Aerobatic (or “acrobatic”) paragliding is a young sport, roughly 18 years old, that involves doing flips and spins while gliding through the air from a height of about 1,000 metres. David Thibodeau, 24, whose father died in a paragliding accident, is the only Canadian who is currently competing in this perilous sport.
“It feels like you’re at La Ronde [a Montreal amusement park that has roller coasters], but it’s worse,” the Montreal-born Thibodeau explains. “At La Ronde, everything is controlled—you’re attached. With paragliding, you feel like everything is in your hands. You have to control the wings, and you have to land on the right spot.” Competitions generally take place over water (for safety), and the last manoeuvre involves touching the water with one wing of the paraglider. Most rides last about a minute and a half.
Claudio Cattaneo, chairman of the aerobatics paragliding committee at the FAI (the World Air Sports Federation), believes that the young Canadian athlete is currently the strongest aerobatic paraglider in North America. At the FAI World Air Games in Dubai late last year, Thibodeau placed sixth in the world in the aerobatic paragliding division. “[Competitors] get points for technique, choreography, rhythm, and connections between manoeuvres,” Cattaneo says. “A nice run is when they don’t stop doing the manoeuvres at all.” (The FAI World Air Games take place every few years—whenever an organizer is available—and are like the Olympics for air sports. Thibodeau was the only non-European in the top 10; a competitor from the United States landed in 19th place.)
The athlete was introduced to paragliding by his father, Philippe, who ran one of the first paragliding schools in Quebec, Distance Vol Libre (located in Saint-Paul-d’Abbotsford). But at the age of 32, when David was nine, his father died in a crash due to the engine of his flying machine malfunctioning. This didn’t stop Thibodeau from following in his father’s footsteps. At age 15, he took his first flight. “I turned green,” he says, “and I almost fainted.”
According to Thibodeau, the scariest part is the takeoff, when you have to run off a cliff: “You know that the device should glide through the air, but the first time you do it, you haven’t actually experienced it. Once you’re in the air, the fun begins. There’s the beauty of seeing the Earth from above,” Thibodeau says. “The rush [of landing] is just incredible. I don’t know how to describe it otherwise.”
Apart from doing daily workouts to stay fit—before they run off a cliff, paragliders have to climb the mountain—Thibodeau practises manoeuvres on his own in a mountainous area between Montreal and Sherbrooke. He doesn’t have a coach. One time, about five years ago, he missed a manoeuvre, had to use his parachute, and got stuck in some trees. “Some friends came to help me get down from the tree,” he says. “Luckily, I wasn’t injured.”