With 12,000 jumps, 26 world records, seven national titles (in three different disciplines we might add), and as a third-generation skydiver, CYPRES athlete Melissa Nelson’s airborne achievements are astounding — and as if that wasn’t impressive enough, there’s even more she’s accomplished outside of this realm!
Melissa fills more roles than many could ever dream of even dabbling in: mother, top-tier skydiver, keynote speaker, yoga instructor, author, businesswoman, USPA National Director, and, most recently, the first female Meet Director for the USPA 2022 Nationals. Truthfully, you’d be hard-pressed to find something Melissa isn’t involved in or masterful at.
However, like many of us, 2022 was a tumultuous year for Melissa, packed with record-breaking highs (quite literally) and world-rattling lows. Despite the challenges of the year prior, Melissa is setting herself up for success in 2023, launching big changes and new business ventures. Let’s catch up with CYPRES athlete Melissa to review the incredible year she had and the exciting pursuits the future holds!
The original mission of Project 19 was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution – which granted women the right to vote – with a 100-way Women’s Vertical World Record. Originally set to be completed in 2020, Project 19 was forced to postpone the record attempt due to the global pandemic. In 2022, the international group of women was finally able to gather to break the existing record.
While the journey to the attempt would be difficult for many, for Melissa, it was particularly fraught with personal challenges. Melissa had not missed a women’s record attempt since she and Amy Chmelecki began organizing them in 2003 – but this year, she nearly did.
Her personal life was coming apart at the seams, and Melissa says it was hard for her to want to show up. However, with the support of Amy and Sara Curtis, she was able to do just that. At the event, Melissa put herself to work: cleaning, organizing, paperwork, and logistics. As far as the skydiving component of the event, originally Melissa had asked to be placed in a less involved spot; a slot that would be easy to cut if needed. Slowly though, her mind started to shift gears. She wasn’t just “showing up”. This record was happening, and she was going to be a part of it. By the end of the event, Melissa was a plane captain.
Like all record attempts, this one would be a marathon: a test of mental fortitude and physical endurance. On the first day, the 40-way base went up and was built flawlessly. The next day the outer 60 were added. Although the 100-way was not achieved, each successive jump saw improvements and greater success.
After restrategizing, on the third day, the decision was made to attempt to break the record with a 72-way – a symbolic number representing the 72 years after the Seneca Convention in which the 19th Amendment was ratified. Amazingly, this record attempt was successful on the very first jump. The second jump saw even greater success as the women built a beautiful 80-way.
On the fourth day, the women attempted to build a 97-way. Though the official record was missed by the flash of a grip, the mission was still successful. These women had pushed their bodies and minds to the limit, proudly representing themselves and women worldwide. As Melissa aptly puts it: “We were able to use our sport to elevate a message so much bigger than us.”
Initially elected by a special election in 2020, and re-elected for the 2022-2024 term, Melissa has hit the ground running in her position as the USPA National Director.
One of Melissa’s primary drives is serving as a bridge between the USPA Board of Directors and the USPA members. As National Director, Melissa strives to represent the interests of her constituency, and in order to do so, has made a concentrated effort to connect and communicate with the skydiving community at large. As a matter of fact, in just two years, she has visited over 30 dropzones!
Melissa is part of a team including 21 other directors who attempt to represent the broader USPA membership. As you can imagine, seeking to meet the needs of 40,000+ people coast-to-coast (as well as foreign affiliates) is no small task! To make things more manageable Melissa has created a database she’s affectionately named her “National Director Bank.” The database is compiled of feedback from the field and ideas and suggestions from members. When a trend becomes apparent, the particular item/issue will garner her attention either to be addressed by the board or investigated further. One of the current pressing issues multiple members raised to Melissa is addressing sexual assault and misconduct within the industry. Despite threats, attacks, and gaslighting, she is still bravely encouraging the board to write and navigate specific policies to protect its members.
Melissa also sits on multiple committees including Governance, Competition, Membership Services, and as a Chair on the Sport Promotion Subcommittee. She is particularly skilled at recognizing connections where others may not. As a competitor herself, and after serving as the first female meet director at the USPA Nationals, a focal point for Melissa is competition. It directly connects and relates to sport promotion.
While some argue that additional effort and energy should not be directed toward competition when only a small percentage of the USPA membership competes, Melissa holds that it should be at the forefront for two reasons. First, it is one of the main focuses of the USPA mission statement. And, as a businesswoman, she understands the marketability of competition as a vehicle for sports promotion.
As Meet Director, despite juggling logistics, Melissa would pour her energy into each discipline’s briefing by beginning with a heartfelt speech, impressing upon competitors the value of their presence:
“I wanted to let them know how important it was that they were here and representing not just their teams or their dropzones, but the sport as a whole. Although a lot of people may never compete, what do you think may be inspiring the new jumpers? The media surrounding competitors. Teams are also the ones helping to get loads going and investing in the community by coaching the newer kids on the dropzone. Perhaps there is no direct, measurable ROI, but I believe competition helps support the industry.”
With Melissa at the helm, who knows how much this sport can grow!
Another project Melissa is passionate about is the Highlight Pro Skydiving Team. As a branch of the Women’s Skydiving Network, the mission of the Highlight Pro Skydiving Team is to “inspire women and girls to live brave bold lives of their own design.” Aptly named, the Highlight Pro Skydiving Team aspires to highlight women and the continued struggle for women’s equality.
Initially, the team sought to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment. However, after realizing the potential to use the sport of skydiving as a vehicle for change, the aspirations of the team have grown. As Melissa explained:
“We love skydiving right? But to find a way to use skydiving to have an impact and be purposeful and to use that for the greater good, it’s a dream come true. Since then, we’ve evolved into other things where we’ve highlighted women in other sports. We jumped into the NCAA Women’s Softball World Series in Oklahoma City, and it was amazing having coverage by ESPN to elevate our message. We also jumped into the Banc of California Stadium when the women’s soccer team finally received equal pay. We did a demo in the Surf Girl Pro this year. It’s so cool being able to partner with other entities and to use skydiving to highlight messages of equality.”
As if she wasn’t busy enough, Melissa has a new venture on the horizon: Owl Media World. With Owl Media World, Melissa is producing custom, online, first jump courses for dropzones. She’s already completed courses for Ultimate Skydiving Adventures, Skydive Chicago, Skydive Sebastian, AerOhio, and Skydive Perris.
For Melissa, the online first jump course is the way of the future:
“It solves so many of the problems that dropzones are facing. 1) To get someone to teach a course. 2) For the course material to be taught consistently and to provide students with a great foundation. This online opportunity is also great for the students because they can watch the material repeatedly. They can watch it in their own time, so no longer are they restricted by the dropzone’s ability to host the course. It helps with so many of the things that are prohibitive to getting new people involved in skydiving.”
Although 2022 was rife with personal struggle and emotional turmoil, Melissa wasn’t bested. Rather, with the support of her close friends and the skydiving community, she was able to show up for herself and for the sport of skydiving. Now, stepping into the new year, she’s looking forward to what’s next.
With each of her ventures, CYPRES athlete Melissa Nelson is paving the way for skydiving’s future. We can’t wait to see what the next year holds!
Interested in keeping up with Melissa? Visit her website here!