Quadriplegic Paragliding (Impossible is Nothing)

quadriplegic-paragliding-01There comes a time in everyone’s life where you find yourself thinking “is this all there is?” In July this year, I turned 40 years old. I have spent 24 years in a wheelchair, never daring to push the limits of my abilities but, rather, living according to the advice of others who, although meaning well, haven’t got the foggiest idea of the challenges I face on a daily basis, or the extent to which I’m able to overcome them. Thankfully, at least one member of my family saw me in a different light. In asking herself the question “what does one give a person confined to a wheelchair as the ultimate fortieth birthday gift?”, my aunt inadvertently opened Pandora’s box with her answer, “the ability to fly.

quadriplegic-paragliding-02All things being equal, I could have simply taken this amazing gesture and gone off and had an adventure with no one being any the wiser. I don’t think anyone would have thought any less of me if I had. I am pretty sure that it would have been a lot less complicated to do. One thing I do know, though, is that I wouldn’t have been true to myself. So, after getting over the initial shock of the idea, my first thought was “let’s make this about more than just me.” In that moment, Impossible is Nothing was born.

quadriplegic-paragliding-03In all the years since my accident, I generally avoided contact with others such as myself. The reason for this was that, in my experience, the only conversation people with disabilities had with one another was about their disabilities. If there was one thing I was sure of, it was that I was not going to spend the rest of my life sitting around with a bunch of guys in wheelchairs talking about sitting around in wheelchairs. I suppose it would be fair to say that there is a certain level of denial in this sort of attitude, but for me it was mostly just about not having limits put on myself. I want to be that guy who tests the boundaries of his ability without having it dictated to him. I am under no illusion that some of my adventures might go pear shaped. There may come times when I bite off more than I can chew, but I am determined to have these adventures on my own terms. On 14 November, 2013, after weeks of waiting, and carefully preparing with an amazing team of people, I got the go-ahead to go paragliding.

quadriplegic-paragliding-04The day began with a lot of promise.  We were set to take off at 10 AM from Signal Hill, overlooking the city bowl of Cape Town. Making our way there, we received a phone call to say that we should hurry up as the wind was picking up. Up to this point, we had had numerous postponements due to weather-related  conditions, and my thought at the time was “I’ll be dammed if I’m going to miss out again!” Adding a little haste to an already frantic morning, we picked up the speed as best we could, and crossed our fingers. Upon arrival we were met by our pilot, Jan de Jager, who impressed upon us that our window of opportunity was closing fast. In short, we had to go! So here I was, getting harnessed and helmeted, all the while trying to chat to a reporter from the Argus newspaper, as well as  locate our GoPro crew who had kindly agreed to document the occasion. Let it never be said that I cannot multitask! A lot of credit has to go to Erica, my ever exuberant and enthusiastic colleague from WCAPD, who was doing more than her share in this process, snapping away furiously on her cellphone camera. We were prepping and preparing and, seemingly, a hundred other things… and within the blink of an eye and I was airborne. To be honest, I cannot recall the second we left the ground. It was the most surreal, and exhilarating experience I had had in over 20 years. There was a sudden rush of wind, and I heard Jan say from behind me “we are flying, my man!” It is a moment I will never forget.

quadriplegic-paragliding-05Initially, it felt as though we were just sitting there, hanging in midair. We had a healthy updraft coming up the side of the mountain, but as it turns out, gaining altitude takes time.  It was a fair few minutes before we were high enough to navigate in any given direction, but once we had enough altitude, we glided around for a flyby past our starting point before heading off Lion’s Head, Cape Town’s second most pronounced feature after Table Mountain itself. Having never had the opportunity to climb this magnificent landmark, I must admit I got quite a kick out of circling the summit, looking down at people who were standing on its lookout point. As a guy with little or no mobility below the shoulders, I never imagined I’d ever see the top of this majestic peak up close. And so from here, we headed out to sea. At this stage we were somewhere between 500 – 600 m above sea level. To put this in perspective, Table Mountain itself tops out at about 1000 m. Looking down at the suburbs between Sea Point and Camp’s Bay, one feels a little like a 10 year old child  playing with his Lego blocks. Everything below looks like a toy. The part that makes this experience different from any other is that there is literally nothing between you  and what you’re looking at. There is no sound of an engine, or a floor plate like you would have if you were in a helicopter. Altogether, we were in the air for about 40 min but it felt like we could have stayed up there all day. The descent was quite a thrill in of itself as, passing over the blocks of flats on Sea Point’s promenade, it felt as though we could’ve landed on on a few of them in the process. I have to say that the landing itself proved a bit problematic as I twisted  my knee, but when next I go, I’ll make a point of securing my knees and ankles.

Translating this experience to life, my message to anyone with a dream is to chase it with all your heart and soul and never to give up. If you want something badly enough, there is always a way, and there are always going to be people who will be prepared to help you. The first step is always the hardest, and is always going to come down to a choice that you will have to make. Never let anyone tell you who you are, or rob you of the chance to be the best version of yourself possible.

To anyone who is able bodied, I say this; the previous paragraph applies as much to you as to a person living with a disability. I have met many people who have allowed themselves to become what I like to call “paralysed above the neck”. As a wheelchair user, I would kill for the opportunity to have the means at my disposal that you do, yet for some reason you end up making every excuse not to succeed. We are all in this thing called life together, whether or not we live with a disability. As much as I would say to an able-bodied individual not to judge a disabled person by their appearance, I will tell that same disabled person not to underestimate their own abilities, or their responsibilities to show the world a better way of living.

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