“We always follow the eagles because they know all the hot spots. They glide and soar with the wind,” said Nadiah Wafa.
A shock of neon green hair, a pixie-like face, and eyes ablaze as she spoke, it was obvious that she was passionate about the sport of paragliding.
At 28, she is considered the first Malaysian female to aspire to be a paragliding athlete in the Olympics. And she actually has a four-year plan to achieve this.
Nadiah tells us how she got into the sport and what she hopes to achieve in the future.
How did you get started?
I’m just a crazy girl that likes extreme sports. I started with skydiving; then one of my instructors who was doing paragliding asked me to try it, and I fell in love with the sport.
My first paragliding experience was in Kuala Kubu Baru, Selangor. I started my training there, and my first solo was there. Then I branched out to fly in Jugra and other places. This was a year and a half ago, but I became very active after a few months because I was in this paragliding community, and I followed my instructor and a few friends. And I started flying every weekend.
What is the best paragliding experience that you’ve gone through?
End of last year, I went to Dubai to watch the World Air Games, and I got the opportunity to fly with the champions. We spent five nights in Abu Dhabi. It was an amazing feel and there were 20 of us flying. I felt very inspired because I could see a lot of world champions paragliding and doing acrobatic stuff.
What about the worst paragliding experience?
It happened in Jugra, Selangor. It was the last flight of the day, around 6pm, and I was tired after many flights. As I was flying out, I spun the wrong way and got sucked into an area full of trees.
I got tangled in a tree and my glider was stuck on top of it. So there I was hanging almost three-storeys high, still in my harness.
I couldn’t get myself out, so in the end, fire rescue had to come. It took them four hours to get me down. I got stuck at 6.30pm and was freed only at 10.30pm. Thankfully, I didn’t sustain any injuries.
But it was also funny because the people were saying on our radio sets: “Congratulations, you’re now officially a paraglider!” This was early last year and it came out in a few newspapers.
What inspired you to become a paragliding athlete?
Internationally, we have paragliding competitions all over the world, but in Malaysia, we don’t really have a full time paragliding athlete yet, one that has competed in all the international competitions and achieved a certain ranking.
So it started when I went to Abu Dhabi last year. I got inspired and said: “Yeah, I want to be fully committed to this, I want to be a paragliding athlete.”
Is there a professional paraglider that you look up to and aspire to be like?
Yes, there is. Nicole Schmidt is a paraglider that I look up to and aspire to be like. She was the only female paragliding acrobatic pilot in the FAI (Federation Aéronautique Internationale) World Air Games. That means she had to be in the top 30 in the world to be able to compete in the competition.
I met her and managed to spend time with her for a couple of days, and see her in action as the only female among the males. It was inspiring, in a male-dominated sport like paragliding. Nicole is German and currently lives in Austria. She started flying in 2004 in Granada, Spain, and began competing in 2007 as a Newcomer Pilot (NC) in Cross Country (XC) competitions in Austria, and has many wins under her belt, including the NC Class in 2007.
Then she started flying Acrobatics (Acro) in 2009, and began competing a year later in Ecuador. She was second twice in CIVL-Rankings FAI of the woman-ranking in 2011 and 2012, and first in the Synchro-woman team in 2012.
She has been through a lot, including being in a major accident in 2013 which made her unable to fly, but she overcame that and won the World Cup Season in 2015.
Can you tell us more about the World Air Games?
The World Air Games is an international air sports event organised by Federation Aeronautique Internationale (International Aeronautical Federation – FAI). It’s an Olympic event, and only selected athletes who qualify can participate, namely, the top 30 in the world.
I went to watch them with my instructor. He said you’ve got to see them so that you know what you’re aiming for. It takes place every four years.
What are some of your favourite places to paraglide?
One of the most active places to paraglide would be in Sabah – Ranau and Kokol. But we do fly down Mount Kinabalu once a year. In Peninsular Malaysia, we have Gunung Jerai in Kedah, and Kuala Kubu Baru, Jugra, and Banting in Selangor. There are several places in Negri Sembilan as well.
A recent one that I like is in Kuala Terengganu by the beach. It’s a nice place to fly; you take off on one of the hills with the dynamic winds, and the view is really nice.
How does paragliding fare as a sport here in Malaysia, and how does it compare globally?
Paragliding has been around for almost 10 years in Malaysia, but the growth is slow. The community is small, and we don’t have professional competitive paragliding athletes that take part in competitions. Perhaps people don’t see a future in that as yet.
But there are professional male paragliding athletes that do commercial tandem flights as a full-time job. For me, it’s my passion and my dream.
I want to be the first female Malaysian (professional) paragliding athlete. If I’m able to enter the World Air Games four years from now, I will be the first Malaysian to do so.
The coach I’ve engaged is an ex-world champion. He’s from Indonesia and he’s been paragliding for almost 20 years.
What are your goals in paragliding?
I have a four-year plan for paragliding. Basically, the first year is all about full training with my instructors. The second year is about exposure, getting a feel of more competitions, both local and international.
The third year is about ranking, to take part in more international competitions to get the points to qualify for my ultimate goal, the World Air Games, in the fourth year.
Besides paragliding and other extreme sports, do you have any other interests?
I may be crazy enough to do all these extreme sports but I do have a creative side, too. I like to play PC games like Mass Effect and I’m a bit of a nerd, I like sci-fi. I’m also into motorbiking and I love to travel.
One of my favourite travel experiences was when I went to the Philippines for 15 days. It was a very ad hoc experience. Some girl posted on Instagram looking for a travel partner. I answered the ad, and met her three times before we went on the trip. And I also enjoyed my solo trip to Osaka, Japan, for two weeks.
5 tips for aspiring paragliders
1. Understand the risks
Always understand the risks of such an extreme sport before deciding to take it up. Make sure you fly safe.
If you’re an avid paraglider, getting personal outdoor insurance coverage from a reputable insurance company would be your best bet. This would cover a number of things, from loss of or damage to sports equipment, all the way to accidental death.
2. Learn from the experts
Learn to paraglide from a certified licensed instructor. Here are some websites that can put you in touch with a reliable paragliding instructor.
> Malaysian Sports Aviation Federation – www.msaf.gov.my
> Mountnear – www.mountnear.com
> Paragliders – www.paragliders.my
3. Never give up
Perseverance and consistency are essential. There are certain setbacks that you will have to go through. Sometimes, there is just no wind on the day that you want to fly.
You might be ready to take off on the hill but you might not be able to after waiting the whole day. So, don’t give up and try again another day. As for consistency, practice makes perfect. So train as often as you can.
4. Be prepared
Always make sure you carry the proper gear. Make sure that the glider is in good flying condition, and that there are no tears. Make sure that you have all the buckles in good working condition, and that the harness has a reserve parachute.
If you have the money, invest in a variometer, a device which indicates the rate of your climb and descent.
5. Don’t forget to have fun
The best pilot is the one that never stops learning and is always enjoying each moment. Have passion in the sport. There are different experiences to be had in paragliding.
For example, certain flying sites require you to hike up a hill (such as Kokol in Sabah), whereas other more established flying sites provide a four-wheel drive ride up the hill (such as in Kuala Kubu Baru, Selangor).
Other than that, different weather conditions will require different skills in glider manoeuvring, so be prepared to learn while you’re in the air!