Mercer Islander goes ‘over the edge’ for Special Olympics

Julie Gardner, of Mercer Island, about to rappel down the 514-foot Rainier Tower in downtown Seattle, Sunday, Aug. 14. Gardner was one of 200 people to rappel down the tower over the weekend, their prize for raising over $1,000 each for Special Olympics, Washington. - Contributed Photo
Julie Gardner, of Mercer Island, about to rappel down the 514-foot Rainier Tower in downtown Seattle, Sunday, Aug. 14. Gardner was one of 200 people to rappel down the tower over the weekend, their prize for raising over $1,000 each for Special Olympics, Washington.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

Julie Gardner and her husband, Joe Salvo, of Mercer Island have lived adventurous lives, working in the foreign service in far-away and exotic locations. Gardner worked for the state department in Zaire, Japan and Washington D.C. as a human rights officer and in personnel, while Salvo worked for the agency for international development. The couple met in D.C. in 1987, moving to the Island in 2000.

They also enjoy volunteering and giving to charitable causes. So, what better way to contribute to a good cause and have an urban adventure than to rappel off the 40-story, 514-foot high Rainier tower?

That’s exactly what Gardner did Sunday, the “prize” for raising at least $1,000 for Special Olympics in Washington state. Called “Over the Edge for Special Olympics,” this is the second year the event has taken place in Seattle, at the Rainier Tower – you know the building – the one built atop an 11-story, 121-foot concrete pedestal base that tapers towards ground level, like an inverted pyramid.

Ashley Stanfield, development director for Special Olympics Washington, said Over the Edge, an adventure company from Canada, started charity challenges 10 years ago with a rappel off a building in Missouri, as long as participants donated $100 to whatever the cause was that day.

“Now, we’re their largest event,” Stanfield said.

Gardner is one of 200 who made the jump.

Participants wore full-body industrial harnesses and used an industrial descender to go down. They can go as fast or as slowly as they like, anchored to a back-up line, which is controlled from the top. Should someone go too fast, or should the equipment fail, the back-up line will engage.

“I was nervous and then once I got there and started checking in, all geared up and with the handlers, I was fine,” Gardner said. “But once I got over to the edge I realized this is really high!”

She said rather than do any fancy tricks or take too much time getting down, she decided she just wanted to get down gracefully.

“I was very comfortable there just on the wall, but I didn’t creep down like a scared person; they said it was really important to ‘look cool’,” she said.

The handlers had three ropes going at a time Gardner said, noting that they were very good at control, not allowing more than eight people on the roof at a time.

Gardner said a couple of people froze up enroute, and had to be lowered. She said it was important to remain smooth, because if you got “jerky” or went to fast it would stop.

“It took far more strength than I was anticipating,” Gardner said. “The right hand worked the rope from the bottom to allow the descent, and the left hand worked sort of a brake system.”

Gardner and Salvo scuba dive, ski, snowboard, raft, and Julie recently did a tandem sky-dive with their two-daughters, 18 and 20, who are avid rock climbers. Gardner’s first parachute jump was in 1972, in Issaquah, before tandem sky-diving or bungee jumping existed. Her first rappel was when she was attending the University of Washington.

“Someone got us on the dorm roof,” she said. “It was about 30-feet.”

Then, in Zaire she had to learn to rappel again in case she had to escape from an embassy, due to terrorism, but it was only a two-story building.

So, this was bigger than any rappel she’s done. She said there are so many charitable causes to choose from, but this caught her attention because she thought “oh my heavens, when would I get a chance to do this?”

As far as Salvo is concerned, he said it seemed like they were really getting something for their money, but he doesn’t believe in jumping off things. However, he will dive into the very deep, dark water into caves and wrecks, which his wife absolutely will not. She said 60-feet down is her limit. Nonetheless, Salvo is in “awe” of his wife’s courage.

Gardner said a co-worker did the Rainier Tower rappel last year, taking her time coming down. Gardner actually raised the money for Special Olympics last year, but she couldn’t fit the event into her schedule.

Stanfield said it is a very safe event.

“It’s (the equipment) so much more sophisticated than what window washers use,” Stanfield said. “We really enjoy this event because it takes people out of their comfort zone, much like our athletes.”

Stanfield said $230,000 was raised this year for SOWA, by all the participants in “Over the Edge for Special Olympics.” In 2010, 120 people rappelled from the tower, raising $186,000.

Other charities Gardner and Salvo support are Northwest Harvest; they are both trained for the emergency well operations on the Island and Salvo volunteers for Family Law CASA (Court appointed special advocates).

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