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International, independent, e-magazine on skydiving, BASE & tunnel

Catching up with Rook Nelson

Rook Nelson

Rook Nelson, CEO of Skydive Chicago, Stunt man, World Champion, Head-down Record organizer, DJ, Base jumper, competition canopy pilot, has changed the face of freefly… is there anything he can't do? Apparently not… and he doesn't even take himself too seriously…

Number of jumps, what type

20,000+ All types but mostly freefly

Time in sport:

29 years .. made my first jump when I was 4

What equipment do you jump?

Javelin, PD Velocity, Liquid Sky jumpsuit, Cookie G3, Larsen & Brusgaard Pro-track, Vigil

by Raymond Adams
by Raymond Adams

Skydive ratings, medals, competition history:

Tandem Master, AFF and Static Line Instructor, Pro Demo rating. Won a medal in every event except CRW, S&A, CP. This includes 3 World Championships and 12 National Championships. Organized the 18, 24, 42, 53, 69, 108, 138 vertical World Records. Pilot, BASE jumper, Stunt work for motion pictures, pretty much everything.

Position (at Skydive Chicago):


Did you suddenly step into that role when your father [Roger Nelson] died, or was it a natural progression?

I was always around the DZ but it was no doubt a life-changing moment when my father passed away. He died on a Saturday and I was sitting at his desk on Monday. I still sometimes find it weird to say that I own Skydive Chicago.

How have you developed Skydive Chicago?

First I tried to not go bankrupt. It was a huge learning curve…not to mention I was 23 years old. When I was able to buy my first aircraft that was a big accomplishment for me. Not only did I survive running the business I was able to make enough money to buy a plane! Ever since then I haven’t looked back. I don’t believe in the current model of how DZs are run. I want to improve the customer experience, whether that be a first time jumper or a long time client. I sometimes think it’s a curse that I can’t ever settle for how something is done. There is always a better way.

What does it take to run such a successful dropzone?

I try to surround myself with dedicated people. There is no way that I can do this alone.

Congratulations on winning the bid for the IPC World Championships and Mondial 2016! Why do you think SDC was chosen?

One thing that I don’t do very well is play politics. I want people to chose me & Skydive Chicago because they believe I can produce a well run event. I don’t try to bullshit people or make promises that I won’t deliver.

Who were you up against?

I was the only Mondial bid. Russia had a bid in for some of the events and I think Bulgaria. [A Mondial runs every discipline of the World Championships in the one location, they are more usually split into FS and Artistic Events; Classics (style and accuracy) and Canopy Formation; and the Canopy Piloting separately, for reasons of logistics and facilities)

by Rook Nelson
by Rook Nelson

You’ve wanted to host a World Meet since you went to your first one as a competitor – why?

Because I never liked the way some of them were run. Our sport is very small and it sometimes suffers because of that. I want to produce an event that gives everyone a fair chance at winning a medal for their country. Plus I want the best skydivers in the world to visit my DZ.

How many times has Skydive Chicago held the US Nationals?

We have hosted the ’02, 07, ’10, ’13… and the 2014 US Nationals, is just round the corner. [10-28 September, in all disciplines, at Skydive Chicago, SDC].

Has Skydive Chicago hosted an IPC World event previously?

This will be our first IPC event.

Why was 1972 the last time USA hosted a style & accuracy World Meet?

I wasn’t even born then. You’ll have to ask Jim Hayhurst that one.

Rook, throwing down the tunes at Summerfest 2014 — by Ryan Patrick
Rook, throwing down the tunes at Summerfest 2014 — by Ryan Patrick

How does the scale of the US Nationals compare to the Mondial?

From what I can gather it will be about the same number of competitors but there will be more attendance in each event. For example there are around 70 4-way teams that enter the FS Nationals and only 25 Accuracy jumpers. At a Mondial we may see forty 4-way teams and 200 Accuracy jumpers.

Will we see Skydive Chicago teams representing the US in 2016?

I hope to see my 4-way team SDC Rhythm make their way to the meet. They have much training to do but I’m supporting their efforts.

What’s your biggest headache?

Working with all the different languages.

Why do you want the hassle?

Anything that is worth doing takes work. This will no doubt be the most challenging event that we have ever done. When it’s over my team and I will be proud!

Did the city of Chicago support your bid?

The city of Chicago is a tough one; however the city of Ottawa (where the DZ is) has been very supportive. They know how much money this will bring into the city.

Have you been surprised at the level of support within the skydiving world?

Yes its good to see that so many people are cheering for us. It really gives us drive to make the event awesome.

How will you make this Mondial special?

You’ll have to come to the event and see. The people that have attended Summerfest know that we are good for surprises.

Rook Nelson landing at Summerfest 2014 — by Gearless Chris Productions
Rook Nelson landing at Summerfest 2014 — by Gearless Chris Productions

What’s the deal with the Summerfest?

It’s the best boogie out there. We bring it back to the roots of skydiving all day and partying all night. Mix in some great aircraft, organizers, food, facility and the result is a kick-ass boogie. Summerfest 2015 will host the Vertical World Record. During record years we will see over 1000 people attend the event. It’s one of the only boogies that you get withdrawal from.

Your personal skydiving, what do you enjoy?

When I jump I like to skydive a lot. I normally just like jumping on loads with people that are not expecting it. It’s cool to see newer jumpers light up when they take their first head-down dock. It’s all fun and I try to mix it up to not get burned out.