Fly­ing with the ea­gles

Na­diah Wafa has set her sights high – to be the first fe­male Malaysian paraglid­ing ath­lete in the Olympics.

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“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.

talks to Na­diah to find out how she got into the sport and what she hopes to achieve in the fu­ture.

1 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.

2 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.

3 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.

4 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.”

5 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 Syn­chrowoman 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 full­time 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 in 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.

Fly­ing in Dubai among the cham­pi­ons of the world. — Na­diah Wafa

Fly­ing over Dubai’s end­less fields of sand.

Pack­ing up her glider in Abu Dhabi.

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