“Although there are around 800 paragliders in South Africa, the sport here is not as big as it is overseas. Over there they have big sponsors, full time team doctors, managers and captains and they have much more time to get out and practice. In South Africa, most of us only get a chance over weekends or holidays to go up into the sky,” Russel told the Kormorant.
If you persist and work hard and do the right things, you can win.
“This world cup was such an extraordinary event. We took off from a volcano in Askardy, Turkey. The cloud base is extremely high and on one of the days we managed to reach a height of around 4000 m above sea level. The competition is almost like a Tour de France…you have a route to follow, but you get to decide how to get to the end. Around 150 paragliders compete to be the fastest and the most accurate. You have to be fast and precise. There is a lot of decision-making all the time. On the first day we were caught in a storm and the race was cancelled. On the second day I managed to win. I was first over the line an managed to score a lot of points. The third day was a very special day, the race was over 114 kilometers and I struggled to get height, but managed to get out ahead of the pack. I landed about 3 km short of the goal line, but still won the other paragliders by 150 m. That was a second win, two days in a row! On the fourth day, everyone was gunning for me and I had to really fight to stay close to the front. I managed to finish seventh. With three days of racing left, I was still the leading pilot. Due to weather conditions the race was stopped and I was announced the winner of the World Cup!”
Russel started paragliding about 12 years ago, mainly in the Magaliesberg mountain range in Rustenburg and Hartbeespoort. “I initially started flying to experience the freedom of being up in the sky … just floating around without a worry in the world. I fell in love with it. Everyone who paraglides will tell you that it is one of the most empowering things you will ever do. You are never freer.”
He mainly enjoyed cross-country flying when he started out but became involved with competition-flying 10 years ago.
At his first paragliding world cup competition he was placed second and had a couple of good results in competitions that followed. But life got busy and he could not fly as much as he wanted anymore.
“I am a father of two beautiful girls and could not spend as much time in the air as I wanted. But I still kept finishing in the top third of every competition.”
Recently, a combination of factors has enabled him to compete competitively again. “When you first start flying, you are not afraid, and are more prone to taking chances. Later, you have to be more consistent…and at some point you lose your passion. Consistency is key in this sport and you have to get to a point where you are consistent, but still stoke the fire of your passion. The best pilot will have passion and take calculated risks, but stay consistent. I have worked really hard the past 18 months to achieve just that.”
When asked about the danger of the sport, he says that things do go wrong from time to time. “ Strange weather, wind and poor pilot behaviour can all cause an accident where people get hurt or die. However, there is risk in everything…you just have to manage the risk. Competitive paragliding tests your ability to make complicated decisions all the time. And if you persist and work hard and do the right things, you can win.