Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Wingsuiter brings the ‘cool’ to Chinese sport

Wingsuiter brings the ‘cool’ to Chinese sport

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Zhang Shupeng is in flight during a wingsuit jump from Tianmen mountain in Zhangjiajie, China’s Hunan province on November 12. AFP

Wingsuiter brings the ‘cool’ to Chinese sport

Zhang Shupeng appears untroubled as he surveys the jagged mountains of a national park in central China – before diving head-first off a cliff at 230km/h.

Any potential disaster is averted when he opens a parachute and drops gently to the ground, Asia’s top wingsuit athlete in his element.

After China’s decades-long focus on rigorous, state-controlled training in established sports, aimed at winning medals and national glory, Zhang is among a different breed of Chinese sports star that is inspiring the next generation.

Zhang’s sport – one of the most extreme in the world – sees practitioners jump into the void from a mountain, a plane or a helicopter wearing a flexible, wing-shaped suit that allows ‘human flight’ in the form of a high-speed glide.

“When I walk up to the top, my pulse is racing. But during the flight I am super-serene,” 34-year-old Zhang told AFP with a smile, seconds before jumping off the majestic Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie.

Custom-made in the US, his red Batman-style suit cost more than 70,000 yuan ($10,000) and is emblazoned with a picture of the Great Wall, a symbol of his country.

Unlike the rest of the world, where many athletes are stuck at home due to anti-Covid restrictions, China has brought the virus almost completely under control.

That means Zhang has been able to return to training.

During a jump, the air rushes into the suit whose material goes rigid and generates lift, allowing him to glide in a more horizontal trajectory.

“I feel like a bird,” explains the former world paragliding champion, who has carried out more than 3,000 wingsuit flights.

“It becomes one with my body. By changing my posture, I can turn, speed up or slow down.”

Wingsuit jumping arrived in China in 2011, when US star Jeb Corliss glided through the “Gate of Heaven”, a 130m-high natural arch in Tianmen Mountain, in front of local TV cameras.

Zhang attended the first edition of the world championship the following year, held at the same location, and was hooked.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Zhang Shupeng poses in his wingsuit before diving head-first off a cliff to bullet toward the ground at 230 km/h. AFP

He left China to train in Europe and the US, and by 2017 was among the best in the world.

‘More and more openness’

Wingsuit jumping is a modern sport, unencumbered by the bureaucratic pressures of mainstream events like swimming or gymnastics in communist-led China.

“From something state, we are moving towards more and more openness,” said Zhang.

“The current environment in China allows and supports the emergence of sports activities which give more space to the personality of the athletes. It is my dream to make the image of Chinese athletes cooler.”

The sport inevitably comes with risks, including soaring too close to a cliff edge or a sudden strong gale throwing the jumper off course.

But Zhang, a former paraglider, is sanguine in the face of danger.

“There is no dangerous sport. There are just dangerous people, who want to go beyond their capabilities or challenge themselves with every jump,” he told AFP.

Despite his assertion, several wingsuit athletes are killed each year, including a US jumper who died in the Swiss Alps in September.

Zhang, who is married and has a little boy, says his family supports him in his daredevil career choice despite dangers.

“With my experience in paragliding, they know I know how to keep myself safe . . . I’m not going to do anything rash.”

Despite no competitions this year due to the coronavirus, Zhang considers himself lucky when compared to athletes still confined by restrictions elsewhere in the world.

“When the weather is nice, I can come to train here,” he smiles.

“I must be the happiest wingsuiter on the planet right now.”


  • ‘Kingdom one of safest to visit in Covid-19 era’

    The Ministry of Tourism on January 12 proclaimed Cambodia as one of the safest countries to visit in light of the Kingdom having been ranked number one in the world by the Senegalese Economic Prospective Bureau for its success in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. In rankings

  • Ministry mulls ASEAN+3 travel bubble

    The Ministry of Tourism plans to launch a travel bubble allowing transit between Cambodia and 12 other regional countries in a bid to resuscitate the tourism sector amid crushing impact of the ongoing spread of Covid-19, Ministry of Tourism spokesman Top Sopheak told The Post on

  • Kingdom accepts Chinese vaccine, PM first to get jab

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said China would offer Cambodia an immediate donation of one million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine produced by the Sinopharm company. In an audio message addressing the public on the night of January 15, he said Cambodia has accepted the offer and

  • Reeling in Cambodia’s real estate sector

    A new norm sets the scene but risks continue to play out in the background A cold wind sweeps through the streets of Boeung Trabek on an early January morning as buyers and traders engage in commerce under bright blue skies. From a distance, the

  • PM asks India for vaccine help

    Prime Minister Hun Sen is seeking assistance from India for the provision of Covid-19 vaccines as the country has produced its own vaccine which is scheduled to be rolled out to more than 300 million Indians this year. The request was made during his meeting with

  • One million Chinese Covid-19 jabs to start rolling in from February

    The government has confirmed that Covid-19 vaccines from China are set to begin arriving in Cambodia by February. This came as the Ministry of Health recorded two imported cases of Covid-19 on January 18. While calling on people to remain vigilant against the pandemic, ministry spokeswoman