When Melissa Lowe is in the sky falling, she feels at home. She feels like herself.
“Jumping out, freefalling, it just made sense. It gave me confidence,” Lowe said.
Lowe, 43, now lives in Montrose. She’s a mother, a wife, a friend, yoga instructor and author. Oh, and she is the proud owner of 23 world skydiving records. In 2005, for example, she helped successfully pull off a 151-way women’s formation skydive.
Falling from thousands of feet in the air is in Lowe’s blood.
Her grandfather was in the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II and her father, Roger Nelson, was instrumental in skydiving’s growth in the 1970s and 1980s.
“During that time, it was a misfit sport,” Lowe said. “It was for ex-military and hippies. It’s pretty fascinating because two polar-opposite groups came together because of the sport.”
Nelson set four world records, became a U.S. National Skydiving Champion, became president of the United States Parachute Association (USPA) and owned Skydive Chicago, one of the largest skydiving centers in the world.
Lowe grew up outside of Chicago. She did her first tandem skydive at 5 years old and her first solo dive at 16.
As a teenager, she was a crossroads in life. Follow her dad’s steps as a skydiver or go to college?
“I climbed to the (airplane) door before jumping and thought, ‘I don’t have to do this for Dad,’” she said. “Then I jumped.”
Then she was in the air. That’s when it hit her — the clarity and confidence. It was the confidence that she could only find through falling thousands of feet in the air.
“It’s a feeling you continue to chase,” she said.
Lowe was a hardcore skydiver by her own admission. Then, one jump landed her in casts and a hospital bed. That’s where she had an epiphany. If Lowe wanted to make a name for herself while treating her body with respect, she couldn’t keep this up. And then her father died in 2003 in a skydiving accident.
In 2006, she became a nomad and moved to Hawaii for six years. Eventually, she married her husband and they moved to Montrose so he could open Skydiving Adventures in Delta. They now have a 6-year-old son.
At 4 years old, Lowe’s son completed two tandem dives.
“I was scared but he just came out with swagger that I had never seen,” Lowe said. “He said, ‘I was brave. I was a badass!’
“I was proud of him but also a little frazzled. I immediately told my husband that he’s not doing that again for a while.”
There’s more to skydiving than just jumping out of a plane 10,000 feet in the air and pulling a ripcord. It’s about the human experience, she said. You learn about the people you’re sharing the plane with. You make friends with them and need to make sure everyone has the energy they need to jump.
“She always gives the home-run speech that inspires all of us,” said Amy Chmelecki, a friend and skydiving teammate of Lowe’s. “We’ve been on several different teams for 19 years and I’ve never questioned whether or not she’ll get the job done.”
That mentality is needed for competitions where time is of the essence. After jumping from the plane, divers have a limited amount of time to pull off their formations before pulling their ripcords.
While freefalling at over a hundred miles per hour, groups will grab each other’s limbs to form shapes. Then, they’ll quickly shift themselves around midair for new formations.
Teams are scored based on how well and how many formations they pull off.
Chmelecki remembers meeting Lowe nearly 20 years ago. They were on opposing teams in the U.S. National Competition in Arizona.
Chmelecki was moonlighting as the bartender when Lowe approached her and struck up a conversation.
At the after party, Lowe approached Chmelecki, who was serving drinks at the time, and the two got to know each other.
Eventually, Lowe asked Chmelecki to join a team she was putting together.
“I said yes before she could finish asking,” Chmelecki said.
They were two of the few women at that competition, and historically the gender ratio of men to women has been imbalanced. The deeper you go into the sport, the fewer women there are.
There are about 35,000 active skydivers in the country, according to the USPA. But just 13% of them are women.
To close that gap, Lowe, who was elected president of the USPA in December, has made an effort to connect with women in the sport and organize women-only events.
Chmelecki said she can’t think of a better person to represent the sport.
“I was going through the hardest time in my life. I called her and she told me to book a flight to Hawaii,” Chmelecki said. “She rented a helicopter and took me skydiving on some islands. I didn’t realize how much I needed that.”
Lowe and Chmelecki are both dedicated to lifting other women to new heights in skydiving.
“Women are respected in skydiving, there just isn’t a lot of us here,” Chmelecki said. “We want to show women they belong here and keep them from being bullied out of it.”
Recently Lowe honored the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a flight. Next fall, she and 100 others will attempt formation jumps to honor the 101st anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in the U.S.
Neither the sport nor the industry have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic so Lowe, who followed her father’s footsteps and was elected President of the USPA, plans to go forward with the honoring of the women’s suffrage movement.
Just like her son, many will call her a “badass.” “She’s going to do amazing things for the sport,” Chmelecki said.
But Lowe, who followed her father’s footsteps and was elected President of the USPA, just calls herself grateful.
“I just feel really fortunate to go down this path my dad offered me,” she said. “I’m just lucky to have wonderful family and friends.”