No, Where Are You Really From? Women of Color In Skydiving Speak!

We're back with five Women of Color speaking about our experiences within the skydiving community. Caroline is a Utah based jumper with two years and 350 skydives in the sport. Jean from San Francisco, CA has been jumping for 10 years and has 670 jumps. Dr. Varshney is a Virginia skydiver with 8 years and 500 jumps. Nadia and Danielle are both NC based jumpers with three years and 150+ jumps and seven years and almost 600 jumps respectively. "No, where are you really from?" is a familiar question for Women of Color who are constantly asked to either prove our American-ness or explain our Other-ness when we really just want to sit-fly. But it's not the entirety of our skydiving experience. Keep reading to find out how we balance relationships, find female mentors and win over skeptical family members. Thanks for joining us!

Sometimes skydiving is great! Sometimes it makes you feel uncomfortable or lonely. Or you feel like getting out of the sport. That’s what mentors are for! There may be times that you feel that skydiving isn’t for you. But by connecting with other women in the sport you know that you’re not the only one.
— Nadia Mercado

How does your family feel about your decision to skydive? Is this something you share with them?

Caroline: My family is pretty entertained by it, and I love getting to share my passion for flight with them through videos and stories. I’m so grateful that they’re this supportive; especially given how challenging it can be to relay these experiences to people who aren’t skydivers themselves. My brother thinks I'm totally crazy but I'm pretty close to convincing him to do a tandem one day.

Nadia: They haven’t been too happy with me skydiving since I started. My mom had to struggle to get me and my sisters through school and to give us a good life. As a result, the idea of using money to risk your life is considered wasteful and dangerous. They think I should use it towards something more productive like helping my family or buying a house. When I started skydiving I didn’t talk about it much because they were so against it. They also thought I wasn’t going to last very long in the sport. Now, they take it more seriously since I’ve been skydiving for three years. They don’t like it but they’ll let me bring my nephews to the drop-zone.

Jean: My dad has never played a role in my or my brother’s life, and I often wonder if that’s due to the trauma of war (the Vietnam War). My mom is neurotic and lives her life in fear, and I also wonder if that stems from the fact she and her family had to focus on survival earlier in her life. Like Nadia’s mom, my mom can’t fathom why anyone would do anything “dangerous” for fun. In addition to that, I’m my mom’s only daughter, and my mom had this wishful expectation that we’d be best friends. She expected us to go on shopping sprees, do each other’s hair and makeup, etc. To her dismay, I’d rather be skydiving, cycling, or hiking in the mountains. Because she considers my interests a waste of time, I’ve learned that it’s best not to share my adventures, stories, and hobbies with her. My relationship with her has actually gotten better since I stopped telling her about my life.

I learned how much more amazing of an experience skydiving can be when you’re accepted into a network of strong, talented skydivers who want to see you succeed
— Dr. Swati Varshney

Swati: My family supports my decision to skydive, and they're happy that it makes me so happy. They love to hear stories and see photos but shy away from watching videos. My parents guilt-trip me by complaining about how much time I dedicate to skydiving versus spending time with them—but I'm sure they would say that no matter what I was doing! I've noticed that my parents' friends, many of whom are also South Asian immigrants and are essentially part my extended family, are thrilled that I skydive. I get the sense that they're proud to see "one of us" represented in extreme sports today.

Danielle: My family was not thrilled when I started skydiving. Initially, I had no luck convincing them to come out to the drop-zone either! The one exception was my sister who has this incredibly laissez-faire approach to life: do what makes you happy so long as you stop sleeping on my couch! She has always been supportive in her own way. She came out and watched my first solo skydive during Accelerated Free Fall (AFF). And I slept on her couch on weekends for a few years because it was super close to my drop-zone. #winning.

I think having a family that is altogether unimpressed by skydiving actually has its benefits. Otherwise I would spend a lot of time editing and re-editing videos of my jumps and trying to convince them to watch. Instead I try to enjoy skydiving in the moment and not worry so much about trying to bottle up the good vibes and force feed them to unsuspecting strangers. It also requires me to talk about non-skydiving things which was really hard when I initially started jumping. The downside is not having family to share really big moments with whether it’s a skydiving accomplishment or a beautiful sunset jump.

I’m glad there are more tiny women than ever (and that I’m meeting them!) who reinforce the message that we can skydive, we can fly parachutes, we can have safe gear that fits, and we absolutely can have an awesome presence in the sport!
— Dr. Swati Varshney

What is it like having relationships on and off the drop zone when you are the only Woman of Color?

 Caroline Hsu is all smiles on a free fly jump with friends! (Photo credit: unknown)

Caroline Hsu is all smiles on a free fly jump with friends! (Photo credit: unknown)

Caroline: I’ve got some thoughts about dating and friendships, and I’ll say that dating is generally difficult whether it's on the drop-zone or off the drop-zone. Dating non-skydivers I’ve found can be difficult simply because you don’t share an important part of your life. That creates friction in a number of areas, not least of which is spending free time together. When you date within the sport, it’s such a small world and that poses its own challenges. My boyfriend is also a skydiver and I’m a very lucky human being to have him in my life because we have fun in the sky and everywhere else too. He’s an incredibly good listener when I come home from the drop-zone and need to rant about a microaggression that’s difficult to relate to; while providing another perspective. I may not always agree, but it does help me practice compassion and it motivates me to speak up in the moment instead of fuming about it in private.

I do miss having a diverse group of friends when I’m at the drop-zone. My closest friends in life are a truly diverse bunch, which is simply a function of our alma mater’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Students consistently drive conversation about gender and race, and the administration is dedicated to institutional change. That shows us that inclusivity and diversity is very much part of the culture we've chosen to embrace. I think in skydiving we have a ways to go.

Jean: I’ve never had an issue with this but my story is interesting. I probably had about 70 jumps when a friend of mine also started to skydive. He knew I was a skydiver, so we started carpooling together. Over time we got to know each other better, we started dating, and 7 years later we got married. My husband has more jumps than I do, but I’ve been skydiving longer than he has. As a Women of Color (WoC) skydiver, it is annoying (but I’ve gotten used to it) when his friends, colleagues, or family members ask me, “so do you jump out of planes with him too?” I have to tell everyone that I was already a skydiver before we even met, and it blows their minds. Even my own friends and colleagues ask me, “do you skydive because your husband does?” Because he’s a white man and I’m a Women of Color EVERYONE thinks I’m following his footsteps.

 Swati and her fiancé are both skydivers! (Photo credit: Danielle Williams)

Swati and her fiancé are both skydivers! (Photo credit: Danielle Williams)

Before I dated my now husband, I dated a whuffo (non-skydiver) who was definitely intimidated by the fact that I skydived. I found it difficult to spend time with someone who was missing out on such a super important part of my life. It’s so much easier to be with someone I can enjoy life with and who can understand why I enjoy skydiving.

Swati: I had a 'no dating skydivers' rule at first. Skydiving was my escape from the real world, and I kept it compartmentalized from my personal and professional life. I also met a lot of assholes in skydiving (see Part I), which didn't help. As luck would have it, I ended up meeting my fiancé at the drop-zone a few years later. He changed my mind about dating in the sport by being a respectful and thoughtful human being who prioritized jumping over preying on women. It’s wonderful that we share our biggest hobby with each other. He encourages me to make progress and to keep going when skydiving gets tough. It also happens that he's another person of color in the sport. Because we come from entirely different backgrounds, I love that I get to learn about a new culture through him. Together we share the experience that we often are the only diversity at a given wind tunnel or drop-zone—so I don’t always have to feel like the "only one"!

Danielle: Dating on the drop-zone could be a totally separate article—there’s so much to discuss! There’s a lot of good and bad. My race is always centered because I’m one of a handful of Black women who skydive in the United States (yes we all know each other!). It typically starts off with “where are you from?...no, but where are you really from?” That gets old. You find yourself having to prove your Americanness or explain your otherness. It get's even more awkward because they keep asking and I feel compelled to explain that my family has been here for generations; we were formerly enslaved in South Carolina. I'm proud of my heritage but the history lesson on slavery sort of kills the mood. I never get the 'what made you want to skydive in the first place' questions. Once guys figure out I'm military they just assume that all of us jump out of planes for work (there's some truth to that).  

Now people might complain that skydivers are like big kids who don’t ever want to grow up and be responsible adults and they wouldn’t be wrong—actually I'm the one who complains about that—but I’m like that too! One benefit of dating skydivers is you have a common interest. Instead of compromising on jumping weekends you get to keep your hobby and still have sex which is nice. It’s also fun to learn and develop skills together, split tunnel time and never worry about who you’re going to jump with.

The downside is that drop-zone relationships can move fast; there’s an accelerated sense of intimacy that comes with sharing an extreme sport with a significant other. Also if you’re stubborn like me you want your partner to be your significant other—not your free-fly coach! Or you feel afraid again. The first time I dated a skydiver I suddenly had this irrational fear that something would happen to them. It’s a lot more complicated than just worrying about your own gear checks.

The biggest drawback is that there are so few skydivers of color. If you're a Women of Color, you either date a White skydiver or you don’t date. There were years when I would be the only Black Woman at a skydiving festival other than the stripper who was supposed to be the evening’s entertainment. Those were deeply alienating moments that I would try to play off. Skydiving has such a big bro culture and I didn’t want to make a big deal of it but it was a big deal and the same drop-zones who think it’s okay to hire Black strippers to entertain all White crowds of male skydivers are the same who scratch their head and ask “I don’t know why more of you people don’t skydive?” On a separate note, I run an organization for People of Color who skydive so I can't ethically use it as my personal dating pool,but— hey, if you're interested boo you know where to find me. 

I look forward to the day when I won't have to choose between jumping on the weekend and having a more diverse set of friends. This is one of the biggest unintended consequences of “being the only one.” I love skydiving on the weekends but I also enjoy socializing with People of Color. It’s frustrating that the two are mutually exclusive! That’s definitely a consequence of spaces that aren’t diverse. I was an Army brat and I’ve been in the Army for ten years so I’m used to having friends of all ethnicities. I noticed when I started jumping I lost that. That being said, I also try not to bear hug people every time I meet another Woman of Color skydiver but...it happens.

There’s a period in a skydiver’s progression between getting licensed and hitting 200 jumps where it’s difficult to find people to jump with. That’s a time when skydivers sometimes leave the sport. Drop-zones who are serious about retaining women are friendly, inclusive and emphasize progression for newer jumpers who are off student status through advertised coaching and jump clubs
— Nadia Mercado
 Swati on a free-fly jump with friends! (Photo credit: unknown)

Swati on a free-fly jump with friends! (Photo credit: unknown)

Does your drop-zone host Sisters in Skydiving (SiS) events? What are good strategies for retaining women skydivers? 

Nadia: My drop-zone hosts women’s records. There are also a lot of women who jump there which makes it easier. Good strategies include emphasizing professionalism with coaches and AFF instructors. I haven’t experienced it personally but I’ve heard of women who are hit on by instructors. Just because a girl is pretty and smiles a lot doesn’t mean she wants her instructor to hit on her. The focus should be on safety and skydiving instruction. Skydive Palatka and Skydive City Zephyrhills are both awesome women friendly drop-zones. Palatka is home to the University of Florida Falling Gators skydiving club as well. I was impressed with Palatka's really professionalism and how they handled skydiving students while I was there. Skydive City is great because they have plenty of  great women that jump there. There’s a period in a skydiver’s progression between getting licensed and hitting 200 jumps where it’s difficult to find people to jump with. That’s a time when skydivers sometimes leave the sport. Drop-zones who are serious about retaining women are friendly, inclusive and emphasize progression for newer jumpers who are off student status through advertised coaching and jump clubs. I’m also super outgoing so I’m very direct about talking to people.

Jean: Yes, and women’s records events as well! Unfortunately I haven’t been to many Sisters in Skydiving (SiS) events because they’ve always coincided with other sporting events but I’m not terribly bummed to miss them because I know I’ll see the same awesome ladies again the weekend after! I’m lucky to be surrounded by a couple drop-zones, including Skydive California and Skydance Skydiving, and both  have amazing, incredible women who organize and jump regularly.

Swati: I love SIS events! When I lived in Massachusetts, I started going to Jumptown specifically because they held monthly SIS events. I awkwardly showed up to my first SIS event there and felt so welcomed, learned a ton, and had so much fun that I kept coming back. I learned how much more amazing of an experience skydiving can be when you're accepted into a network of strong, talented skydivers who want to see you succeed. And, since then, I’ve gone out of my way to attend SIS events at drop-zones around the country. In my eyes, the best thing drop-zones can do to retain women students is to promote a culture of respect, acceptance, and tolerance—to support, rather than ostracize, women and to check sexist comments, bigoted remarks, and chauvinistic behavior,

Danielle: Yep! SiS boogies are always my favorite to attend. I will definitely hit the road for a SiS event. Even though in seven years I have yet to make it out to Chicks Rock, I truly appreciate any event that celebrates and empowers women in skydiving. It’s also nice to skydive with women organizers; especially Erin Lewis and JaNette Lefkowitz! When I was a newer jumper the guys at my drop-zone complained bitterly about SiS. They couldn’t understand why women thought they were "special" or why we deserved our own organization. In the past seven years the culture has definitely changed for the better. SiS definitely puts in the hard work and helps retain women jumpers. In the first few years I was also at a drop-zone that did a lot of women's record jumps. That brought in women skydivers from all over the state. I remember still feeling intimidated because, otherwise, there weren't a lot of women there who jumped regularly or any who jumped together. There were women I looked up to but I didn't know any who were also in that desolate 'no man's land' of 26 to 200 jumps that Nadia referenced.  

I remember making my first female skydiving friend one summer! Jump run flew over her house. When it got too hot we would skip out on jumping and go drink at her pool instead. She also introduced me to other women skydivers. That was a nice reminder that sometimes to enjoy skydiving you need to stop skydiving and just hang out. That's a lesson I never forgot. I think a good way to retain women skydivers is to have women skydivers. Recruit and hire them as instructors. Recruit and hire them as coaches, organizers and videographers. Hire women to work at manifest and to answer the phone and fuel the plane and fly the plane. Create a culture of mutual respect with zero tolerance for sexual harassment and sexual assault. By the way, this strategy also works if you're trying to attract more People of Color to your drop-zone. Free advice!

...Donagene Jones, the first boogie load organizer I met who included skydivers of all skill levels on jumps; not just her ninja friends. I didn’t really like boogies until I met her.
— Dr. Swati Varshney
 Ladies jump! (Photo credit: Don Carrington)

Ladies jump! (Photo credit: Don Carrington)

Do you have a woman skydiving mentor or role model? How important is it to form relationships with other skydiving women?

Caroline: I don’t have a formal mentor per se though I wish I did! I have a few female role models who I love flying with. Roberta Mancino is incredibly fun; she loves to fly fast and she’s always so excited when it’s a group of women jumping together. At the same time, safety is always her priority when she’s organizing, and she makes it a point to help everyone develop good, safe habits. She also makes sure that newer jumpers like myself are continuously building skills. When we first met, she brought up how at first it might be fun when you're the base and all the boys are partying around you, but you eventually realize you’re not advancing your own skills. When we did a day of coaching together, she gave advice that was tailored to my body type and really made me work on what I set out to accomplish. No excuses.

Nadia: I have multiple role models. Danielle Williams and Mabell Jones. I did my first canopy flying class with a female skydiving instructor at Skydive Palatka and she taught me so much! It’s important to form relationships with other skydiving women! It’s about unity. Sometimes skydiving is great! Sometimes it makes you feel uncomfortable or lonely. Or you feel like getting out of the sport. That’s what mentors are for! There may be times that you feel that skydiving isn’t for you. But by connecting with other women in the sport you know that you’re not the only one. Connecting with other badass women is not just unity. It’s how you learn, grow and share your passion for skydiving. The sisterhood aspect is nice.

Jean: I don’t have a specific role model, but I love all my female sky, B.A.S.E., speedflying, paragliding friends! I think it’s crucial to form relationships with other skydiving women—they’re really the only people I can get relevant advice from with regards to coaching tips, gear suggestions and brands, and health issues. And while this is a tough topic, I’m going to admit that I need women to mourn with. Although unbearable, tragedies do shape our lives and I can’t imagine not having the support of women during tough times. When women are strong during those tough moments in the sport, it inspires and helps me become a stronger person too.

I think developing relationships with other female skydivers is incredibly important. That way you get a diversity of perspectives and different approaches. A lot of things in skydiving, for example, advice and rental gear, are tailored to your average male jumper. It’s also incredibly nice to have someone to relate to, because while our experiences as women in the sport are so obvious to us, they usually aren’t to everyone else.

Swati: It's super important for me develop friendships with other female skydivers. I don't have a mentor, but I admire many of the amazing women I've met throughout my journey in the sport. First up is Donagene Jones, the first boogie load organizer I met who included skydivers of all skill levels on jumps; not just her ninja friends. I didn’t really like boogies until I met her. Tricia Small organized SIS events at Jumptown, and she was the first skydiver I met who was the same size as me. I remember that she let me borrow her belly suit when I didn’t have one, and I was so surprised to learn how much my flying improved by wearing a suit that fit! Steph Strange taught me by example that women can be among the best skydivers in the world, that women can fly on world-champion teams, and that women can be some of the most helpful tunnel and skydiving coaches.

It was the badass women around me who helped me the most with my canopy piloting, gear selection, and flying. When I started skydiving, I got so much conflicting guidance on canopy flying and progression that I wasn't sure who or what to believe. I also had a hard time finding and ordering gear that fit me properly—despite working with several (male) riggers. It took me a few years to realize I had to ask other 110 lb. women who were seasoned skydivers to get advice that was relevant to me. After four years in the sport, I finally got a rig that actually fit and stayed put on my body (that is, after sending it back to the manufacturer several times), and it made a huge difference in my skydiving as I learned to free-fly. Moreover, I love getting coaching from women in the wind tunnel. They give me personalized advice about how to fly my body at the right speed; it’s a sharp contrast from the men who whine about putting on a baggy suit while I pay them money to teach me. I'm glad there are more tiny women than ever (and that I’m meeting them!) who reinforce the message that we can skydive, we can fly parachutes, we can have safe gear that fits, and we absolutely can have an awesome presence in the sport!

Danielle: I have a really long list of women I look up to in the sport. I met my first skydiving moms at my home drop-zone in Alabama. Seven years later, I'm watching their kids grow up! I have so much respect and admiration for mothers who skydive! I also look up to Black women skydivers out there crushing like the first African-American female tandem instructor, Christine Renee, free flyer and tunnel instructor Kathya Touissant and formation skydiver Debbie Granum. During my first few months as a skydiver in 2011, I had the surprise and pleasure of meeting two female skydiving instructors: Karen Blanks and Kelli Wood at Gold Coast Skydiving in Mississippi. Karen's daughter promptly invited the 6'1" Black woman (that's me) to crash in their trailer! Much appreciated! Women in skydiving have taught me everything I needed to know about excellence, safety and building community. I've traveled a lot as a skydiver. In doing so, I've met amazing women who were tandem instructors, jump pilots, military free fall instructors and drop-zone owners! All of them have inspired me to be a better, safer skydiver. 

I think the challenge of finding a female mentor occurs when you take a sport that’s only 13% female and spread us out over hundreds of drop-zones. There aren't any older female skydivers at my current drop-zone. Part of the issue is that I'm seven years older than when I started which makes me the older female skydiver at my drop-zone!! I really admire what Courtney Lee and JaNette Lefkowitz are building through the Women's Skydiving Leadership Network. They’re incredibly smart, talented women skydivers and they support and encourage other women from all skill levels. I think the older I get the more I want to jump with and surround myself with other skydiving women. No offense guys! I love y’all but seven years of jumping with mostly male skydivers has made me more intentional about seeking out other skydiving women for inspiration, for advice and for friendship.

 Dr. Varshney (pink helmet) pictured on a ladies jump! (Photo credit: unknown)

Dr. Varshney (pink helmet) pictured on a ladies jump! (Photo credit: unknown)

Thanks for joining us for Women of Color in Skydiving Speak! Don't forget to check out part one of the series here! Curious about skydiving? Check out other skydiving related articles on our website or visit the United States Parachute Association