How Skydiving Changed My Life

Bella Vilshanetskaya

Photo by Gen Montreuil.

In 2008, a licensed-jumper colleague of mine encouraged me to come do a tandem. I had all of the excuses: class, work and no money because I was a broke college student. “If you do your first jump naked, it’s free,” he said, and off to the drop zone I went. I wore nothing but my shoes (and even got video proof).

I had thought I would be one and done, but three years and three tandems later, I decided to start AFF. I was awful. I landed off, came close to a collision with a tandem while on radio and even made friends with several trees.

While at Skydive Arizona in Eloy that winter, I remember seeing a flyer on the bathroom wall for a Sisters in Skydiving boogie … that I had missed by a week or two. I hadn’t known that female-only events were a thing, but there were two female instructors back at the drop zone where I’d done AFF, as well as a handful of female fun jumpers running around—including one who’d been in my first-jump course. While struggling through AFF, I kept telling myself: If they can do it, so can I.

Without many female friends up to that point in my life, I figured What the heck? and attended the SIS boogie in Eloy the following year. Ten years later, the women I met that year—and at other boogies since—are some of my favorite people in this world. Those women are the sisters from another mister who I never realized I needed. I suppose some of the guys are OK, too.

As the seasons passed, I realized how few women there really are in this sport. Even at a SIS boogie, ratings holders were barely speckled throughout.

Last year, at the 10th Skydive Arizona SIS boogie, I threw my raffle ticket into a drawing for a tandem-instructor-course scholarship donated by Scotty Wood. I had become an AFFI a year and a half prior, and really wanted to be part of a student’s first experience in the sport. I heard my name called, and my friend Jaci ran up to me screaming, “I want to be the first front ride!”

A part of me felt like I hadn’t thought this through. I was the heaviest I had ever been, because if you were actively eating, you didn’t have to wear a mask. I spent the pandemic actively eating. I was positive I couldn’t half-flare a tandem canopy. I walked up to Scotty and said, “I need time. I’m not strong enough right now.” His response was to let him know when I felt ready.

I went back to the gym 4 days a week. When the skydiving season in the Midwest started, my gym habit fell off. Doubt made itself a room in my mind, fully furnished. I questioned myself a lot. And there was a secret I’ve never told anyone: I considered asking to transfer the scholarship if I found a woman who was ready for her course.

This past season, a trio of female tandem students walked into the hangar and when I introduced myself as one of their videographers one said, “It’s nice to see another woman around here.” It was midweek and I was the only woman in the hangar. My heart broke.

This past offseason, I went back to the gym and scheduled my tandem instructor course. I was spending time actively chasing my coach examiner rating and other non-skydiving goals, and I felt like if I didn’t go for my TI rating then, it was never going to happen.

Jaci got the first front ride, ironically insisting on wearing nothing but her drawers and her shoes. I’m grateful she still has all the skin on her ass. I’m grateful to the women who volunteered as my fake students, to Scotty for donating his time and to Gen Montreuil, who was adamant that we needed to document me taking Scotty on a tandem. But mostly, I am grateful for the community I have found since 2011.

A small part of me continued to doubt myself from the day my name was pulled for that drawing until the day I got my Sigma card in the mail. On the days I must doubt, I allow myself five minutes to do it. During those five minutes, the love and support of my friends buoys me up toward where I need to go.

Once those minutes have passed, I go back to trying to be the skydiver my students think I am.

Bella Vilshanetskaya | D-39624
Mentor, Ohio

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