This past Friday night, while millions of people worldwide were comfortably watching the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, Gary Connery was up in a helicopter preparing to skydive.
It wasn't his first time skydiving, and it won't be his last. But this time was special. This time, Connery was skydiving in the role of the Queen of England as part of the Opening Ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympic Games. And as he waited in the helicopter for his cue to jump, he couldn't help but appreciate that the world was watching.
It was close to a full year before the jump that Connery was first approached about participating in the Opening Ceremonies. An established stuntman, who had stunt doubled for actors ranging from Rowan Atkinson in Johnny English to Gary Oldman in Batman, Connery had proven time and time again his capacity to pull off difficult and dangerous stunts. So it made sense that his name came up for recommendation when Danny Boyle, the director of the Opening Ceremonies, first conceived of the sky diving scene. Boyle asked three people for recommendations. All three pointed to Connery as the man for the job.
Connery, who had previously worked with Boyle, still wasn't convinced the stunt was going to happen. For starters, the Queen had yet to even be approached to ask if she'd participate in the ceremony. "I've learned through experience that it's not really on until it's on" Connery said, explaining that he's been asked to be part of many different stunts that have never actually materialized.
Two or three months later, though, the organizers of the Opening Ceremonies took the idea to the Queen, who agreed to a play a part in the ceremony. "Once the Queen was in, it definitely became a little more real" Connery admitted. And when the organizers of the Opening Ceremonies committed to manufacturing the specific parachute Connery had requested, he was even more certain that the stunt was on.
About five months ago, Connery attended his first ever dress fitting to begin work on his costume. The manufacturers created the dress to Connery's measurements, in the same design as the Queen's. "Only 4 or 5 people had seen the costume before the jump" Connery explained. The jump on Friday was the first time that Connery jumped with it on. "There was literally no "dress rehearsal" Connery said, enjoying his own pun.
In April, his parachute arrived and Connery started doing practice jumps at an airfield, seeing how fast his parachute would open, and making sure it would be feasible to clear the dimensions that the Olympic Stadium jump would require.
About two weeks before the Opening Ceremonies, he and his jumping partner, Mark Sutton, doubling as James Bond, did their first of four or five practice jumps over the Olympic Stadium itself. To keep the jump as top-secret as possible and to simulate the actual lighting conditions that the real jump would take place in, practices were held late at night when most Olympic Park employees had already left.
On the Friday of the opening ceremonies, Connery left his home early in the day by motorbike. He met Sutton in central London, and the two headed over to the airfield to begin preparations. At 8:30, Connery had his costume put on.
Twenty minutes later, the helicopter took off, and reached the holding area within 7 or 8 minutes. As the pilots practised their flying, and the crowd in the stadium below enjoyed the video with James Bond and the Queen, Connery said that he was "having a good time, getting some giggles, and taking some photos" as he waited with Sutton in the helicopter. He admits, though, that he was still a bit nervous, explaining that any time you jump you're a little afraid. "But the fear is good" he said. "It keeps you safe. It gets your mind in a good space".
As the helicopter got into position, Connery waited for instructions from his jump master, who was getting radio signals from the ground. The jump master counted down from six, as Connery kneeled on the ground, readying to go. In the brief seconds before the jump, he was aware of the huge worldwide audience that was watching, and also said that he was particularly conscious that this was the "lone opportunity to get it [the stunt] right".
When the countdown hit zero, Connery and Sutton jumped. As he was jumping, Connery said that it was difficult to take everything in, especially because he was so focused on getting the job done correctly. But once he landed outside of the stadium, he remembers the amazing feeling that accompanied it. "It was amazing really realizing you pulled it off and were a part of it" he said.
In the days since the jump, Connery has been really pleased with the reaction his jump has received. And although he doesn't get to keep the dress he wore and has no arrangements yet to meet the Queen, he's overjoyed just to carry with him the memories of an experience like this.
Since the jump, Connery's gotten a lot of media coverage. He finds it humbling that so many people want to talk to him. But in addition to leaving him humbled, the media frenzy of the past couple days has left him exhausted as well; exhausted enough that he needs a quick relaxing break before he moves on to train for a jump that he's doing in Oxford in September. So what's Connery's plan for a relaxing break? A quick trip to Italy for a little bit of base jumping.