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The Low Save

This post is very much linked to my previous post and my quest to understand the complexity of physical and mental correlations. It is not really intended as a guide but more as my own online therapy.

The low save is one of the best feelings in free flight. You are almost on the deck, getting ready to land and then … boom, within minutes you are cold, high and the possibilities of where you can go are right there in front of you. When you are low there is no use wishing you were at cloud base, you just have to accept where you are, find a climb and get out of there. 

The question ‘How do you think you will go in the X-Alps coming from Australia?’ has been asked of me a lot. Whilst a totally valid question, it was my response to the question that really got me thinking about acceptance. Early on there was definitely an element of ego and defence in my response, ‘Of course I am going to do fine, I have flown in the Alps, I’m a good pilot’. But once I analysed my situation, my response became one of acceptance. I live in Australia, I have flown the Alps a few times, but I don’t live there and will never have the lifetime of experience and knowledge of some of the pilots I compete against.

Acceptance is the real key to progression. Once you accept where you are, I mean by being really honest with yourself, you can start to build on your strengths, work hard on your weaknesses and devise a plan to get you where you want to go. For me, this means a solid month of training in the Alps to get back in tune with alpine flying. More time would be great, of course, but that is where reality comes in to play. Our budget will be stretched with a month of training before the race, so we will do what we can and work as hard as possible with the time we have. This means focusing on the knowledge that I am a good pilot in general and can use my skills well in the mountains.

This acceptance is no one-off event either. In the last few weeks I have barely touched a paraglider nor seen the sun. Where I live, it has been raining solidly for well over two weeks. On social media I am confronted with images of pilots flying around incredible looking snowcapped mountains with captions like ‘spring is here’. Being limited to running and hiking, going to my day job and staying cooped up in the house seems so far removed from the scenes of the these alpine pilots. It can be a battle to regain focus, make my goals clear once again and just accept where I am. 

So what is my attitude now? I accept my ‘underdog’ status, which as an Aussie is not so foreign. Culturally we like to think of ourselves as battlers and this can actually be a useful mental tool. If I am honest with myself about my limitations, I know that I won’t have intricate knowledge of alpine conditions, localised weather systems or road and trail networks throughout the Alps. I still think I can do well. Acceptance frees up mental space that can be used for positive purposes and allows you to focus on what is necessary to succeed. And getting to goal after the low save always makes the flight that much sweeter.

Photo: Ben Pearse Photography

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Don’t Believe the Hype

Since my X-Alps selection, life has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. I’m not used to being asked ‘how’s your training going?’ every time I’m on site or at an event. When I was selected for the World Championships I don’t think anybody asked me that question, but the X-Alps is of a different profile altogether.

I was feeling extremely nervous coming into the summer paragliding season. I’ve been working hard on my (non paragliding related) business for the past couple of years so flying hasn’t been on my radar much of the time. The first competition of the season in Canungra was very difficult for me. I excelled in the first two tasks and was sitting in second place coming into the last task. I felt the pressure to perform and ended up racing myself to the ground very early on in the day. I left the competition wondering if I still had what it takes to be competitive in flying.

After Canungra, I was very busy with work. I found out I was selected for the X-Alps and started physical training. Whilst there was a huge amount of excitement and anticipation, I was feeling the pressure to perform and questioning my ability again. These feelings meant that I started to look into the mental aspects of flying and competition more deeply. I started reading books on performance mindset, speaking to other pilots and athletes, and just generally putting it out there that I wasn’t feeling like a bulletproof X-Alps athlete. Speaking to athletes who had been involved in the X-Alps before was a huge step. The X-Alps creates a lot of media attention and hype; therefore, what is portrayed on the screen is not necessarily what things are like in reality. For me, this insight was key in breaking down such an event into something I think I could tackle.

Like any large project, if you focus on it as a whole it can be overwhelming, so my approach to the X-Alps has been to break it down into key critical components that I can take on in sequential order. One insight came from a mate who had been mountaineering recently and wrote to me. He said if you think about how many metres you need to climb it just doesn’t seem manageable, but if you break it down to just the section you need to take on right now, it’s a lot easier.

I took this approach into the competitions in Bright and Corryong. I was going in with a huge amount of performance anxiety due to my past results and X-Alps selection. I knew my tendency would be to get impatient and push hard in an effort to just get the job done quickly. I needed exactly the opposite. I needed to relax, take my time and just be in the air and be patient. This strategy was extremely successful for me during these events. It was not that I didn’t make any mistakes, there were plenty, but I was able to slow down and recover from most and still pull good results. The mistakes I didn’t get away with, I could recognise and learn from quite easily.

After the three competitions of the Australian season, I ended up in third place on the ladder. Knowing I had come back from a three-year break from competition and that there were a number of mistakes that could be ironed out with further mental and physical training, I decided to take this as a win.

Following the competitions, I managed a 300km cross-country flight in Manilla, which has certainly helped to bring my confidence back in the air. It also comes with the realisation once again that a 300km and 50km flight are not all that different. They both require the same basic process repeated over and over, only one is longer. The key is minimising mistakes during the process.

So what now for me? It’s a long road to the X-Alps, with hard physical training and equal importance on mental training and focus. More flying would be fantastic, but the focus is on being patient, taking what I can get and knowing that my flying training in the Alps will come in June, when the team heads over for pre-race training and route reconnaissance.

If I could offer any words of advice for those looking to tackle some new challenges in paragliding, I’d say don’t believe the hype. Break down your project into manageable chunks and focus on what’s at hand; there are many steps to achieving your goal.