I had a lot of time to reflect on the drive back home to Chicago from Arizona. What the hell was I doing? Was I still trying to prove myself to my dad that I’m my own person and not just Roger’s daughter or Rook’s sister? Regardless, I still have no idea if I want to take over SDC… sigh…
Nothing was clear. Things kept happening, but seemingly without my permission. However, the thought of the Sugar Gliderz brought me hope. It broke away the weird thoughts into dreams of choreographing routines in the sky. The movement, the freedom, the friendship. That made me happy.
Amy and Jen were back in AZ, about to change their lives and take a risk that this team was a real thing. I vaguely remember them calling me and asking, “So this is really happening? We go out there, have a place to stay, and we train?”
“Yup!” I answered. “It’s a real deal!”
That spring and summer we got more organized and made a plan. We sought out sponsorships in between our aggressive training days. We worked out and jumped together. Behind the scenes I was running the office for my dad, helping plan out events, bookkeeping, writing a newsletter, some marketing, and at times doing AFF Instructional jumps. I was also load organizing across the country with the Sugar Gliderz and when I had time, team training with my new freestyle teammate, Bill Hughes for our team called, Dos Gatos.
My dad was constantly bombarded from disgruntled employees and hostile journalists who were always bringing him down. I remember a turning point for my dad that he decided to drug test all contractors, including himself and us kids. I freaked out a little bit but made it through. I just turned my attention to alcohol. It was, after hours, legal.
Being busy helped me numb my thoughts because I had a lot of them and not just from nearly dying, but from my childhood through adolescence just trying to make sense out of life. Jumping a lot and working seemed to fit, but when the sun would set, I found drinking to be a solemn solution to help me not think.
On a whim, I decided to go the 2002 Ranch Pond Swoop Nationals. All my friends were going, I didn’t want to miss out, and I really loved flying my parachute that I thought this would be good for me.
I had just learned to use rear risers earlier in the year and tried it out at this competition, except I wasn’t getting the distance I thought and splashed in the pond EVERY round. I had a friend take me aside and said, just go back to what you know. This isn’t the time to try new things. That next round I made it out dry and I received a standing ovation!
Something unique in these early days of swoop competitions was the infamous, freestyle round. I racked my brain on what to do because this wasn’t my strong suit. I thought out of the box and gathered all my girlfriends and asked as I swooped in, to run out topless from the wind blades – we called it Operation Bluebird! I didn’t win, but it was SO awesome people still talk about it!!
My dad had won the USPA Nationals bid for 2002 and I was behind the scenes organizing registration and manifested the entire event. It was the biggest logistic puzzle and it was awesome! But I was tired! When it was my turn to compete I handed over the office reigns. Dos Gatos placed 3rd in Freestyle and the Sugar Gliderz had a great debut even though placing 5th in Open Freefly.
Dos Gatos earned a seat at the World Cup and a month after Nationals we set off for Austria. The event was plagued with bad weather and bad planning. We ended up walking away in 4th place only after 2 rounds of competition.
The girls and I made a plan for winter training back at Skydive Arizona. We became a little more organized with a team training schedule because we went so hard the past season and needed more personal time and time for the girls to make money outside of the team. Let’s face it, the team was incredible, but it didn’t pay all the bills!
Amy had an idea that I had always thought about but never thought it was possible. She wanted to organize an all women’s head down world record. We sat down on a gorgeous desert day writing a list of all the gals we thought that could pull it off. We had a surprising amount of girls! We also realized that we needed to organize camps to train new girls, and tryout the girls on our list.
As a team, we delegated tasks, had a meeting with Skydive Arizona about logistics, verified that the category was recognized (because it had never been done) and set the date. November 2003.
As we planned for the record, we had also organized a few events at Skydive Arizona. We also set dates for camps and load organizing events as well as a revised team schedule for the season at Skydive Chicago. Looking ahead I saw that I needed to relinquish one of the many things I was doing I decided to ‘retire’ from freestyle. As sad as that was for me, 2003 was looking to be another phenomenal year!
The season started as usual at Skydive Chicago. It was a repeat of the season before with being busy in the office and team training, but it was a lot more organized with a team training camps. This year was different. My dad was different. For whatever reason, he decided to show my brother and I the structure of the business, how it worked, and what we needed to know. He wanted us to take over. He also said something so out of the ordinary, “I lived my life. Don’t be sad when I die. I want it to be a celebration with balloons.”
One week, the Golden Knights team came to town for training and organizing. My dad thought of having a friendly competition where each Nelson (me, my bro & my dad) would rotate in for one Golden Knight member and whoever got the most points, would win! My dad went up for his round earlier and next was my bro’s turn.
It was a beautiful day – cloudless, light winds, perfect temps. The kind of day every skydiver wishes for. My brother and I were on the same plane, landed and had walked back from our jump, my brother having just landed with the Golden Knights. We both had just dropped off our gear and turned so we could just see outside the large hangar doors to the northern most part of the landing area. That’s the moment it happened and we heard an incredible sound. The sound that no skydiver wants to ever hear or feel.
I saw my dad’s parachute collapse but immediately looked over, in what seemed like slow motion, at my brother for confirmation. He didn’t even look at me because he had already dropped the rest of his gear and started running. I followed suit. And my worst fears were right in front of me. My dad’s mangled body, a sight that was so unfamiliar to me because my dad was a leader, a pioneer, invincible… my dad.
My father was airlifted to an area hospital more versed in trauma cases. My brother flew myself and 2 of my dad’s closest friends in the DZ’s little 182 to the hospital. On the way, I felt numb. All I could imagine was my dad directing the operation in a body cast. When we arrived at the hospital, they took us aside and told us he didn’t make it. The rug of life was pulled from me. A soul punch to the gut. Emptiness. Nothingness.
My brother and I embraced and cried.