37 year old shares her story of grit, guts and glory in first news media house interview
Dubai: Remember the daring Emirates cabin crew who stunned the world from the pinnacle of Burj Khalifa last fortnight? As she perched herself right on top of the world’s tallest tower in a space of just 1.2 metres at a height of 828 metres to convey the airline’s messages, the 30-second commercial video clip went viral on social media, her calm and composure winning her high praise.
Now, what if we told you that the picture of poise was a complete wreck – both mentally and physically – just a few years ago? A young widow and a victim of a horrific car crash, she was so grievously injured that doctors had prepared her family for the worst.
Well, miracles do happen. And who better than the person herself to tell the story. A story of extraordinary grit, guts and glory; of deep pain, purpose and pride; of tall triumphs in the face of unimaginable trials and tribulations.
“My name is Nicole Smith Ludvik and I am from a small mountain town in Georgia in the US,” she told Gulf News in an exclusive interview, her first to a news media house, after the feat.
While she grew up like most of her peers in her early years, life began to mould her differently somewhere along the line. She got married in her early 20s, but as she recalled: “On January 29, 2010, my (first) husband passed away suddenly, making me a widow at 25. I spent the next year of my life trying to make sense of my circumstances, to re-acclimate my life and find peace. After a year of soul searching, I decided I wanted to skydive.”
Nicole recalled signing up for an Accelerated Freefall class (AFF) on January 7, 2011 back in the US.
“My instructors were Jeremy Marston and Miki Baranowski. Fast forward to June 2011, I was a newly licensed skydiver completely in love with skydiving – and with my instructor Jeremy. On the afternoon of June 13, Jeremy and I were driving home after a picnic in the park. We were a mile away from his place when another driver ran a red light and hit the car we were in. The impact was directly on the driver’s side door, and Jeremy was driving. He didn’t make it,” she told Gulf News.
The accident left Nicole severely injured.
“I was in a critical condition, and 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,” she recollected.
The physicians suspected the brain injuries would affect her ability to communicate. “And because of the injuries to my pelvis, the doctors also suspected it would be next to impossible for me to walk without some type of assistance.”
But the fighter in Nicole proved them wrong – and how.
After nearly a year of grueling physical therapy, she managed to turn the corner. “I made a full recovery and decided I was ready to be a professional skydiver again,” she told Gulf News, adding that yoga had helped her manage her residual pain and transform the quality of her life over the years.
Nicole said she was introduced to skydiving by multi-world record holder and world champion skydiver David “Junior” Ludvik, who is now her “wonderful husband”. “We met on August 14, 2007, when he took me for my first tandem skydive.”
By August 2012, she was so proficient in her new pursuit that she became the youngest person ever to skydive in all the 50 states of the US. She moved to Dubai in 2016 to be with Ludvik and work as a full-time skydive instructor for Skydive Dubai.
She said she was literally on Cloud 9 when Ludvik proposed to her in the middle of the sky. “I got married to my best friend on June 9, 2018. All I want to do is hold his hand and wander the sky”.
She said she loves adventure.
“Adventure is in my soul. I have travelled to all 50 states in the US and more than 45 countries around the globe. I am an avid hiker and scuba diver. Now, I am learning how to kitesurf as well,” the professional skydiver, instructor and stunt woman told Gulf News.
According to Emirates, a casting call was put out to the airline’s own cabin crew team and while there were some willing and capable candidates, Nicole, a professional skydiving instructor, was cast to ensure the highest levels of safety. At 828 metres above the ground, this was one of the highest ads ever filmed. It was conceptualised and directed by Emirates’ in-house brand team with the help of Prime Productions AMG, based in Dubai.
Nicole said, “Alan and Marta with Prime Productions AMG, who specialise in producing stunts, are long-time friends of mine. My husband and I have worked with them on several projects. Alan let me know about the casting call for an upcoming (Emirates) project that he thought I would enjoy. I am comfortable with heights, work well under pressure and high-stress situations, and I am in excellent shape. So I said, why not.”
Even for a professional stunt woman like Nicole, the Burj Khalifa assignment required much preparation.
She had a reduced circumference space of only 1.2 metres at a height of 828 metres to pull off the stunt. The ad was filmed without any green screen or special effects and was the result of rigorous planning, training, testing and a strict safety protocol. A custom platform with an attached pole was built at the top for her to stand on. She was attached to the pole as well as two other different points directly to the pinnacle, through a hidden harness under the Emirates uniform.
Nicole said, “There were several days of preparation required for this: my uniform fitting at Emirates, the harness fitting, ground practice and safety briefing. During the ground rehearsal, I was provided a full briefing of the harness and equipment we would use on the day of the climb. This was my opportunity to see the platform and practice climbing it. I was able to familiarise myself with the hand and footholds in a controlled environment.”
When the big day arrived, however, nothing could have prepared Nicole for the excitement.
“The call time was 1.30 am. We went through a rigorous safety briefing, hair and make-up session and we started the climb around 4.30am. We were at the pinnacle for sunrise and wrapped up the project around 11 am,” she recalled.
The filming itself started at sunrise to catch the golden hour light and the team, including Nicole, began their ascent to the pinnacle before sunrise. The climb took one hour and 15 minutes from level 160 of the Burj Khalifa and the team had to scale several tiers and ladders inside a tube to reach the top.
The team was at the pinnacle for around five hours with the stunt woman wearing a safety harness under the Emirates uniform secured to a custom-made platform that was attached directly to the pinnacle. A single drone was used to capture the footage in a continuous take to film the complete sequence.
Nicole told Gulf News, “The Burj Khalifa stunt is one of the most amazing stunts I have ever done. A huge thanks to the entire team – Emirates, Emaar, Burj Khalifa, Prime Productions AMG, TECS, Choopershoot and Katie Cousins, my beautiful make-up artist and stylist.”
The response to the feat was overwhelming. It put Nicole in the league of the Crown Prince of Dubai Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Hollywood actor Tom Cruise who have also stood at the pinnacle of Burj Khalifa. “It feels pretty special to be in a place only a few people have ever been,” she said.
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