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  18,000 FEET AND RISING: MISSY NELSON, SKYDIVER.  
   
   
  Thousands of adventurers have come to know the Nelson family (Roger, his son Rook and his daughter Missy) strapped to one of them and standing in an airplane's open doorway. The Nelsons are  
 

ready to leap at 18,000 feet; you've got to be ready, too.

Nervous students at Skydive Chicago may be calmed by these facts: No one has ever died or even been seriously injured while tandem jumping at Skydive Chicago. And its founder, Roger Nelson, trusted his teaching technique so much that his daughter made her first jump at age 5.

Age 5! That's Missy. She's been climbing mountains, skydiving and hang-gliding since most of us were considering coloring, cutting and/or pasting. And, at 27, she's an accomplished skydiver with several gold medals and world records to her name.

Roger Nelson died in a skydiving accident in June 2003. After his death, Missy and Rook took over management of Skydive Chicago and have dealt with countless media stories and innuendo about their lives, their business and

   
 

their father. The Black Table caught up with Missy recently to find out just how life is lived careening towards earth.

BT: You've won multiple freestyle skydiving gold medals from the United States Parachute Association. What's your best trick?

MN: Most people do not understand freestyle in terms of skydiving. Freestyle is best described as gymnastics without a floorboard -- a performer and a videographer are team. A team is judged on aesthetic presentation, execution of moves and difficulty. The videographer is judged on their presentation: Was the performer in frame and up close? My favorite move is a called a "Reverse Eagle With Tricks." This is a three-dimensional move around the camera flyer while performing twists and other flare on an oval axis.

BT: You've had a few unintentional tricks, too - like the cutaways when your main parachute didn't open correctly. Now we won't ask about soiling panties, but how did you keep your wits about you?

MN: I actually have [had] 11 instances where my main parachute didn't work, but I have over 5,000 jumps and also jump a high performance parachute. Of 30,000-plus skydivers in the entire world, less than 20 percent jump these types of canopies. You HAVE to be an expert for any manufacturer to sell you the type of parachute I jump.

I never 'soiled' myself or ever thought, "Oh my goodness, I'm going to die!" The first time I ever had to use my reserve (backup) parachute, I only had 53 jumps, and the last time was about jump number 4,800. I had the same mindset: cool and calm. I just did my thing, landed and then searched for my main parachute. Since you "cutaway" your malfunctioning parachute, it literally detaches itself from you and floats away until it lands on the ground. Main canopies can cost up to $2,000, so it's important that you go find them after you land safely.

BT: You've participated in a lot of world record attempts. Which was

 
   

your most personal accomplishment?

MN: My most personal world record is the one I organized. We completed an all-Women Vertical 16-Way World Record; this is where 16 ladies from around the world came to build a vertical formation by linking hands. Most people are familiar with flying

 
 

belly to earth; well, we flew this formation on our heads. It's a dream come true when an idea you have materializes in the most amazing fashion. My dad and brother have organized their own successful world records, so I also get to go down in the history books as a successful World Record Organizer with my family.

BT: Your drop zone, Skydive Chicago, has been heralded as one of the best in the world for training and innovation, but also attacked in the press for its relatively high accident rate. [According to the Chicago Tribune, 15 people have died at Skydive Chicago since it opened in 1993, twice the national average. In the last 11 years, there have been a total of 364 skydiving fatalities nationwide.] Where do you draw the line between innovation and safety?

MN: Skydive Chicago IS the best place to learn how to skydive. We have the most modern and state-of-the-art student program, equipment, facilities and staff. Ninety-nine percent of skydiving centers cannot claim that. Every person who's ever visited Skydive Chicago from any other skydiving center will agree.

Any successful business that is willing to put itself out into the mainstream public is always up for criticism. And since skydiving isn't a mainstream product, many people are quick to jump the gun and criticize us, but they really don't understand it. It does seem like a high number of deaths at Skydive Chicago, and it's truly unfortunate. But let's take a look at a few points here…

1. Ninety percent of the fatalities at Skydive Chicago were people who did NOT learn from us. This does NOT mean we blame their training or trainer. They were mostly experienced jumpers. When I say experienced, that means they were approved by our national organization's criteria to be a member and licensed from other skydiving centers who did not respect the dangers of skydiving and attempted extreme maneuvers not approved by one of our staff and that cost them their lives.

2. [A few people] were attempting world records. When you participate in a world record, you are inviting things to go wrong. If taken seriously and cautiously, they can be done safely. Unfortunately, we had to see the dangerous side of it here at home.

3. [A few others] just made a simple bad decision. Instead of dealing with a problem right away, as most every training center will emphasize, they waited too long to fix the issue. You need to be quick and aware when things go wrong, because it just happens fast.

4. [Another small percentage] were just not being aware. You have to be aware especially at Skydive Chicago since we [have] many jumps. That means there are several others in the air with you at the same time. If you're not paying attention, other canopies can collide right with you.

5. One of the deaths was one of those freak accidents. [Freak accidents] can happen by walking down a street, and a driver loses control and hits you. It just happens.

It seems like a high number because we are a high-profile skydiving center and boast the third largest number of jumps in the world. That's a significant number, considering we are closed during the

 
 

winter months. But that's a statistic for things to happen.

BT: Statistics are compelling, but what's your real take on the accidents, as someone who has been involved with running the DZ?

MN: The public doesn't seem to have an open ear for the explanation of each incident. They are quick to judge. Each of

   
 

these accidents was absolutely preventable, but they're accidents, and we do everything possible to prevent them. Don't we do this as a society with drunk driving and gang shootings? Well, we help each other in this community.

So to (finally) answer your question, I don't think we've EVER crossed the line between innovation and safety. I just think no one really ever understood what was really going on here or ever really gave us a chance; they just read what happened in the papers. And how many times do we tell ourselves, "Well, you can't always believe what's in the news."

BT: Your father, Roger Nelson, took a lot of criticism for the accidents, as well as a lot of credit for safety initiatives and increased interest in skydiving. He was something of a lightning rod for legend and innuendo, not least of which because of the five years he spent in federal prison for drug smuggling. What was he really like?

MN: What was my dad really like? Hmm … well, we literally traveled the world, I went hang gliding when I was three, skydiving when I was five, had my first quad motorcycle when I was four, climbed my first mountain at seven, learned how to fly planes when I was two, shot a gun for the first time at age eight and had such a loving family … I'd say he was pretty normal.

Everything my dad did was something he was educated and very passionate about. A fact about my dad that some people bypassed -- because it didn't match their sensationalized stories -- was that he was a devout Christian and believed in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. He lived that way for last two years of his life. I'm a Christian because of my dad's faith. He showed me a happier road to follow. We now hold two Bible study classes on [Wednesdays] and have Sunday morning service here at Skydive Chicago.

BT: What's your absolute favorite love-to-hate-it skydiving movie?

MN: I don't like any mainstream skydiving movies. They're pretty cheesy. It hurts to watch them.

BT: You fly planes, run a huge and successful business, break world records, jump from so high that you require oxygen to survive the altitude … what could you possibly have planned for your 30s?

MN: Fly bigger planes, keeping running a huge, successful business, break bigger world records, jump from higher altitudes, win more medals and show people that skydiving is not a death wish, it's the way we wish to live.

BT: What's it like being a hot, buff girl-flyer in a male-dominated sport? Any proposals at 18,000 feet?

MN: I'm hot?? Then why am I single? Oh, and no skydiving proposals accepted at any altitude. I really like, tall, clever and witty guys.

BT: You expressed some serious hesitation about talking to media of any kind -- why?

MN: Most people don't know, but it seems like the press always has a field day with Skydive Chicago and my family. They don't always get their facts straight, even the little things. I understand that the media wants to show both sides of the story, but it gets old when they blatantly add that last line that seems to be the final knife in the back.

For years, my father was scrutinized because of his past. He was convicted by his peers and served his time. When he came out, he had so much energy to build his dream skydiving center, and he did … but at what cost? No matter what happened, it seemed like the press liked to smear his name in mud. They only assumed we were an underground drug smuggling ring.

So what happened to forgiving people who admit their wrong and pay their debt to society? My father made so many people happy here, gave many people jobs, gave them a cool playground and gave us all hope. If it's all legal, what crime is there in that?

Many of my colleagues encourage me to talk to the media, but it's really hard after they lie to you and after they gain your trust to only then twist your words to match their ideas of what you said to fit in their story. It's so wrong, and now I just let the press say whatever they'd like and just go with, "Any press is good press." Some may say that's a bad business tactic, but I don't run Skydive Chicago with intentions to make money. I do it because I love it. The people who "dare" to come out will know that all of our love and energy is poured into every detail of this operation.

 

Leigh Householder sometimes jumps out of airplanes. When grounded, she writes from her home in Ohio.