Teaching with empathy

Nicole Richards ready for students in the AFP room

Do you remember life before skydiving? Do you remember the ideals and values you held close and never wavered from? If you’re like Nicole Richards, AKA Giggles you not only remember, but practice those ideals and values with you in the sport of Skydiving. Not sure who she is? Just look for the ball of joy and giggles bringing light to everyone around her as she bounces down the hall, through the hanger and into the airplane with a student by her side.


If a person were to peek at Nicole’s resume prior to skydiving, they might think she was on track to teach in a college or professional setting on sensitive topics most of us run away from. Luckily for the sport, we’ve been blessed with not only her presence, but her experience, knowledge, tenacity and strength. Those sensitive topics in which she’s a subject matter expert in? Psychology, Communications, Human Sexuality, Gender Communications, Intercultural Communications, and Public speaking are just some of the areas she’s deeply studied and taught in her “pre-skydiving” life. As Nicole has planted roots in Skydiving, her ideals, values and passion for such has also been strengthened and spread not just locally, but at high level USPA meetings such as the Summer Board or Directors Meeting.

Nicole grew up in the Detroit area, calling Ypsilanti her home town. Her collegiate career consisted of an Associates of Arts from Washtenaw Community College, a Bachelors in Human Sexuality in Psychology at Eastern Michigan University, and a Masters in Communication at Eastern Michigan University. During her studies and for 6 years after, she taught Public Speaking, Interpersonal Communication, Intercultural Communications, and Gender Communications.

“Tricked” into her first skydive in 2012, Nicole was “invited” to her first tandem at Skydive Tecumseh where she arrived thinking she would only spectate. ”I thought I was just coming to hang out” she thought, however, “ I had no idea I was coming to do a skydive” “I had always wanted to, it had been on my bucket list, I skipped my way to the plane!” Once landed, the Videographer walks up: “Nicole, what did you think?” Nicole – “That was fucking awesome!” “I just couldn’t stop thinking about it!” “For me it was the most calm, peaceful thing I felt to just fall through the sky.” “very meditative.” Nicole was already practicing Yoga, Meditation, and other spiritual practices to be at peace, so when asked how this compared, “I was instantly there, in this calm focused mindset.. Unlike anything I had ever experienced at that point” “instantly inspired to become an athlete”

Since Nicole had been practicing mindfulness through Yoga, Meditation, and various other practices, she was well prepared for that skydive. She also saw first hand the importance of such practices and how they could be applied to the sport. When asked how she sees Yoga playing into Skydiving? “First big part is body awareness, so much of skydiving is body awareness” “everything we do is symmetrical and translates directly to skydiving.” Yoga and meditation taught her the benefits of deep breathing and mindfulness.

Nicole works on arching with an AFP student

Nicole has earned every bit of every skydive, every rating, and knowledge. It took four years until finally in 2016 Nicole had saved up enough to put herself through AFF. She saved so much that she was able to purchase her rig before she even graduated! Three years after graduating, with enough jumps and experience she earned her AFFI and began utilizing her 14 years of teaching to help others earn their A license. Because she loves spending time with individuals new to the sport, she’s also steps away from earning her Tandem Rating! And if you think Nicole only knows how to jump out of planes, it’s worth mentioning that she spent 7 years working manifest at various drop zones.

This season, Nicole put in roughly 250 AFP jumps, helping over 40 individuals graduate from AFP! So I asked, what’s the secret to helping those students get through their toughest jumps? Mindfulness and visualization is a huge factor of skydiving she says.

“There are different areas with different students that I try to instill that mindfulness, weather it’s taking those calming breaths before we get out of the airplane, or after saying, ‘you did really great but here are some places of mindfulness we can think about.” On top of this, Nicole uses positive reinforcement for everyone, especially for those struggling to believe in themselves, to “instill that belief in themselves, we’ve given you the best gear, the best training, and the best instructors in the industry, all you have to do is believe in yourself now” “Trust your gear, trust your training, trust yourself. I say those three things to them all the time”

Nicole briefs an AFP jump with Ben

With so much activity this summer, I asked a potentially difficult question, are there any memories from the year that you reflect on? “There’s been a couple of times in this room this summer, you actually captured one of the pictures with Sage.” “She rode the plane up, came down. She wanted to do it, she just go to the door and the different environment from being in the plane and having to look down really scared her.” “So she was in here and wouldn’t take her gear off, she was like ‘I’m going to do this, if I take the gear off, I won’t do it” “I was eating my salad, came in and sat next to her and was like ‘hey girl, what’s going on?’” “Super casual, she told me what was going on and I kind of gave her that, ‘you’re being trained at the best facility in the world, look at our facilities! This is top notch here, you have the best gear and we taught you every component.’ I had her talk me through; what does this do, what does this do? ‘See you know’ which handles do you pull?’ Then she started talking about the fear, and that circled back to how building the confidence minimizes the fear.” “That was one of my most proud moments of the season.”

Nicole comforts Sage with Empathy and understanding

After 6 months, have you seen the culture in the room change? “I think I’ve definitely influenced the room. Mostly language and how we approach people on an individual basis, meeting needs based on them.” “At one point, it was me, three female students and Dan, so he got to see what it was like to be the ‘other’ in the room, and was like ‘cool, this is actually really cool’” “Even without gender, some are more scared or timid or afraid to ask questions. The sport does bring a lot of the ‘send it, let’s go attitude’”

Nicoles heart is warmed when she sees her graduated students organizing their own jumps together, giving each other gear checks, and reminding others to get up at 10k for gear checks. She’s excited by the fact that she’s able to teach the next generation of skydivers at SDC and has this to say about her lineage “Realizing that we’ve introduced them to the sport, I’ve taught them things that they’ll go on to teach other people, they’ve learned the best practices at SDC”

Where did your ability to have and show empathy for others come from?

“I can remember at a very young age feeling very strongly for other people, like the emotions that others were feeling, feeling those as a kid.” “So as I got older, I think that’s something that drew me to psychology and wanting to be a therapist or counselor at one point, I wanted to help people.” “I’ve always wanted to help, but I never envisioned teaching skydiving in that way.” “I realized that after getting my coach rating starting to learn that I could still help, I could still empathize with them,  be better, be calmer, happier.” “ I think why I have the nickname I do is I’m always trying to spread happiness, I just want people to be happy and enjoy life. I think that’s something unique I get to do in skydiving now. Bringing in empathy in an empowering way”

Another Skydive Chicago love story. Nicole met Jonny after “He sat in the eat-up line for 20 minutes before someone told him gear checks were behind him in manifest.” As Jonny finally made his way to Manifest, he walked right up to Nicole and she “immediately felt super comfortable with him.” A few dinner’s and hang out’s later, and that’s about all it took. You’ll have to ask Jonny and Nicole for the details!

Jonny rides as a passenger for one of Nicole’s tandem training jumps

It’s a difficult sport to navigate solo, so who have you looked up to along the way? 

“Angie Aragon for sure, I would not have gotten to this point if it wasn’t for one conversation I had with Angie in 2018”

Anthony has been another positive influence on Nicoles career, she stated that, “Just seeing how he runs everything, safety is such a high standard, how he communicates with everyone. I hadn’t seen that level of calm confident communication actually leading, someone who is really leading the way for the team and safety.”

Nicole practices her Emergency Procedures while earning her Tandem Rating

Nicole’s dedication to making the sport a more inclusive goes beyond Skydive Chicago. This Summer Nicole poured over all of the USPA manuals putting in 100’s of hours working on an initiative with Mellissa Lowe called JEDI, which is Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. “The goal of JEDI is accountability, higher standards of professionalism, sport for the membership and a structure for the values statement.” What she found in her research was a lacking of such verbiage in key areas of our sport, which in turn were the pillars she focused on at the meeting. “If we give a name to sexual harassment, now we have a name and a term, and without that, it’s just how things are so that sparked the whole JEDI.” Nicole and Melissa traveled in August to attend the Summer Board of Directors meeting where they presented their findings. This included but is not limited to areas of the sport lacking governance and process surrounding what JEDI stands for.

Nicole joins Melissa Lowe at the Summer USPA summit

Nicole has encountered such behavior both first and second hadn’t within the sport. It’s one reason she’s been active in the SIS events, and continues to fight for our sport. Her overall outlook: “It really just comes down to being a good person and skydiving can be so inclusive, but because there is so much freedom I think it gives people the feeling that its accepted to be rude, say whatever you want, or have no filter without realizing you put people at a disadvantage when you say comments like “that’s so gay’ or “stop being a $*!^#”. “I think that’s something we do great here because I can see it in this room all the time, there’s more women, more people of color, ethnicities, genders, sexual identities.” We are so thankful to not only have people like Nicole in our sport fighting for everyone, but to have her on our dropzone helping us lead the way by setting the example. 

What about your future and the work life balance you’ve found? “It’s hard, especially when it’s July and august and we’re working long days. Continuing with yoga teacher training is a huge personal goal for myself. I think it helps me as a person just to have a deeper understanding of yoga and meditation and different spiritual practices. I do believe its a piece I can continue to develop to be calmer, more mindful, more focused, mentally stronger, because there are those voices that still creep in and say ‘you can’t do this, you’re not going to be good at this’ Angie really helped me in the tandem course saying that, ‘those voices are always going to be there, but when you’re in the air, that’s you flying, your doing.’” And this winter? “I’m looking forward to Jonny and I taking November to go have fun in Florida for a whole month. I’m not at a level where I can swoop on the pond, but I’m hoping to do some focused canopy coaching.” “Just see more of the world from the sky again, I’m looking forward to seeing something other than cornfields” “The last two winters I’ve started to learn how to paraglide, I have a mini wing, I’ve gone kiting and soaring on the dunes, which has been really cool to learn” “scary because it’s just like being a student again, there are days I sit waiting for the perfect winds” “ I love kayaking, really anything water related”

Nicole has a brother, Scott, who is 17 months younger, he’s done two tandem skydives and is on the fence about getting his license. Her Dad has also done a tandem, which Nicole was able to do video for! She hopes he visits next year when she has her Tandem rating so she can jump with him!

What parting words if any, would you like to leave?

“I hope that just by being here myself as a small queer women, that I hope just by showing up and being that person that other people can see and think, man I can do this too.”

Surprise! Nicole snuck in her 1000th skydive this season completely under the radar! In fact, she thinks it was on one of her 250 AFP jumps! Her first 500 were fun jumps, 250 after that was in shooting tandem video, and the remaining were with AFP students. Nicole does request Champaign over Dairy if any reciprocity is to be accounted for. 

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