Melissa's Story

by Melissa Tsouhnikas: Coach, AFF-I, TI, Videographer

The basics: I'm 29 years old, 5'6" 145 lbs, really average. I have 1050 jumps. I'm currently just a weekend warrior (for now!) and have a few hundred tandems since I started doing them this past spring. All of the challenges I've faced have basically been in my head (except walking back to the packing tent with all that fabric... and getting the air out - those are real life challenges!!!). My current goals are to get all of my examiner ratings (I'm working on my coach I/E right now and am super close) and be able to quit this real world job and live the dream!

The following was sent to me from a friend: "Hey Melissa, I'd really love to hear your experiences being a small female TI. Recently thinking about sort of maybe possibly considering it. In addition to the concerns of not wanting to be full time/all the time staff, not feeling competent as a canopy pilot, the extra risk for me and my student... I'm wondering about any other challenges you may/may not have- either because of size or strength or being female. I'm pretty dominant but just as an AFFI I catch a lot of crap from some students and limited respect from a couple instructors (I'm the only female anything out at my dz - the dzo's wife is amazing but rarely even does a coach jump and isn't an instructor). I can only imagine that being so much more so if I were to consider the TI. Mainly, I want to say I can go and do anything on any load (although I still suck at freeflying and rarely attempt) and can see where there would be a lot of positive of taking people on their first tandem. Just wondering about your experiences. Thanks! I sent her all the information you had sent to me, as well as my story - which reads below.

I've always wanted all my ratings, I LOVE LOVE LOVE teaching AFF and after starting to do tdm video and seeing the expressions of people jumping for the first time - I knew it was for me, I wanted to be THAT person that gets to experience their first jump with them over and over and over.

"Stick with AFF and video - you're good at it. Don't do tandems; you'll end up killing someone. I don't care who you are, no woman should ever do tandems".

These are the words that came from a TI that I greatly respected, who I was friends with and this was the first time I ever mentioned being interested in doing tandems. So I had not mentioned it again. I pondered it on my own, I reached out to the online community to find other female tandem instructors and read their stories. How helpful and welcoming they were! Straight forward, kind, and informative. After some more googling I came across you! And the rest was history!

Over the next few months I picked up my workout routine again, using the bowflex and other exercises that would simulate flaring humungo canopy and to keep up my endurance! I was in the Marine Corps back in the day (although I was super strong I still couldn't do a pull up!) so I knew preparation was key!

I went to z-hills in January without telling hardly anyone as I was still afraid of the backlash. I went through the course with two other guys (who were more than willing to do their jumps with me. Really?!). I was SCARED!!!!!!! Terrified? All of the above. Then Bram met me with music to my ears, "This is the safest skydive you will ever make. You have two experienced skydivers strapped to each other. Let's go have some fun". I went on and finished the course, came home to finish up the other few jumps that were left (I had way more volunteers than I ever expected! Even our most experienced TI came with me!) I finished up my probationary jumps and was put into the rotation!

Criticism - I did feel like there was an extra eye on my compared to others (even others that were new). Almost like everyone was 'waiting to see what happened'... Extra eye = extra criticism but I have always listened to what others have to say. The original TI who told me to never get my rating didn't say much, and eventually fazed himself out of the dz. The good? So so so so so much support from all -my dzo, the staff and my sky family... I can go to any of the guys for tips and tricks and they give me their all and are cheering me on and helping me the whole way. The packers hate me bc I still can't figure out how to get all the air out of those things though lol.

Strength - Landing the canopy had always been my biggest fear out of the whole process.. Even in the course with their assistance. I still didn't quite have the strength and technique down so my first 50 jumps I trained the student to help me flare (I legit couldn't flare all the way down on my own - I'd get half way and be stuck.. tried all the tips and tricks and leverage things people will tell you, wasn't happening).. I could NEVER let anyone know that this was the case...

But in the beginning I set very STRICT personal limits and refused to budge them (no one over 180 lbs, no one more than a few inches taller than me). I trained them to help me flare, emphasized how they shouldn't over power me, and all my landings had been great. Then one day, I was with a big guy, who was terrified under canopy and absolutely refused to take the controls. I landed him, AND FLARED ALL THE WAY, I couldn't believe it. I don't know if it was the adrenaline, or from working my way up to it with assistance, but from that day on I've landed them all by myself with no assistance. I let them steer more of the canopy flight so I can save all my strength for the landing, and I don't pick up the flare toggles until 1000 ft. The other female TI's all told me the same with them - they couldn't do it on their own at first, treated every student like a real student, and eventually they could. Even when it comes to hooking them up and tightening the straps - I let them pull with me, why wear myself out in the plane when I gave a guy with two big arms not doing anything? Advice from Jen Sharp - be lazy.

So I'm still slow, last one down, awkward, and bull-in-china-shop-ish, but I'm getting it done! Manifest will only turn me if they absolutely need to and I try and hustle as much as I can. On an average weekend I do around 6 tandems a day. My busiest day was 13 tandems!!! Generally I'm split between tdm, video, and aff. I was once told I'd spend more in massage therapy than I would make... and they're about right! We get a lot of tourism at our dz - lots of different religions that won't allow female to go with a male - that's where I come in and it's awesome! For the most part everyone I've taken has been generally excited about "going with a girl". I've only had one person that requested a "bigger stronger guy" she was an older very fragile-looking lady, I respected her request but then she asked if I could take her daughter?!

But I love every second of it - and I still have strict personal limits - I'm much more comfortable taking someone a bit heavier than me, but I stay away from the real tall ones! I wear LOTS of drag, no matter how hot it is or how silly some might think I look. I want to maintain control at all times! And I treat every student like a STUDENT and remain very calm with them. I spend the extra time to reinforce, get on the ground, and train train train. I think all of these things have helped in making me successful so far. This past season I've had soooo many females reach out to me with questions that they were afraid to ask guys about being a TI. It's so awesome knowing that these skydivers are comfortable enough to come to me with anything. Although I'm still a noob, I can tell them about My experience, and what they can expect, and talk about their fears as most were the same that I had.