I had been training freestyle since 1999 and from 2001-2003, I had trained on a freestyle skydiving team called, Dos Gatos with Bill Hughes. I also had a freefly team with Bill on camera and French skydiver, Emanuelle Celicout. Emanuelle was an incredibly talented flyer – she also competed in freestyle. She was inspirational to watch and I had the great fortunate to learn from her. I was so thrilled to be on these teams, but it was tasking to train for two different disciplines.
Training on a freefly team with Emmanuelle made me realize that I wanted to do an all women’s freefly team. Yes, we were two female performers on the same team, but I wanted to have all women, even a female camera flyer. But to compete at the US Nationals, everyone also had to be a citizen and Emanuelle was not. Nevertheless, we still competed at the 2001 US Nationals at Skydive Arizona as a Guest team, placing first in Intermediate.
She Said YES!
At that 2001 Nationals, Jen Key and Amy Chmelecki had a freefly team with German camera flyer, Sven Zimmerman and competed in the Open Freefly category. It was exciting to see more women in freeflying, especially at the competitive level. Even though our team was competing in Intermediate, we still based our competition with them as we were all first year teams.
I spoke a little bit with Jen and Amy but my mind couldn’t help but map out the clear possibility that the three of us could create the dream team I had imagined – an all women’s US freefly team. I sheepishly talked to my dad – the legendary skydiving pioneer and owner of Skydive Chicago – Roger Nelson – thinking there was no way he’d buy into my idea but I shared it with him anyways. He surprised me and said, “I’ll sponsor the team, make it happen and I’d like to meet them!”
I was incredibly excited and wasted no time in asking. That evening Amy was bartending at the Bent Prop. It was a busy night with a lot of commotion from the competition buzz. Amy was busy slinging drinks but I couldn’t help but hold her up during her shift. I yelled over the crowd, “AMY! THIS IS MY DAD, ROGER NELSON. IF YOU’D LIKE TO BE ON A TEAM WITH ME, HE’LL SPONSOR US. WHADDYA SAY?” She smiled admist her busyness, said yes, and that we should talk more later.
I met Amy and Jen briefly the next day where they properly met my dad. We made plans for me to come back to Arizona for the winter since Chicago was closed for the season. One month later I packed up my Chevy Blazer and drove down to Eloy for the season.
Becoming the Sugar Gliderz
When we had our first official meeting trying to determine what our team name would be, we had dreamed of being sponsored by Coca-Cola and Nike and how we’d take skydiving by a storm. Although we were never sponsored or endorsed by any major mainstream brands, we did take skydiving by storm!
When we were brainstorming on what a good team name would be for us, we were at the point of just picking words out of the dictionary and thesaurus (yes, the paperback kind because this was pre-internet days!). We wanted something timeless, that described us and had power behind the name. We had a few words on the table and I remember Jen saying, “glider.” My eyes widened. I had a friend who had a sugar glider pet and I spit out, “Our name should be Sugar Gliders!” Jen knew what the squirrel like pet was but Amy did not. So we looked it up and it said:
The sugar glider is a small, omnivorous, arboreal, and nocturnal gliding possum belonging to the marsupial infraclass. The common name refers to its predilection for sugary foods such as sap and nectar and its ability to glide through the air, much like a flying squirrel. Wikipedia
We looked up their character traits and one of them said, nocturnal, another said, high maintenance – we laughed. But the more we thought about it, the more it seemed fitting. The only thing was, we wanted to differentiate the words and added a “z” at the end to then be “Sugar Gliderz.” It stuck.
The Sugar Gliderz team was innovative, organized, and motivated. In our first years together, we competed at dozens of local and regional freefly and canopy competitions, attended big way events, hosted camps, and were traveling coast to coast to load organize at boogies and were eventually sponsored by inner industry manufacturers. We came out of the gates strong.
The Sugar Gliderz were becoming a household name. We had done a lot getting in publications, promoting our events, competing – and although not winning, we made a huge statement and always had a strong showing. In 2002, we had all recently participated in the first ever Vertical World Records in Sebastian, Florida. We battled the Florida clouds and unfortunately the cut the size of the formation and myself and Jen were cut. Yeah, that left a bitter taste in my mouth as I really wanted to be on the FIRST OFFICIAL Vertical World Record.
A few weeks later after a day of jumping, I was at Amy’s trailer on the dropzone. She told me, “I think we could organize an all women’s Vertical World Record.” Without hesitation I said, “Me too, let’s write a list.” Amy and I called Jen to tell her the idea and we were all on board. We knew there weren’t that many women in the freefly community of that level and we knew we had to train them and created camps over an entire year and set the date for November 2003 at Skydive Arizona.
World Record Dreams
It was a long year preparing for the world record. At the beginning of the summer season, my dad had passed away from a skydiving accident and I was thrown into taking over his business with my brother. It started to consume me, but I somehow stayed committed to competing with the Sugar Gliderz freefly team and pursuing the world record.
November 2003 arrived. We were surprised at how many women showed up from around the world to participate. Since the current Women’s Vertical World Record stood at a 4-way, we decided to start small and started with a 6-way. We completed it on the first jump – it was an incredible start to the event. We went up for an 8-way, competed it. Then a 10, 12 then a 14-way and completed them all! We struggled getting the 16-way but in the end, we were successful and achieved 5 world records in two days!
Sugar Gliderz 2.0
As things do, things were changing with the team. Our camera flyer Jen retired from the team and Amy and I scouted out for new talent and solicited Kate Hoffstetter. However, things were also rapidly changing with Amy as she had other goals she wanted to pursue, so Kate and I solicited Brooke Schutlz as our new camera flyer. Since it was an entire new line up, and a new era, we decided to call ourselves, Sugar Gliderz 2.0.
The End of an Era
Amy and I continued to organize the next Women’s Vertical World Record in 2005 at Skydive Chicago and completed a successful 18-way. However, my new life as a DZO and juggling teams and my professional skydiving career was a bit more than I could chew. At the end of 2005, Sugar Gliderz 2.0 all went their separate ways.
Celebrating 10 Years
Sometimes I felt like we didn’t do much and still had so much to do. However the Sugar Gliderz freefly teams had become legend in the skydiving community and were known for quite some time. However, I feel today less people know about the Sugar Gliderz now.
In 2011, the Sugar Gliderz held a mini reunion and celebrated their 10 year anniversary in Hawaii by jumping out of helicopters, pampering themselves and reminiscing about their favorite memories on the team.
Melissa & Amy
I stayed in touch with Amy as she took more of the reigns organizing the Women’s Vertical World Record. However, she’s always kept me a part of the organizing team and together (and with other organizers) we’ve organized six successful Women’s Vertical World Record events together over the past two decades. By happenstance, we’ve also continued to organize at events together around the country and remained good friends.
It’s hard to think that I’ve been in the sport this long, more or less think about celebrating something I had done decades ago. However, as time does, has passed and at the end of 2021, we’ll be celebrating the 20th Anniversary of an idea that helped propel our dreams and skydiving careers!
Now we owe you an updated image of our iconic freestyle totem move that made the cover in 2003!
Photo on left taken in 2003 at Skydive Chicago Photo on right taken in 2011 at Skydive Arizona
by Jason Peters by Bill Schmitz