robin - who have been itching to start skydiving again now that their kids are grown - to connect with their grandson Brody over. When asked if they would be willing to take him?

"Short answer, hell yes! I would cross that bridge in a heartbeat," John said with a laugh.

"So our kids, they nicknamed me C.G., for Crazy Grandma," Robin added. "And if you're going to name me that, I'm going to earn it. So stand by."

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