Women's Sport: How two skydivers are fighting for equality across America, one jump at a time

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Melanie Curtis and Amy Chmelecki have both been skydiving for over 20 years and have completed 19,000 and 11,000 skydives, respectively. Their jumps have taken them to remarkable places.

For Chmelecki, the (slightly) more experienced of the two with 25 years skydiving compared to Curtis’ 23, her most memorable jump was as part of the Redbull Air Force completing a wingsuit formation over Manhattan Island and landing on a barge in the middle of the Hudson River, all in celebration of the opening of the Freedom Tower.

One of Curtis’ stand-out jumps sounds equally stunning – jumping over the Great Pyramids in Egypt. She recalls: “I don't even know what to say about it. It is one of the most incredible things I have ever experienced, flying a parachute just literally right next to the middle pyramid. I mean, I just got nothing. It was unbelievable.”

Curtis knows how lucky they are to experience things like this: “I'm so grateful that I have the skills. This is one of the things that skydiving has given me in my life is that because we went kind of nutso and followed our passion and really earned skills, we now have these amazing opportunities that we never would have had without that skill set.”

For Curtis and Chmelecki this year they are turning their attention to using those skills to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment of the US Constitution giving women in America the right to vote.

There are two ways they are doing this. One is the formation of a team of 11 elite female skydivers called the Highlight Pro Skydiving Team who are doing jumps across the US to showcase women in the sport and celebrate women’s rights. The second is a world record attempt for the first-ever all-female 100-way skydive. It is safe to say they win the title for the most hair-raising celebrations of the amendment.

Curtis and Chmelecki talk to GiveMeSport over Zoom, just as the lockdown is coming into effect, taking it in turns to answer questions and share their love of skydiving. The pair are passionate and enthusiastic about the two initiatives which they are doing with the Women’s Skydiving Network (WSN), despite interruptions to their plans because of the pandemic. The date of the world record attempt, originally set for July, has been postponed and the two women are grounded in their houses.

Project 19 – the name for the world record attempt – is being organised by Chmelecki alongside fellow professional skydiver Sara Curtis, and it is not their first world record attempt. They were key members of the team who achieved the 2016 65-way Women’s Vertical World Record.

Chmelecki and Sara Curtis run a company called Broken Records and were planning on scheduling a world record attempt for 2020. While they were envisaging 85 women jumping as the next step up from their previous attempts, when the WSN got in touch suggesting 100 in remembrance of the 19th amendment, they jumped at the chance.

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The appeal of records for Chmelecki comes from the fact that to complete them you are working with people who you normally compete against, progressing the sport and raising the bar, but this one goes even further. “This is a once in a lifetime kind of situation that we have presented to us. It's pretty epic,” explains Chmelecki. “It takes all the elements and things I love in my life, put in one project which is cool.”

To achieve this record – which is now planned for October this year – the team will board five aircraft, and jump from a plane headfirst, flying at speeds of 165mph to get into their choreographed formation, linking arms in a snowflake-like way.

All this needs to happen within 70 seconds of exiting the aircraft when the team will need to break off to find space to open their parachutes. The flyers are aged between 20 and 65 years old and will have completed an average of 2000 jumps each.

Unsurprisingly this is not the sort of thing you can do in one try (or try at home!). The team has already been training for a year, including training camps for the women who are newer to group jumps. Before the shutdown, they had already gone up to 60-way jumps.

Chmelecki explains when it comes to the actual attempt, they will start small with jumps focusing on exiting the aircraft, getting into position, and then breaking off to make sure everyone stays calm, collected, and aware of exactly where they should be in the formation. The attempt will take a few days with about five jumps a day. She explains that while a record attempt jump would usually take 12 jumps, due to the sheer number of people involved, they estimate 25 jumps will be needed to get it right.

Given the uncertainty permeating all corners of life, Chmelecki says: “We're taking things one day at a time. To be honest, initially, I was a bit, I think in shock. It took me a handful of days to even kind of comprehend.” Now as a team they have started to pull together a plan and find ways to stay connected throughout the pandemic.

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Until it is safe to resume training, they are planning to use internet webinars to train and carry out jump visualisations. They also want to use video chats to help their world record attempt teammates get to know each other better. Ultimately Chmelecki explains: “There's a lot we can learn on the ground”. It is challenging but they are embracing finding new ways to connect.

As well as the world record attempt, Melanie Curtis and Chmelecki co-founded the Highlight Pro Skydiving Team to showcase skydiving to women and girls across America. The team of elite women skydivers will perform jumps celebrating women’s suffrage, featuring flags with slogans like “Equality can’t wait”, and using parachutes in colours associated with the movement including purple, white and yellow.

One jump they have planned, for example, is into Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx where American suffragists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carrie Chapman Catt are buried.

Curtis says that the goal of the shows is to bring people into the experience: “It can be a stake in the ground moment, witnessing a woman landing and multiple women landing going, ‘Whoa, I didn't even know girls could do that’. That moment of really witnessing someone doing something that you never thought was even possible can open your mind. That's what skydiving is at its core.”

Women are underrepresented in the sport. Curtis says that of the 35,000-odd members of the United States Parachute Association, only 13 per cent are women. With these two initiatives, they hope to start to redress the imbalance. Curtis adds: “We're making history and we're creating those inspiration points for women and girls to either get interested in the history or to get inspired to do the things that they're wanting to do.”

Chmelecki sums up their mission well when she asks to add something towards the end of the chat: “I really believe that seeing is believing and things change slowly over time, people need to see it and know that it's happening to believe it's possible.”

All this begs the question, how did they discover the sport themselves? For Curtis, it is something she was exposed to all her life as her dad is a pilot and opened a drop zone in their back garden. She first flew in an aeroplane aged three and did her first skydive at the age of 18.

Curtis recalls: “Once I did it, as soon as I did that very first jump, life was different, and I forever was going skydiving at that point.” Her journey to becoming a professional skydiver took a little longer as she went to university followed by working in investment banking, using her salary to fund her skydiving training. Eventually, she left banking and went to work for a drop zone in Southern California, pursuing a career in the sport ever since.

For Chmelecki, she describes “a distinct memory” from when she was 14 years old, hearing people talking about two women who skydived. She recalls: “I thought if you go skydiving you can just keep flipping, I was 14 years old and I was like, 'I have to do that'.”

After locating her nearest dropzone in the Yellow Pages, Chmelecki discovered she would have to wait until she turned 18 to give it a go. When the time came, she says: “When I showed up at a skydiving facility for the first time it's like I instantly knew that it was going to be part of my life.”

It is a sport that she can continue to compete in as she gets older, too. Chmelecki explains: “What's so awesome about skydiving is that you wouldn't think so at first, but it is a sport that you can continue to do at a professional level, in your 40s, in your 50s. You can still be a professional athlete, and every time I get a contract from a new sponsor or renew, I'm like: ‘Wait a minute you know I'm 43, right?’.”

Curtis agrees: “That's what's so cool and curious about our sport, is that there's a high athleticism required in the things that we're doing now and it's a sport that can be very forgiving if you make the right choices with your gear and your involvement in it. That is something that excites me, that it's not something that has that endpoint unless I choose it.”

Their motivation for both Project 19 and the Highlight Pro Skydiving Team is celebrating women’s suffrage, but in showcasing the heights that women can jump from in a literal sense, they are continuing the movement of empowerment and equality that was started over 100 years ago.

Both initiatives are all about skydiving, and not about skydiving at all. As Curtis explains: “The core mission is to inspire women and girls to live a bold, brave life of their own design. Hopefully, we inspire people to join the sport of skydiving, but really, it's more about inspiring women and girls into things they maybe think they couldn't do before but now are at least open to trying.”

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