From being widowed at 25 to surviving a critical accident: How Nicole Smith Ludvik made it to the top of the Burj Khalifa

Professional skydiver and stuntwoman talks about how personal battles prepared her for the memorable stunt

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Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Thu 3 Feb 2022, 6:57 PM

Last updated: Fri 4 Feb 2022, 11:43 AM

Do our fears define us? Possibly not. But it is only when we overcome them that a world of possibilities opens up. As it did for well-known skydiver and stuntwoman Nicole Smith Ludvik.

This is a name that was etched in our collective imagination last year when we saw a face, epitomising composure, on top of the world’s tallest building — the Burj Khalifa. It was part of a 30-second ad campaign that had been conceptualised by Emirates after the UAE was moved to the UK amber list. The intelligent messaging resonated and it became one of the most watched videos of 2021.

In January this year, Nicole revisited the stunt, standing on top of the Burj again with sheets of paper that read — ‘I’m still here’, ‘Wow! I can see Dubai Expo’, ‘Finally, here come my friends’, as an A380 flies right behind.

Ludvik’s composure as she stands on top of the world’s tallest building is also reflective of a personal journey that has seen her being widowed at the age of 25, recovering from a fatal accident, and only emerging stronger in the face of these adversities.

In an interview with wknd., Ludvik, 37, talks about how overcoming emotional and physical difficulties she’s experienced in life have contributed to psychological preparation for her acts.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about your formative years. How did the passion for skydiving take root?

I grew up in Cleveland, Georgia, USA, a charming little town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains surrounded by four generations of my family. My family has lived here for generations. My parents were supportive of my antics, as I have always had a flair for the adventurous —hiking, climbing, whitewater rafting, rollercoasters, bungee jumping. So it wasn’t unusual to find me climbing as high as I could in the trees at my grandparents’ or miles out on a hiking trail.

I lived close to an airport community, so I saw small private airplanes and sport light aircraft buzzing around all the time. I remember lying in the grass, watching them fly, and wondering how incredible it would be to jump out of one. My late husband gifted me with a tandem skydive for my birthday, and on August 14, 2007, I did my first jump. The rest is history.

You’ve also dabbled in a corporate career. How did that happen?

My corporate career began when I was in university studying business. I got a summer job working for one of the nation’s largest speciality retail companies. I excelled at this and received many awards and quickly worked my way up through the ranks to manage 17 locations and a team of more than 100 people, producing millions of dollars in revenue. It was challenging, fast-paced and dynamic, and taught me a lot about planning, teamwork and stress management. But it ultimately wasn’t my passion.

You lost your husband at the age of 25 and subsequently met with an accident that injured you critically. How do you look back at the course of these events? And how have these shaped the person that you are now?

On January 29, 2010, my husband passed away suddenly. I was a widow at 25. I felt lost, empty and detached — like I had lost my sense of purpose. I spent the next year of my life trying to make sense of my circumstances and trying to re-acclimate to my life.

On January 7, 2011, I decided to pursue my passion for skydiving, and signed up for an Accelerated Freefall (AFF) class at my local dropzone. My instructors were Jeremy Marston and Miki Baranowski. Fast forward to June 2011. I was a newly licensed skydiver in love with the freedom and peace of flying and with my instructor, Jeremy.


On June 13, 2011, Jeremy and I spent the afternoon in the park, feeding the ducks, laughing and enjoying a picnic. The day was perfect. On the drive home, only one mile from his place, we were involved in a car accident when another driver ran a red light and collided with us. The impact was directly on the driver’s side door, and Jeremy was driving. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it.

I have no recollection of the accident or the following 11 days. I was in terrible shape. In an attempt to save my life, I was helicoptered to a trauma hospital in Atlanta. I sustained a broken neck, back, tailbone, punctured lung, two broken ribs, four pelvic fractures and two brain injuries. The doctors prepared my family for the worst. Even if I made it, my parents were told my brain injuries could limit my cognitive abilities, and hip fractures could severely affect my ability to walk. My body and my heart were shattered.

I had a long road of recovery ahead. Once I was released from the hospital, I moved in with my parents. For several months after the car accident, I couldn’t take care of myself. I am so thankful to have such an incredible and supportive family and network of friends. I don’t know what I would have done without them.

The car accident changed the entire trajectory of my life and made me re-evaluate everything I thought was important. I came face-to-face with my mortality in my mid-20s. The ambition of saving and investing as much money as I could, preparing for early retirement, nearly came to a screeching halt. I realised I was not living my life in the present. Instead, I was pushing “living” to retirement. I assumed that I would have the time and the health to do everything I was putting off. Today, I realise even more how ludicrous this sounds.

The accident made life clearer. I realised no one is guaranteed a second chance on this planet. I promised myself that I wouldn’t waste time on things that didn’t serve me or bring me joy. I promised myself to love harder, appreciate deeper, and to be thankful for every breath I take. I am here for a reason. If that reason didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be telling my story.

After nearly a year of grueling physical therapy, I made full recovery, quit my corporate job, and pursued the life I wanted as a professional skydiver. In August 2012, I became the youngest person to skydive in all 50 United States. Since then, I have travelled the world, skydiving in the most spectacular places on earth with one goal in my mind: spread the message of perseverance and hope so others can be inspired to change their lives for the better.

Some other incredibly special, life-changing events have happened, too. Remember the first tandem skydive I mentioned earlier? My instructor was David "Junior" Ludvik. Skydiving has a funny way of making the world a smaller place. Junior and I randomly met again in 2011 in Atlanta. And in 2015 at a skydiving world-record event in Chicago, our worlds collided again. We fell in love, and he proposed to me at the same dropzone where we met exactly nine years to the day, August 14, 2016, on a skydive, no less. We were married on June 9, 2018. As they say, the rest is history. How's that for full circle?

Image Courtesy: Emirates
Image Courtesy: Emirates

The iconic video of you standing on top of the Burj Khalifa captured the attention of many. How did you prepare for it?

I was in awe, probably a little more than everyone, when I saw the video for the first time. Of course, my fitness levels, healthy lifestyle, yoga and mindfulness practice contributed massively to my physical and mental readiness. But, being a professional skydiver spending countless hours dealing with high-stake, high-stress, and anxiety-inducing situations prepared me the most for this stunt.

From technical side, I was blessed to work with an amazing team. We had many days of planning and preparation that included harness fitting, ground practice and safety briefing. During the ground rehearsal, I received a full briefing of the harness and equipment we would use on the day of the climb. I had plenty of time to familiarise myself with the platform and practise climbing it in a controlled environment.

We saw how the campaign captured mass imagination on social media. Personally, what changed for you?

This stunt is precisely the moment I have been working hard on for many years — to have a platform to tell my story and inspire the world. The spotlight the Emirates stunt has given me is the perfect global platform to connect with others. I am so grateful to Emirates and my fantastic team.

At any point, did fear take precedence over any other excitement that you’d been feeling?

I am the first woman ever to summit the Burj, which is incredible. Standing at the top of the Burj, where superstars and other celebrities stood, is a dream come true. Nothing can beat that!

How would you set this experience apart from your other stunts?

I cannot describe the emotions while rising to the top as I look back now. Every ladder rung I climbed was a physical representation of my life’s journey. I have overcome a lot as I look back on the past 12 years. Some days were more challenging than others but I didn’t stop climbing. Some days were excruciating physically and emotionally, but I didn’t stop climbing. Hand over hand, I kept rising, not looking back, not looking down, not allowing myself to fall into the pit of self-pity and pain. I had a task at hand — a goal to get to the top. When I reached the top of the platform, I took a deep breath and whispered to myself, “I’ve made it.”

Your Instagram page has a quote from Helen Keller. How does it resonate with the kind of life you have led?

Helen Keller was a remarkable woman. Yes, she has inspired me greatly. She faced what some would consider profound adversity, but that didn’t stop her or slow her down. She was a woman full of grace, grit, determination, and strength.

Did the first stunt make it any easier for you to go to the top of the Burj a second time?

Without a doubt! The second time, I knew what to expect physically and emotionally. I was even more excited, if you can imagine!

In the age of the Internet, doing stunts come with responsibility — of not letting anyone believe that it’s easy and can be replicated. Are you more conscious of this now when you put out content on social media?

Nothing happens by accident, and it takes years of training, patience, feedback, and perseverance to achieve anything worthwhile. That is a rule of life, and I cannot stress this enough. I am always cautious about what I post and how I portray my stunts, skydiving, and extreme sports. Preparation, practice and, above all, safety — this has been and always will be my number one priority.

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