Before I Was a Pro 5

Sugar Gliders

Before I Was A Pro 5

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part VI

I showed up to the USPA Nationals at Skydive Arizona late fall of 2001 with my freestyle cameraflyer, Bill Hughes who also filmed my freefly team with Emmanuelle Celicout. Emmanuelle was a French girl who made her way to Skydive Chicago and into my heart. She coached me in freestyle and became a close friend who I admired dearly. She was a natural in the sky and a person who told it like it was.

Sunpath Products

The idea of competing in freefly with Em was to be an all-girls team, but since she was French, we had to compete as a Guest team. We also decided that we’d compete as an intermediate team as it was our first time competing in freefly. To our surprise, when we arrived at Skydive AZ, there was another all-girl team with a German camera flyer, Sven Zimmerman. The other two girls were Amy Chmelecki and Jen Key and they competed in Open.

The centrifugal force was picking up speed. My audible altimeter started flat lining. I knew if I didn’t do something, I would be dead in a matter of seconds. I pulled my reserve into my malfunctioning main. Nothing happened. Since I was on my back and at a low vertical speed, my reserve pilot chute was in tow.

Even though we competed in different classes, Em & I still measured our competition against the other girls team and we were head-to-head! It was exciting, but at the end of the competition we won Intermediate Freefly as a guest team, but lost to the other girls by a tenth of a point.

Something happened. My mind started spinning. Emmanuelle couldn’t commit to another year of training as her path was changing. I wonder how committed Jen and Amy are and if I’d offend their male cameraflyer if I asked them to be a team with me?

My dad was also at the competition, glowing in my brother’s and my wins for the year. I went to him and point blank asked, “Would you sponsor an all girls freefly team?”

He didn’t hesitate, “Yes, but who are the girls.”

I answered, “Amy and Jen, but I haven’t asked them yet.”

My dad said, “Well where are they? Let’s go ask them!”

My dad instantly fell in love with Amy and Jen and to my surprise, both girls were interested in being on a team with me and traveling to Chicago in the summers to train. So I went back home, wrapped things up for the season in Chicago, arranged an apartment in Eloy, packed up my car and headed west for a winter in AZ.

Our first meeting together after training we started to discuss what our team name would be. In that very conversation we imagined how we’d be sponsored by Coca-Cola and that we’d be a team forever and ever. We were so in love with the team and each other that the possibilities were endless.

Team Sugar Gliderz 1.0

We opened up a thesaurus and started brainstorming what our name could be. At a certain point I had mentioned, what about, “Sugar Gliders?” Jen knew what a sugar glider was and her eyes widened. When Jen & I explained what a sugar glider was, Amy loved it – the name suited us and to be different, we added a “Z” at the end: Sugar Gliderz.

I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing this experience was! We got a team discount at Skydive AZ and started training right away. We’d even meet in the gym before or after to workout or stretch. The three of us were instant BFFs!

Sugar Gliders at the Nationals

One training week Amy had to go out of town so Jen and I were training together. On one jump I opened up into spinning line twists with my Velocity 90 and after two attempts to unwind myself, I knew I had to cutaway. But I couldn’t!

This wasn’t my first rodeo. Before this I had a pilot chute-in-tow, 2-out, a total, and a few other line twist malfunctions. I knew the drill. I knew the energy it took. I knew the procedures having not only been taught it, but teaching it on the regular as a current AFF Instructor. I couldn’t physically cut away. Both knees tucked in and vigorously throwing my body to use leverage. Still couldn’t cutaway. 

Earlier in the year, I watched someone go in under spinning line twists. I remember debriefing with my dad knowing what I would do, but wanted to know what he would do. And we agreed. “It’s better you go in pulling all of your handles,” was my Dad’s reply.

The centrifugal force was picking up speed. My audible altimeter started flat lining. I knew if I didn’t do something, I would be dead in a matter of seconds. I pulled my reserve into my malfunctioning main. Nothing happened. Since I was on my back and at a low vertical speed, my reserve pilot chute was in tow.

This is when everything slowed down. I remember how perfectly warm the air felt on my face and how well lit the mountains were on the horizon. I remember reaching back over my shoulder wondering if I could grab the reserve bridle and throw it out enough to catch air. And it worked.

I also remember in that moment of being in slow motion while all of this was happening was thinking of my uncle Carl who died of a main / reserve entanglement at the Labor Day Boogie in Pennsylvania in 1979. I couldn’t let that happen. I didn’t know if it would help, but I spread myself into a starfish hoping to help keep my main and reserve apart and try to sit up right to be a part of a good reserve opening.


All I remember was watching my reserve radically opening in phased line twists until it settled out the two parachutes fighting for dominance – I was now in a down plane about 1000’. My teammate Jen was watching helplessly from under canopy screaming for me to cutaway. I didn’t hear her of course, but I did manage to finally cutaway.

As soon as I did, I reached up, grabbed the risers and started frantically kicking out of them. As soon as I kicked out of them I was just under 600’. I chose my landing area in a recently tilled up cotton field. I crash landed and got up on my knees and everything felt completely surreal. I moved from tears to laughing hysterically, wondering if really just almost died.

Jen landed safely about 20 feet away from me. She cutaway her main and ran towards me, almost twisting her ankle in the field, and hugged me so hard. I didn’t want her to let go. The Dropzone Manager at the time, Pat Patton pulled up in the DZ van. As cool as could be he said, “I’m so glad I don’t have to call your dad.”

Jen and I made our way immediately to the bar. Then I had to do one of the hardest things – tell my dad.

He later wrote a letter to Skydiving Magazine. He got a few details wrong, but for the most part, he and I went on a campaign to make jumpers aware and contacted manufacturers to make hard housings in risers standard.

Article written by Roger Nelson following Melissa's malfunction.

Article written by Roger Nelson following Melissa’s malfunction.

I ended up going back to my little apartment by myself that night ensuring to everyone I was really ok. But I wasn’t ok. I was perplexed at my reality – did I really almost just die? I started on a very dark path with drugs that I kept so secret that my teammates had no idea. After a few months in Arizona, I realized that I needed to go back to Chicago to sober up. I left hastily without really telling anyone what was going on and ensuring Amy & Jen that everything was good to go for team training at Skydive Chicago starting that spring of 2002.

Continue to Part 6

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